Three original aquarel drawings of srimpi dancers by Tyra Kleen. Collection: Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, Sweden
In her Srimpi book, Beata van Helsdingen-Schoevers compares Javanese dance art with a rare greenhouse plant. ‘A strange orchid that can only thrive in the luxurious, exotically perfumed environment of the monarchs.’ The book, with beautiful illustrations by the Swedish artist Tyra Kleen, was published in 1925.
‘Like a fairy tale of silent, sumptuous splendor is this silent, almost motionless row of girls, who, almost invisible, with barely gliding of their small yellow feet, advance according to fixed law to their place’, writes Van Helsdingen-Schoevers in her book about Javanese court dancers. ‘Thus come together, four or nine, the serimpis or the bedayas, poetic tradition from ages past. The narrow winding train behind her feet resembles the clean scaly body of a snake — they stand there like statuettes of gods, eyes cast down in humility, the upper body bent slightly forward. Gracefully they throw back the train with their right foot; a single moment — then they all fall to the ground like dull petals, and in deepest humility she salutes: the delicate little hands put together for her face turned to her monarch.’
Susuhunan of Solo
Beata van Helsdingen-Schoevers (1886-1920) was a journalist and elocutionist born in the Dutch East Indies, who wrote about life in the Dutch colony for various local and Dutch newspapers. She was also founder and chairwoman of the art circle in Solo, where her husband Jacques van Helsdingen in 1917 was appointed assistant resident for the so-called Vorstenlanden, the old Javanese princely states of Surakarta, Yogyakarta, Pakualaman and Mangkunegaran, which were allowed to have a form of self-government.
Thanks in part to her husband’s connections, but especially to her sincere interest in Javanese dance, Van Helsdingen-Schoevers received in 1919 permission from the Susuhunan of Solo to study the ritual dances at his court. This was exceptional, because the court dancers, divided into srimpis and bedhayas, were painstakingly shielded from the outside world.
Srimpis and bedhayas
The training of dancers started at a very young age, often from the age of six. Srimpi dancers were born princesses, like the daughters and granddaughters of the monarch and his brothers. Dancing was part of their noble upbringing. Srimpis usually only had a short dance career. Around the age of fourteen the princesses were married off and they stopped dancing.
Bedhaya dancers were chosen from among the people, only the most beautiful girls were eligible. They were taken from their families and given a strict education and dance training at the court. ‘Every year the little girls, children still, came from far and wide, led before the monarch’, tells Van Helsdingen-Schoevers, ‘and he again chose the most beautiful, the most well-built from this collection — to have her educated to the great sacred task of offering the mystical dance sacrifices. Only the monarch was fit to offer this grand gift to his god — no lower mortal was permitted to possess temple dancers.’
Besides dancers, bedhayas were sometimes also concubines of the Susuhunan. They danced until they were about 20 to 25 years old. Bedhayas, who in the meantime had given birth to a child of the monarch, continued to live in the palace as concubines. For the other women, a marriage with a Javanese nobleman was often arranged. Others chose to remain at court as servants or dance teachers or they returned to their families.
Van Helsdingen-Schoevers and the Swedish artist Tyra Kleen (1874-1951), who would make the illustrations for Beata’s study, were not only allowed to attend dance performances and exercises in the Kraton, but also received dance lessons themselves to learn the deeper meanings behind the ritual dance movements. But the collaboration between the two went poorly due to their clashing characters and differences of opinion about the approach to their study. When Van Helsdingen-Schoevers developed a high fever and unexpectedly died after a short illness on 20 August 1920, the dance project seemed to fall apart.
Thanks to some of Beata’s art friends, however, it was possible in 1925 to publish Het Serimpi Boek; de srimpi- en bedajadansen aan het Soerakartasche Hof, but on a much smaller scale than the standard work that Van Helsdingen-Schoevers had envisioned. Only the first chapter was written by herself. For the descriptions of the dance postures and other chapters, her notes were used with additions by two Javanese experts. The twenty illustrations were made by the Dutch Topographical Service after Tyra Kleen’s original drawings. The book also contains twelve black-and-white photographs of dance formations.
In the meantime, Kleen had become so captivated by Indonesian dance that she traveled on to Bali to also make drawings of Balinese temple dancers and Hindu priests. Together with the Dutch author Piet de Kat Angelino, whom she had met earlier in Solo, she published the book ‘Mudra’s in Bali’ in 1922 about the ritual hand positions of Balinese priests.
This book was a great success and was widely read in the theosophical circles in which Kleen lived. Her drawings and watercolors have been exhibited in Batavia, Amsterdam, London and Stockholm, among other places, and generated great interest in Bali in Sweden. She also wrote and illustrated a children’s book about the lives of Balinese children and made drawings of wayang puppets. Her book about the Balinese temple dancers was published in 1931 by a Swedish publisher and in 1936 in an English translation.
Kleen’s stylized dance illustrations with Beata’s captions still offer an intimate glimpse into a world hidden from Westerners. Or as Beata wrote herself: ‘Like a rare greenhouse plant, she still blooms somewhere, this dance art, in a safe, sheltered corner on this troubled earth, unknown to many. That is why it is so interesting, because it has remained completely untouched in the midst of the raging times, because it has continued to live like a tender anachronism between the heavy, high palace walls of (…) Surukarta Hadiningrat (…) Sweetly flowing, languid with rhythm as this name is also the art of the court dancers, a strange orchid, which can only thrive in the luxurious, exotically perfumed environment of the monarchs, who call themselves: the Center of the World.’
