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  • Prambanan: Sculpture and Dance in Ancient Java. A Study in Dance Iconography
  • Astri Wright
Prambanan: Sculpture and Dance in Ancient Java. A Study in Dance Iconography. Alessandra Iyer. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1998. xii, 211 pp. ISBN 974-8434-12-5.

Alessandra Iyer's Prambanan: Sculpture and Dance brings together under one cover elaborations on several of the author's articles on dance in Java published in academic journals since the mid-1990s. This small, compact, and attractively packaged book organizes the results of Iyer's doctoral and post-doctoral research on the history, iconography, and practice of dance in Java into a consecutive narrative. Drawing on a combination of South and Southeast Asian art history, dance history, and recent theory in dance studies in general, Iyer presents her material here to a broader public, with interests (both academic and applied) in dance research, anthropology, and art history in Southeast Asia and beyond.

In just over 160 pages, divided into Part 1 and 2, Iyer offers the following. Part 1 includes an introductory chapter of disciplinary reflections and theoretical-methodological navigations; a second chapter describing the Prambanan temple complex, its main temple Chandi Shiva with its Ramayana and dance reliefs, interspersed with reliefs of deities and auspicious symbols, and a discussion of the history of restorations; a third chapter discussing the dance reliefs and their dance iconography in greater detail, giving a more detailed introduction to the Indian Natyasastra's karana dance sequences as tentatively restored by Indian scholars; a fourth chapter discussing the Natyasastra's (sanskrit dance treatise) possible presence in ancient Java, textually or dance-practice-wise, and a short fifth chapter with concluding remarks.

This text, interspersed with photographic and line-drawn images, is followed by Part 2, which begins with a sixth chapter that is really a catalog of the 62 dance reliefs. These are located on the outside of the Chandi Shiva balustrade (on the inside of which is carved the Ramayana series of [End Page 174] reliefs). In this section, Iyer gives us relief-by-relief photographs and descriptions, each matched up with its corresponding karana number and line-drawing taken from Subrahmanyam's 1978 reconstruction of the Natyasastra's sections on karana. This is followed by an Appendix in which Iyer's analysis is summarized in note form in parallel columns; footnotes to the text; a glossary of dance terminology; and the bibliography.

Iyer's analysis begins with the riddle noted by nearly everyone who has written about the Prambanan over the last sixty years: what might have been the sources of inspiration and practice depicted in the relief series of dancers and musicians on the outer balustrade of Chandi Shiva (Shiva temple), most of them suggesting the difficult-to-substantiate relationship between the Natyasastra (an ancient Indian body of teachings about dance techniques, postures and iconography put into writing some time between the first century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E.). Iyer dismisses earlier scholars' positings of this very connection as intuitive but unsubstantiated by quantifiable analysis (p. 99), even while noting that Suhamir, in his 1948 report on the completed Dutch-initiated restorations of the Prambanan, knew enough about this Indian dance tradition to identify the reliefs as depicting angahara, sequences involving more than one karana (p. 13).

Then, through an intermittently acro-baticanalysis that rests on a painstaking adaptation of Indian dance scholar Padma Subrahmanyan's reorganization of the Natyasastra to the reliefs in Java, Iyer concludes that these Chandi Shiva reliefs (their original sequence also no longer identifiable), can "unerringly be identified as sculptures showing karana, the units of dance movement described in the Sanskrit text on dance and drama known from India as Natyasastra" (p. 11).

In her introduction, Iyer writes how, upon undertaking her research, she realized that she was "studying an obsolete non Western dance form which, if at all, had only elicited interest in past times in terms of finding out whether it was an indication of the presence of Indian dance styles in ancient Java rather than for its own intrinsic value" (p. 7). While this seems a somewhat reductionist view of (among others cited) Claire Holt's varied...