Communicating Ideas: Popular Culture, Arts, and Entertainment

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Southeast Asia is rightly celebrated for the rich diversity of its artistic, expressive, culinary, and entertainment traditions. Many American and European scholars were initially drawn to South�east Asia via chance encounters with the region’s music, dance, material culture, or martial arts. One of this volume’s editors (Adams) still vividly recalls a European train ride she took as an undergraduate on which an Indonesian family introduced her to their homeland by pulling out from their suitcases an array of brightly colored batik textiles and postcards of their elaborately carved ancestral houses. When they learned that Adams was an anthropology major, the family declared Indonesia to be a dream nation for anthropologists interested in the arts, as the country is home to a multitude of cultural groups, each with its unique genre of textiles, music, and carvings, not to mention foods and leisure activities. This family’s assessment of the richness of Indonesian expressive forms is equally applicable to other regions of South�east Asia.

In Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the world, popular culture, the arts, sports, and even food preferences express a myriad of personal, communal, spiritual, and political concerns. Some performative and artistic traditions may have their roots outside the region, as is the case with the famed puppetry and dance performances based on the Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or stories recounting episodes of Buddha’s life. However, as with all cultural borrowings, these imported epic narratives rapidly became infused with local cultural themes. Today these imported traditions are part of the expressive landscapes of Java, Bali, Thailand, and other regions of mainland Southeast Asia. The Indian tales of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana may be performed accompanied by gamelan percussion orchestras as shadow puppetry epics (wayang) at all-night village-based celebrations (such as weddings or purification ceremonies), as they were in the past on Java and Bali. Or the epics might be condensed, updated, and staged at prestigious performing arts venues in national capitals, adapted to make trenchant commentary on social issues, as the Indonesian artist Kumoratih Kushardjanto recently did in his adaptation of the Mahabharata (“Boma”), which spotlighted the profusion of homeless children on the streets of Jakarta.

In her contribution to this section, Sandra Cate (chapter 16) examines the ways in which several contemporary Thai artists in Bangkok and Chaing Mai craft interactive art forms drawing on ancient Theravada Buddhist forms or other “traditional” Thai icons (in�cluding the elephant or the symbolic color of yellow, associated with a revered king of Thailand) to problematize official national narratives of Thai history. These official national narratives suppress evidence of state-sponsored violence against Thai citizens and celebrate mythologies of benevolent rulership. Participatory art in Southeast Asia may also offer less disturbing, more easily digestible lessons. Cate’s chapter also addresses the ways in which contemporary Thai artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pinardee Sanpitak draw on performance and participatory art to celebrate how the preparation of foods such as pad thai (the epicurean embodiment of Thai identity for many American frequenters of Thai restaurants) can be reconceptualized as part of the social, interactive “art of living.” A bottom-line point embodied in these performative pieces is that we need not limit our conception of “art” to objects and paintings. In a related vein, Nir Avieli (in chapter 17) spotlights food, approaching the Hoinese everyday meal as a kind of cultural artifact that conveys much about Vietnamese conceptions of the cosmos. That is, when viewed as a communicative cultural form, a simple meal of rice, fish, fish sauce, and other leafy or aromatic greens is far more than mere caloric nourishment. Rather, underlying such a meal are important ideas about cosmic principles (yin and yang, am and duong) and the ways in which diet can forge balance between these principles. In essence, as Avieli’s anthropological analysis suggests, Vietnamese food is interwoven with cultural and metaphysical ideas, even when not consciously articulated by those consuming it.

Thus far we have spotlighted performative, immaterial expressive forms and how these expressive forms may “speak” to various spiritual, political, or historical themes. What of more concrete types of material culture? Various writers have addressed the ways in which ancient monumental architectural displays in Southeast Asia embody visions of the cosmos. For instance, the Hindu-Buddhist temple of Borobudur in central Java (Indonesia), whose construction began in approximately 760 ce, is a three-dimensional representation of Buddhist worldview: seen from the air, its overall form is that of a mandala. As pilgrims progress through the levels of the temple, approaching an enormous stuppa at its summit, they trace a path toward spiritual enlightenment. Borobudur’s overall form, the chiseled stone depictions of the life of Buddha on its walls, its division into three spheres (from the sphere of desire at its base to the sphere of formlessness at its summit), and its sculptural representations all communicated themes in Buddhist doctrines to the early Javanese pilgrims who made it their destination. Likewise, as has been noted, the expansive Khmer site of Angkor, whose major temples were constructed between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, also replicates Hindu conceptions of the cosmos, with its enormous “moat” surrounding the central point of Mount Meru.

