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  • The Encoded Cirebon Mask: Materiality, Flow, and Meaning Along Java's Islamic Northwest Coast by Laurie Margot Ross
  • Henry Spiller
THE ENCODED CIREBON MASK: MATERIALITY, FLOW, AND MEANING ALONG JAVA'S ISLAMIC NORTHWEST COAST. By Laurie Margot Ross Studies on Performing Arts & Literature of the Islamicate World, Volume 2. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 374 pp. Hardcover, $140.00.

In The Encoded Cirebon Mask, Laurie Margot Ross's asks the fundamental question: how can a masked dance tradition that features female performers portraying male characters make sense in an Islamic society that limits the roles of women and forbids the representation of the human form? The answer: although virtually nothing about topeng (mask dance) looks Islamic on the surface, everything about the tradition has "a local and idiosyncratic relationship to Islam filtered through the political, religious, and social ripples that shaped them in the past and will contour their meaning in the future" (p. 3). Ross's detailed examination of topeng history, its performers, their training, and their propensity to travel, and finally the masks, costumes, and performance sites themselves makes a convincing case that topeng is indeed a profound expression of Islamic devotion that adjusts to the ebbs and flows of Indonesia's political, social, and religious transformations. Ultimately, it makes acompelling case that Islam is a diverse and flexible belief system, and that "Indonesian Islam is not exceptional" (p. 280) in its inclusion of a gender-bending masked dance tradition.

An exemplary thumbnail history of Islam in Indonesia in the Introduction sets the stage. The kind of Sufi-oriented Islam that was the norm in Indonesia until well into the twentieth century was consistent [End Page 253] with preexisting belief systems, and did not promote the notion that Islam prohibited crafting and wearing masks (p. 8). Although Ross surveys the scant historical sources on pre-nineteenth century topeng, her analysis focuses on four modern periods: "the late colonial era (1880–1942); the mid-twentieth century, from the Japanese occupation (1942–1945) through Indonesia's Independence (1950) and up to Soeharto's coup d'état (1965); Soeharto's authoritarian regime, the New Order [Ordre {sic} Baru] (1966–1998); and the reformasi era (1998 onward)" (p. 9).

The book's three sections, each comprising two or three chapters, are not closely integrated, and at times even feel disconnected. "Cultural Markers" is an historical overview that explores how foreign incursions into Java (including Dutch colonialism, Chinese and Indo-Arab settlers on the north coast of Java, and the Japanese occupation during World War II), religious pilgrimages away from Java (such as the hajj), and the circulation of rural performers throughout Java and even into international circuits, brought a constant flow of cosmopolitan ideas into the realm of topeng. "Mystic Travelers" focuses on the experience of the dalang topeng (masked dancers) themselves, including both their bodily disciplines and their personal devotional practices as they dance. "Objects that Speak" unpacks the almost unbelievably rich symbolism of the masks themselves—including the hidden meanings of the "inside" of the mask that is invisible to viewers—as well as other accoutrements associated with topeng, such as the costume elements and fabrics, the headdress, and the chest in which the masks are kept, all of which confirm topeng's Islamic orientation on many different planes.

All three sections are packed with new and challenging information gleaned from Ross's many years of multi-sited, methodologically diverse research. She illuminates her close examination of a variety of artifacts and her intensive participant-observation of topeng training and performances with far-ranging ethnographic and archival research. Ross's explication of topeng's embroilments with Indonesian politics and Indonesian discourses of Islam extends well beyond the workprevious researchers, whosefocus on mysticism and continuities in topeng performance often obscured the tradition's remarkable flexibility in the face of calamitous changes. Her account of the influence on topeng of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia is an especially novel contribution to scholarship on Indonesian performing arts.

Likewise refreshing is her wonderful, insightful analysis (in section 1) of topeng's deep interpenetration with both Old and New Order domestic and international policy, and the enormous changes these autocratic governments wrought on the practice...


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pp. 253-257
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