Menu card with court dancers

Menu card for m.s. Bantam, January 1st, 1940. Published by the Rotterdam Lloyd.

This beautiful menu card was published around 1940 by the Rotterdam Lloyd shipping company. The design for the menu is based on drawings by the Swedish author and artist Tyra Kleen (1874-1951), who made a series of illustrations of Javanese court dancers and Balinese temple dancers during her stay in the Dutch East Indies from 1919 to 1921. Kleen published books on Javanese and Balinese dance, wayang and the symbolic hand movements (mudra) of Balinese priests.

Bedhaya dancer
The upright dancer with bow and arrow is a bedhaya dancer. The depicted position is a version of bedhaya manah and represents a combat moment when the bow is tightened. The dance posture, but also details such as the headdress, clothes and position of the hands are clearly copied from Tyra Kleen’s watercolor.

Tyra Kleen, 1920: watercolor of a bedhaya dancer with accentuation of gold and gouache. Collection: Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, Sweden.

Bedhaya is a sacred ritualized Javanese dance, associated with the royal palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. The dance epitomizes the elegant character of the royal court, and is an important symbol of the ruler’s power. The dance performance is held in a pendapa, a pillared audience hall with a peaked roof, with the Susuhunan (Javanese prince) on a throne in the middle of the room. Nine females, relatives or wives of the Susuhunan, perform the dance before a private audience. An invitation to anyone outside of the inner circle of the court is a considerable honor.

The bedhaya has different forms in the two court cities, the bedhaya Ketawang in Surakarta (Solo), and the bedhaya Semang in Yogyakarta, the latter of which has not been performed for more than twenty years. The Solonese dance continues to be performed once per year, on the second day of the Javanese month of Ruwah (approx May), to commemorate the enthronement of the current Susuhunan of Surakarta.

The dance is very old. Some kind of female dance known as bedhaya existed on Java at least as early as the Majapahit Empire (circa 1293 to 1500), and some of the steps of the modern dance are said to go back to the third century. However, the later bedhaya originated at the court of Sultan Agung of Mataram, who reigned from 1613 to 1645. According to one of the myths the dance was created when Kangjeng Ratu Kidul, the goddess of the South Sea, fell in love with the sultan, and danced the bedhaya for him; the nine dancers in the modern dance represent the spirit of the goddess.

Since the decline in the power of the royal courts, other, more accessible forms of bedhaya have become popular, not as religious ritual, but as artistic performance. These do not require the royal presence, and may be performed on stage for an admission fee. They frequently recount stories used in wayang.

Tyra Kleen, 1920: watercolor of a srimpi dancer with accentuation of gold and gouache. Collection: Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, Sweden.

Srimpi dancer
The dancer in the foreground is a srimpi dancer. Also in this design, the dance posture, clothing and hand gestures are copied from a watercolor by Tyra Kleen. The depicted position is duduk nglajang: sitting position, right hand pulls the dance shawl forward across the floor, left arm stretched, palm bent upwards. The dancer’s purpose is to create a sliding movement.

The srimpi dance is usually performed by four female dancers, however other numbers such as two, six or eight dancers is also possible, depending to the type of dance. Srimpi demonstrate soft and slow movements and a highly stylized hands positions, stances and body poses with graceful movement to describes modesty, refinement, beauty and grace. The dancers move slowly accompanied with serene gamelan music. Similarity in looks, height and body type among dancers is preferred to achieve better aesthetic.

The srimpi dances, being less sacred in nature than bedhaya dances, are much better known and often performed, not only in the two Keratons, but also outside the courts for ceremonies and festivals of common Javanese people. Up until today, the srimpi dances are still a part of court ceremonies, as princesses routinely rehearse various types of srimpi dances in a pendapa pavilion within the palace.

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