Illustrations from the Srimpi book
Check out below all twenty illustrations of the dance poses from the Srimpi book with the original captions (some texts have been shortened and the old-fashioned Dutch spelling of Indonesian words has been adjusted).
1. Srimpi; Linggih rakit
When the serimpis have entered and come before the throne of the monarch, they sit down in the pose shown here. From this pose the sembah (greeting) is made and the dance started.
2. Srimpi; Njembah
Salutation, the so-called sembah: three times before the dance starts and once at the end of the dance, when the dancers withdraw. A sembah is also performed during the dance when the dance is started again after a great rest of change of act.
3. Srimpi; Duduk djenkeng ngenceng
After three sembah greetings, the dance is opened and the dancer prepares to get up. She comes into a semi-sitting position (duduk djenkeng) and introduces the dance movements by spreading the sash wide with the right hand and bringing it as far away from the body as possible. Then the same is done with the left hand. This stretching of the arms with the sash in hand is called ngenceng.
4. Srimpi; Dodok nglajang
When the sembah is done and the dance is about to begin, the dancer leads it in by sitting leaning to one side, grabbing the sash and throwing it sideways behind her. Then the arms are extended again and return to the first position of linggih rakit, after which the sembah is made again.
5. Srimpi; Ngenceng
The dancer has risen. Standing up, she performs the dance moves with the arms, also playing with the sash, which is then held at one point in the hand stretched out wide to the side.
6. Srimpi; Sirig
When the dance has been performed in place for some time, a figure begins with the dancers walking sideways, step by step to the beat of the music. This stepping sideways with shuffling foot movement is called sirig. In this image, the dancer moves sideways to the right and has just pulled in the left foot and then moves the right foot sideways again.
7. Srimpi; Sekar suwun
This dance movement, which consists of several dance figures, is one of the most expressive parts of the dance. Also see the difference with the haircut of the previous dancer. This dancer has a kadal-menek haircut.
8. Srimpi; Tawing sampur
Tawing means the dance figure in which the hand is placed in such a position – rhythmically and evolving from or adapting to previous movements – that with the thumb in front of the palm facing outwards and upright at the level of the eyebrow on the other side of the body; so the right eyebrow if the tawing is made with the left hand.
9 Srimpi; Sampir sampur
The name by which this dance figure is referred to, literally means: sash over the shoulder. The dancer hereby shuffles sideways, with the right hand, thumb and middle finger in a circle and the palm turned outward, swinging rhythmically back and forth. This movement is called bambang-bambangan. The curve of the thumb and middle finger should be made so that the last phalanx of the middle finger extends over the thumb.
10. Srimpi; Ridong sampur
As with the previous dance figures, the movement with the sash is the most important. With a single graceful hand and arm movement, the sash is thrown around the forearm. In this position, the dancer then moves sideways with small steps; this is called endjer.
11. Bedhaya*; Mendjang ranggah
This dance figure is eloquently referred to as ‘the deer with the broadly branched antlers’. In this pose, the dancer shuffles sideways to the right and then to the left. *The dance figure depicted here comes from the bedhaya ketawang dance instead of srimpi (corrected in the captions). These were special sacred dances that were only allowed to be performed on the anniversary of the monarch’s accession to the throne.
12. Bedhaya*; Sekar suwun
The name of this dance pose means ‘flower bud’. The dancer shuffles sideways, alternately bending and stretching her arms down and up. The hand movements, in which the palm is turned in and out, also alternate. *The dance figure depicted here comes from the bedhaya ketawang dance instead of srimpi (corrected in the captions).
13. Bedhaya*; Ngancap
At the beginning of the battle of a war dance; when the parties have measured each other’s strengths and aggressive attack moves are danced. *The dance figure depicted here comes from the bedhaya ketawang dance instead of srimpi (corrected in the captions).
14. Srimpi*; Sindet
The dancer stands with slightly bent knees, the hands in front, in a certain position at the height of the waist. The left hand with the thumb on the outwardly upright palm behind and slightly above the right hand, which has come to this position of rounding of the thumb and middle finger while turning the wrist. In this sindet position, the dancer stands still for a moment and then through wabbling movements of the head, the so-called patjak gulu, in which head and neck are moved sideways in opposite directions, continues the dance. *The dancer depicted here is a srimpi instead of a bedhaya (corrected in the captions).
15. Bedhaya; Tawing ngenceng sampur (see also the caption at no. 8)
Ngenceng means ‘keeping stretched’ and sampur is the sash. Where the dancer at No. 8 makes the tawing figure with the sash, this dancer spreads the sash to the right, while she makes the tawing with the left hand, whereby the body also leans to the left.
16. Bedhaya; Oekel
The wrist-turning hand movement is called oekel. These movements are performed with a sash point in each hand, between the thumb and middle finger.
17. Srimpi*; Ridong ngembat pacak gulu
With the sash wrapped around the elbow (ridong), the upper body is balanced in light rhythmic movements to the right and left (ngembat), while a wabbling movement is performed with the head and neck (pacak gulu). Neck and head wabble in opposite directions, while the shoulders are completely at rest. *The dancer depicted here is a srimpi instead of a bedhaya (corrected in the captions).
18. Bedhaya; Manah
This dance figure symbolizes the battle as the bow is drawn. It is performed during the bedhaya dance to the Sukuhardja music.
19. Bedhaya; Tandjak
The dancer is ready for the attack and is in the resting position (tandjak) to proceed with that attack. The bare kris upright in the right hand; the dadap (cross-guard) in the left hand.
20. Bedhaya; Tanding
The battle is in full swing. The pose is all action, in contrast to No. 19 where the dancer is ready and prepared for the things to come, but still has a certain calm in her posture.