Last month I went to Surakarta (Solo) in Central Java for the annual dance festival at Institut Kesenian Indonesia (ISI). This year the line up featured 250 dance troupes from all parts of Indonesia (see full story in following article). Solo has always been my favourite city in java as the culture, the palaces and the people are so super-refined. The city is also close to my favourite late Majapahit era temples, Candi Ceto and Candi Sukuh. But this trip was about urban tourism and it must be said, Solo has really picked up its game. There are now dozens of budget boutique hotels and a new stylish airport (not too busy) and special zero-traffic night markets with permanent stalls selling the most delicious Solonese food.Wisata Kuliner as it is called. I stayed at the delightful Aziza Syariah Hotel in the Pasar Kliwon district near ISI and thoroughly enjoyed the immersion in Middle Eastern culture.
The dining room of Hotel Azizah Syariah, Pasar Kliwon, Solo
Pond-side vendor at ISI Kampus Kampung
My guide Andi Pranata from ISI, at the Jalan P.G.S., Pasar Kliwon, food street
Just across the road from the Aziza is the Batik wholesale market (PGS) where an unbelievable array of bargains can be found — both cloth lengths and batik clothes. At night the traffic in town reduces to a small town pace and all the food stalls come out — its pedestrian heaven. Solo specialize in European-Javanese fusion food (steak and chips and lodeh) plus some subtle local dishes such as Nasi Liwet and the iconic serabi pancakes. Between visits to the sprawling ISI Kampus, I visited the late Panembahan. Harjonegoro’s home, now a private museum in Jalan Kratonan and marvelled at the late batik maestro’s collection of statues from the Javanese classical Hindu era, and his exquisite pavilions and furniture. My visit to Solo also coincided with the Jumenengan ceremonies celebrating the coronation of the Sunan Pakubuwono XIII at the keraton. I got to witness the beautiful Bedhaya Ketawang dance held in the vast white marble-floored pavilion in front of the Sunan, who sits on his throne in the Dalem pavilion. Magical, medieval pageantry surrounds the rituals.
With K.R.T. John Miksic, principal author of ‘Kraton Surakarta’, at the Jumenengan, Kraton Surakarta 29th April 2016
Bedhaya Ketawang dancers at the Kraton Palace, 29th April 2016
The next big kraton palace event is on Suro, the first day of the Muslim year 2nd, October, when Kyai Selamat, the white water buffalo, Solo’s mystical mascot, is paraded around town. The Alila Solo is the best hotel near the kraton, or the charming heritage Art Deco Roemahku where I usually stay. For lovers of Javanese dance there are often Wayang Wong performances at the Sriwedari Culture Park in the middle of town, or dance rehearsals daily at the Mangkunegaran, where the present crown prince GPH Paudrakarna is a budding choreographer. There are now many direct flights from Jakarta to Solo and Air Asia service from Bali four times a week.
Drs. Nyoman Putra, a teacher at ISI Solo, giving a speech before the start of the festival
28 April 2016: Aziza Islamic Boutique Hotel, Solo The pretty Middle Eastern God music played all night on the ceiling speaker. I can’t find the off switch. I woke and typed in the wi-fi password (Islamic hotel) and took a camel to the coffee shop wakakak. There's not a batik or Javanese motif in sight. Has Central Javanese culture been absconded by theologians? Last night at the dress rehearsal launch party at ISI rektorat the steering committee sat cross-legged in a long line on the big open stage-- in front of a parked gamelan and behind what looked like a few trays of sajen offerings (Kejawen offerings are normal at many dance performances in Java). Hundreds of dancers sat on the grass listening, piously, as God Almightily was invoked with a sermon-like passion. Everyone prayed, devoutly, and then screamed “24 Jam Menari Dua Kosong Satu Enam”and then nasi liwet was served behind the stage like loaves for fisherfolk. On stage the sajen were attacked and eaten in mock-pagan fashion (“I'll show you jin-worshippers”, sort of thing).
Nasi Liwet for 300 is prepared back stage
The two 24-hour non-stop dancers attack theselamatan rice
One of the dancers at the dress rehearsal
Three Melayu dancers from South Sumatra
The rehearsals started with the wondrous Wayang Wong Beratha Jakarta and other spicey neo-pagan performances — Lombok beleganjur, Melayu lady boys in green silk pajamas, headhunter hoofers in hornbill feathers and not much else, etc — so I could relax. “Solo's Mahkota Ratu Taxi service is the best ever. The driver's are all die-hard royalists and fabulous gossips about palace affairs. My driver tonight told me how the calf of the city's famed semi-divine royal albino water buffalo mascot (every major city should have one) , Kyai Slamet, was murdered by Islamists and how the heavens had opened that night and how the telecom tower at the Mangkunegaran palace had toppled. The calf was killed with an arrow. The company's operator has a sweet, super-refined Solonese accent and purrs at all the drivers as they swan about town. Such a contrast to the brutes in many other cities of the world.”
Sumbawa dancers at the Dance Festival
Melaya Ke Nayu dancers before the opening day parade
I.S.I. dancers making up before a performance
A sprinkling of drag queensbefore the opening day parade
The four of the eight Wijoyo Kusomo Jono dancers from the Kadipaten Pakualaman palace in Yogyakarta performing on the opening night of the dance festival
I.S.I. dancers perform the Bedhaya Lala on the opening night
JAVA TRAVEL TIP: Travel between Java’s urban centres — from Jakarta - Bandung and Surabaya – Malang or Yogya – Solo, for example – is now more expedient by train and way more pleasant. I use Tiket.com for train tickets: the state rail company’s website is a tad chaotic. BREAKING NEWS: The Indonesian Tourism department’s new promotional video “Wonderful Indonesia” shows a lot of scenic attractions but does not highlight any of Indonesia’s cultural delights. This seems a serious ommission. Is culture now considered too spooky or old-fashioned to market? To my mind, its what distinguishes Indonesian tourism from Malaysian. Has the Jakartan developer’s “Culture Neutral” movement infiltrated the Department of Tourism? Similarly, there’s a new promotional video called Nusa-something, which promotes all the islands near Bali – Nusa Penida, Lembongan, even Komodo and Raja Ampat – which just shows a lot of palefaces having fun in the sun. It’s a conspiracy by the culturally-constipated: bring on the marching bands, I say (see following article).
Faces at the Dance Festival
Shopping In Solo: My favourite shops
Danar Hadi Flagship Store, Jalan Dr. Rajiman 164. A. Fabulous array of batik, shirts, fable clothes and the batik items. Reasonebly priced.
Toko Bakti Shoe Shop, Jalan Honggowongso 117, Jayengan. Specializes in Javanese mens court slippers, called Selop Pria.
Other: Taxi Service in Solo. Solo’s Mahkota Ratu Taxi Service is the best ever. The driver’s are all die-hard royalists and fabulous gossips about palace affairs. My driver tonight told me how the calf of the city’s famed semi-divine royal albino water buffalo mascot (every major city should have one), Kyai Slamet, was murdered by Islamists and how the heavens had opened that night and how the telecom tower at the Mangkunegaran palace had toppled. The calf was killed with an arrow. The company’s operator has a sweet, super-refined Solonese accent and purrs at all the drivers as they swan about town. Such a contrast to the brutes in many other Cities of the world.
Solo Airport image: Lion Air are using a child-likeness of me for their promotions