The Magic Begins to Fade
It used to be a very grand honor. In the purest form of the tradition,
a troupe of 60 artists walk in procession to a town or a meeting to
bring luck. The most important figure is a dancer sporting an elaborate
tiger mask, weighing up to 60 kg and secured between his clenched teeth.
But it was the gemblak, a dozen or so, who always led the procession.
The tradition springs from the story of Prince Jaka Bagus, a ruler from
the Ponorogo region who maintained his steeliness by abstaining from
food and intercourse with women. Instead, he had a harem of gemblak.
By ZAMIRA LOEBIS Ponorogo
to Wander: In Indonesia's second city, the itinerant Madurese
have found a place they can call home
Homosexuality is a delicate topic in conservative, Islamic Indonesia.
But until recently that wasn't the case in Ponorogo, a small town east
of Yogyakarta. One of the more prestigious occupations in the area has
traditionally been that of warok, a man believed to have mystical powers
who stages ritual dances in order to bring good fortune to the community.
His dancers were once attractive boys aged 10 to 16. The warok himself
maintained his mystical powers by sleeping with the boys, who had their
own title: gemblak.
But the warok of Ponorogo are becoming a thing of the past. As modern
times bring a new openness to gays in Indonesia's big cities, they have
almost shut down one of the country's longest-running homosexual traditions.
Warok still live and work in Ponorogo, but they're not encouraged to
live with gemblak anymore. Girls have replaced boys in the ritual dances,
which themselves have evolved from meaningful rites into gaudy exhibitions
for visiting tourists. Nowadays the warok is any man who has enough
money to keep a dance troupe. "First they brought in the bright lamps,"
mourns Kasni Gunopati, 71, one of the oldest warok in town. "Then the
radio, and now the television. Nowadays boys are ashamed to be known
as a warok's gemblak."
In the era of former President Suharto, such offbeat local customs became
embarrassing to the bureaucracy, and the people of East Java are known
for their religiosity. That double pressure has done in the old ways.
Girls lead the procession now and many gemblak have packed up and joined
the gay community in Jakarta. A few remain, though they now call themselves
"foster sons." Gunopati, who had eight such partners, thinks something
has been lost. "A gemblak was a lover and a symbol of honor," he recalls.
"The more handsome he was, the prouder I was of him, and the more prowess
I got from him." Not only Gunopati but a tradition that has lasted for
centuries may not have much strength left.
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