1.0 Introduction

The Prambanan complex is one of the most important archaeological sites of Central Java (Figure 1). It belongs to the so-called 'Hindu-Javanese' period, also referred to as 'classical' period, which, roughly, goes from the 5th to the 14th century CE. During this time Hinduism and Buddhism were major religions in the Indonesian archipelago, both peacefully co-existing. A great number of Hindu and Buddhist temples were erected in Java, especially in Central Java, often in close proximity to one another.

Figure 1: The temple complex
Figure 1: The temple complex

Many such temples, the Prambanan complex among them, present a series of narrative reliefs which tell stories of gods, divine beings and heroes, simultaneously giving us clues on life in ancient Java 1. From such representations one gathers that dance was a very important activity, linked with both ritual and entertainment.

The Prambanan complex has depictions of dance occurring as part of a narrative - for example dance features in the Ramayana, the story of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the god Wisnu, a narrative shown on the inner balustrade of two of the major temples in the inner courtyard2 (Figure 3 & 4). But also, and uniquely, Prambanan has representations of 62 dance scenes placed around the outer balustrade of the main temple in the inner court, dedicated to the god Siwa (candi Siwa, also known as candi Loro Jonggrang). (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Relief from Ramayana narrative sequence
Figure 2: Relief from Ramayana narrative sequence

Figure 3: Relief with dance scene from Ramayana narrative sequence Figure 4: Dance reliefs on balustrade
Figure 3 & 4: Relief with dance scene from Ramayana narrative sequence & Dance reliefs on balustrade

The worship of Siwa in Java has Indian antecedents. Siwa arrived in Java from India with a fully developed mythology, later acquiring a distinctly Javanese character and mythological accretions. In India Siwa is known to have had a special liking for dance, being himself the lord of the dance, this being a metaphor for his cosmic activity of destruction and renewal. Epigraphic evidence shows that this connection with dance was also known in ancient Java (de Casparis 1956, 247).

The reliefs around the Siwa temple are high above the ground and can easily escape the attention of a present-day visitor to the temple, who might regard them as merely decorative. The very presence of these dance reliefs sets the temple apart from all others in Java, and indeed anywhere else in the Hindu-Buddhist world, including India. Each relief is a self-contained representation of a small dance sequence, the equivalent of a short dance phrase. Each relief usually shows three dancers, all male, in dance positions which are clearly linked. It is as if the sculptors took a dance phrase and shared the movement out among the three figures. It is very likely, though difficult to establish with absolute certainty, for reasons that will soon become clear, that the reliefs were intended to link up with one another. The underlying idea behind this was that of showing a longer dance sequence, made up of all the phrases seen in each self-contained relief, perhaps a ritual dance for Siwa or even one of the dances performed by Siwa himself.

The Prambanan complex began to be restored at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch, and the restoration continued for a number of decades, with the Indonesians taking over the work in the years following independence. The sequential order of the reliefs as seen today is not the original one, for the temple was restored from scratch. Although the archaeologists involved in the restoration followed a number of clues for the positioning of the stones3 and indeed developed very careful methods for their assembly (Soekmono 1990; Jordaan 1996), in some cases this positioning is doubtful. Only an analysis of the dance seen in the reliefs could help to throw light on such potentially contentious issues.

Yet this is more easily said than done. How can the dance be analysed? How does one go about identifying and reconstructing these obsolete dance movements, dance being one of the most ephemeral and evanescent activities? Until now the idea could only be wishful thinking.

This article focuses on how this 'impossible' yet exciting idea could be translated into reality and how a methodology has been developed to achieve this end. The reconstruction of the dance movements at Prambanan has been attempted through computer animation. The sculptural evidence has been used as a 'text', simultaneously investigating the appropriateness and effectiveness of currently available software to model movement from a collection of static positions.

The work discussed in this paper was part of a challenging pilot project hosted in 1999 by the Dance Studies Department of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Surrey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB). The research for the project did not involve decoding from scratch the dance vocabulary of the reliefs, but built on and further refined the decoding already carried out before this project began. This earlier decoding proceeded from a small but substantial body of research in this specific field (Holt 1967; Sivaramamurti 1974; Vatsyayan 1977; Sedyawati 1981; 1982; Iyer 1998).

In the following discussion first the research background will be briefly examined, as lack of familiarity with the debate surrounding the reliefs is assumed. The rationale for computer animation, based on a number of arguments, is then given and the animation is explained, briefly discussing the aim and the technical objectives of the project and introducing the LifeForms software used for the modelling of movement, its current limitations and its potential. This is followed by an account of the process of creating an animated sequence of the reconstructed dance movements, with an evaluation of the problems encountered and an indication of further avenues to be explored. Here issues relating to the cultural basis of movement are also discussed as they are seen to be inseparable from the reconstruction/recreation process. The final section of the paper addresses the issue of contextualising the reconstructed dance as archaeological heritage and its related problems, and also looks at future developments of the research.


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Last updated: Fri Jun 1 2001