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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 290-292

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Theater and Martial Arts in West Sumatra: Randai and Silek of the Minangkabau by Kirsten Pauka. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies. 288 pp. Paper $26.00

Scholars of Asian theatre will welcome Kirsten Pauka's detailed introduction to the West Sumatran form randai in her book Theatre and Martial Arts in West Sumatra. Since most writing on Indonesian performance centers on a limited number of Javanese and Balinese forms, it is illuminating and refreshing to read about an equally complex yet relatively unexamined performance genre from West Sumatra. Pauka's book considers the relationship between randai and the indigenous martial arts form silek, placing randai in the same category as other martial arts forms such as Indian kathakali, Javanese sandiwara, or Thai khon. This is the first book-length treatment of randai in English, and it is a significant contribution to our understanding of the form.

The book begins with a brisk introduction to randai as the principal folk performance genre of the West Sumatran Minangkabau people. Pauka's approach to randai is systematic and thorough. She provides basic background information about the matrilineal Minangkabau culture, its customs, and its syncretic blend of Islam and animism. The author describes randai as a combination of martial arts-derived dance, song, music, religious poetry, dialogue, and fighting scenes. Closely tied to adat (the body of customary law that prescribes proper behavior in everyday and formal occasions), randai, we discover, is performed at such formal occasions as weddings, inaugural ceremonies of village chiefs, seasonal festivities, and religious events, as well as government-sponsored randai festivals.

Following the introduction, Pauka reviews several theories of randai's origin. According to Pauka, there are three probable sources for randai: song and dance, storytelling, and the martial arts form silek. She thinks the last is the most likely. As evidence she points to the clear influences of silek moves in the circular dances of randai, as well as to the fact that the name "randai" was used to describe these dances prior to the introduction of dramatic elements such as storytelling and acting.

The book then shifts to a more descriptive mode. We learn about the development of silek, and consider several different origin myths, including the fascinating theory that silek evolved from Indian martial arts techniques which arrived in Sumatra around the eighth century during the Srivijaya reign. The author goes on to describe the basic moves of silek along with the philosophies and ethics underlying it--above all its essentially defensive nature. The chapter on randai scripts covers their structure, language, and stories as well as the ways in which the stories perpetuate Minangkabau customs and reflect the society. Randai's stories are drawn from the body of Minangkabau myth called kaba--not from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana that commonly function as the source for Southeast Asian dramatic forms. Pauka analyzes several old stories and one new one and shows how the stories illustrate the tenets of customary law, performing a didactic function as well as serving as entertainment. The concluding discussion concerning the ways in which [End Page 290] the stories reflect Minangkabau society, however, is much too brief and lacking in detail to convey the complexities of randai's cultural context. Pauka merely comments that the stories give the audience a sense of Minangkabau history and customs, thereby instilling pride of culture.

The book's most interesting sections concern the music and dance of randai. These Pauka covers in admirable detail. Her chapter on music details the percussive sounds made by the dancers while performing the galembong, the circular martial arts-derived dance sequence that serves as punctuation between scenes. Using the Time Unit Box System (TUBS), she illustrates the basic rhythms and movements of the dancers in a manner easy to understand and reproduce, differentiating among clapping, slapping parts of the body, and slapping the fabric of the pants, which are drawn taut while kicking. This analysis of the galembong is straightforward, as is the...