(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, June 2016)


Solo, Central Java


Mother Aji Pragina Gong, the star of the Pakualaman Palace’s classical dance performance on opening night.

See my video: https://youtu.be/pf9pm75VTv0

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; it must be said, Solo has really picked up its game. There are now dozens of budget boutique hotels, 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
Road-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 — it is pedestrian heaven. Solo specializes 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, an 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 WiFi 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 hijacked 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. Onstage 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 the selamatan 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 spicy neo-pagan performances — Lombok beleganjur, Melayu ladyboys in green silk pajamas, headhunter hoofers in hornbill feathers and not much else, etc — so I could relax.

JAVA TRAVEL TIP:
Travel between Java’s urban centres — from Jakarta to Bandung,  Surabaya to Malang, or Yogya to Solo, for example – is now more expedient by train than by car and way more pleasant. I use Tiket.com for train tickets: the state rail company’s website is a tad chaotic.

Sumbawa dancers at the dance festival
Melayu Kemayu dancers before the opening day parade
I.S.I. dancers making up before a
performance
A sprinkling of drag queens before 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

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 omission. Is culture now considered too spooky or old-fashioned to market? To my mind, it’s 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 of the culturally-constipated: bring on the marching bands, I say.

Faces at the Dance Festival


Shopping In Solo: My favourite shops

  1. Danar Hadi Flagship Store, Jalan Dr Rajiman 164 (a fabulous array of batik shirts, tablecloths, and other batik items; reasonably priced)
  2. Toko Bakti Shoe Shop, Jalan Honggowongso 117, Jayengan. (specializes in Javanese men’s court slippers, called Selop Pria)
  3. Batik Keris Shop at Solo Airport
    There is a large boutique inside Domestic Departures. It is well stocked with all sizes. Prices are less than other Batik Keris outlets.
    For travelling in Indonesia I often buy two identical long sleeve batik shirts and cannibalize the sleeves on one (leaving one short-sleeved shirt) and use the extra cloth to fashion large-ish skhirt pockets, creating a safari jacket type shirt suitable for carrying a small bottle of water and a phone easily.
    Batik Keris shirts are well cut and are suitable for checking into city hotels and homestays alike. They are not real batik so can be washed easily.
    Other: there are now direct flights from Solo to Singapore also, on Air Asia.

Other: Taxi Service in Solo.
Solo’s Mahkota Ratu Taxi Service is the best ever. The drivers 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

 


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