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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 248-259

Widening the Circle: The Refiguring of West Sumatran Randai

Craig Latrell *

Through an examination of its ties to the matrilineal Minangkabau society and the ways in which these ties are changing, Craig Latrell examines the ongoing process through which the West Sumatran form of randai is assimilating and adapting to global culture. Rather than limiting his discussion to the negative effects of Western culture on the form, Latrell discusses the ways in which randai itself has changed to accommodate or respond to these influences.
Craig Latrell is Associate Professor and Chair of the University of Denver Department of Theatre. His article "Neither Traveler nor Tourist: The 'Accidental' Legacy of Antonin Artaud" is forthcoming in Converging Interests: Traders, Travelers, and Tourists in Southeast Asia (Berkeley: Center for SE Asia Studies, University of California). He holds the D.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama and serves as member-at-large on the board of the Association for Asian Performance.

The best-known theatre form in West Sumatra, Indonesia, is a high-spirited combination of dance, martial arts, dialogue, and music called randai. One of randai's most distinctive characteristics is that the dramatic portions of the performance are enacted within a circle (the lingkaran) described by dancers. This circular shape has numerous functions and meanings in randai, and elsewhere in the society it is a potent symbol binding randai indivisibly to West Sumatran culture. 1 In this article I describe a few of the connections between randai and its society, as well as the changes that randai is undergoing as it engages with new and larger circles of influence. In doing so I want to paint a picture of a theatre form in transition: absorbing and responding to new global conditions rather than being destroyed by them. 2 [End Page 248]

West Sumatra is the home of the matrilineal and staunchly Islamic Minangkabau people. Its largest city and capital is the hot, flat, coastal city Padang, with a population of approximately three-quarters of a million. In the highlands, the area considered the heartland of Minangkabau culture, the most important cities are Bukittinggi, the tourist center, with a population of eighty thousand, and Payakumbuh, a smaller town known as the center of traditional art and custom. Randai is categorized by Kathy Foley in The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre (Brandon 1993, 130) as an example of "popular urban theatre of the last 100 years." It emerged as a discrete form during the 1920s out of several local forms of dance and verse storytelling, combined with a Malay type of theatre known as bangsawan, which itself incorporated influences from Southeast Asia, India, China, and the West. Over the years, randai grew so completely interwoven with Minang culture--particularly the body of custom and tradition known as adat that dictates almost all social behavior--that it became almost impossible to view it solely from an artistic viewpoint: until quite recently randai can be said to have existed primarily in order to reflect and conserve traditional Minangkabau beliefs and behavior, and, in turn, the principles of adat perpetuated the practice of randai. Thus a circular or symbiotic relationship developed between randai and its society, echoing the shape of the lingkaran within which randai's stories are acted out.

One of the best-known elements of Minang custom (adat), for example, is that of merantau--the tradition of young men leaving the village for an extended period to gain experience and wealth. Not surprisingly, merantau is thematically woven throughout the practice and content of randai. As in many other aspects of Minang society, the relationship between randai and merantau is best described as two-way: randai simultaneously reflects and molds the practice of merantau. In the past, the usual length of a merantau was anywhere from six months to a year, after which the young men would return to the village with tales of the outside world, earnings, and prestige. The stock of experience gained abroad helped the village to understand and adapt to the outside world, and the now...

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