Architectural representations of Southeast Asians’ varied worldviews are not limited to regions where imported world religions dominate. A consistent theme explored by anthropologists is how indigenous architectural forms may embody the worldviews, social organizational principles, or religious perceptions of their builders. In the 1960s, Clark E. Cunningham (1964) wrote a classic article examining the ways in which the traditional house architecture of the Atoni of Timor is tied in to broader symbolic systems relevant to Atoni society. More recently, Roxana Waterson (1990) has written a wide-ranging anthology of the ways in which various indigenous Southeast Asian architectural forms embody visions of social and symbolic worlds. Such visions are not limited to the traditional architecture of rural societies in South�east Asia. Consider, for example, the use of fengshui in constructing new skyscrapers in Singapore. In her contribution to this section (chapter 14), Kathleen M. Adams examines the ways in which Toraja carvers (on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia) artistically articulated their concerns about Indonesia’s fall into interreligious strife at the end of Suharto’s New Order regime. The carvers drew on a repertoire of symbols derived from the carved façades of their ancestral houses in order to sculpt a new genre of “carved paintings that speak.” The encoded messages of their artistic productions are not only about crafting harmony among individuals, groups, and religions, but also project to the world these Toraja artists’ pride in the wisdom of their ancestors.

An introduction to our section on arts, popular culture, and entertainment in Southeast Asia would not be complete without mentioning Bali and the role it has played in anthropological examinations of the arts. Within Indonesia, Bali has long danced in the imaginations of tourists and scholars alike as a mesmerizing center of artistic creativity. Thanks to the legacy of early anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and artist-ethnologist Miguel Covarrubias, many Americans of a certain generation shared an idyllic image of Bali as a tropical paradise in which there was no word for “art” yet nearly all parents reared their children to engage in artistic endeavors on an almost daily basis. While the tumultuous Indonesian events of the late 1990s and the much-publicized 2002 Bali nightclub bombings have somewhat attenuated these romanticized Western images (and have also thrust Bali scholarship in new directions), for many foreigners Bali remains the quintessential artistic Mecca and perhaps the island whose arts have been most intensively researched.

Mead and Bateson were among the first generation of anthropologists drawn to Bali to study artists at work, ritual performances, and even dance (in 1952, they produced the classic film Trance and Dance in Bali). While Mead and Bateson drew on their studies of Balinese arts to explore the linkages between culture and personality, a popular anthropological topic at the time, subsequent scholars such as Hildred Geertz (1994, 2005) have offered fine-grained analyses of the life history and productions of particular artists in order to foster our appreciation of the ways in which Balinese religious, artistic, and expressive practices are entwined with the “pragmatic goals” of amassing spiritual strength and gaining protection from the unseen world of nonhuman spirits. Other scholars, such as J. Stephen Lansing, have examined how Balinese ritual traditions, such as the crafting of exquisitely beautiful food offerings for various deities tied to water temples, are related to an elaborate and ingenious system of water management on the island. In this system, water temple rituals—the dances, musical performances, carefully crafted offerings, and priest incantations—are tied to regulating water flow to fields and temples farther down the mountainside, thereby ensuring optimal water sharing and rice-paddy irrigation (for a fuller account, see Lansing 1983, or the film The Three Worlds of Bali). Still other scholars have examined how the island’s intensive history of tourism has contributed to the shaping of Balinese culture, leading to an efflorescence of the arts—a kind of cultural self-consciousness that Michel Picard has dubbed “touristic culture” (Picard 1996; for a related observation, also see McKean 1976).

As with more formal arts, many dimensions of everyday life and leisure entail reproducing and recreating systems of belief and social relationships. Nir Avieli notes how the very act of eating a meal together reproduces Confucian social relationships, with seniors eating from the bowls of food first (chapter 17). Pattana Kittiarsa (chapter 15) introduces us to muay thai, now a famous international sport. As he notes, muaythai works to reproduce Thai conceptions of masculinity. The Thai boxer is an exemplar of maleness, male power, skill, toughness, and determination, especially of male dignity. As Kittiarsa points out, these standards of maleness are tragically ephemeral, based as they are on levels of strength and coordination that cannot be maintained throughout life. Muaythai is also a national emblem of Thai toughness in the face of more powerful neighbors trying to overcome the nation. The Ong Bak series of popular movies, in which a poor rural Thai boy conquers thieves and murderers from Burma, Thailand, Australia, and the United States, have become an international phenomenon and thus a further point of national pride. The boy triumphs because he is pure of heart, a Buddhist, and incredibly skilled. As might be imagined, Burmese contest Thai national claims to this art of boxing. A wide range of other art forms in Southeast Asia could also be addressed here, had we the space. We have not examined the rich musical traditions of Southeast Asia, nor have we addressed the ways in which contemporary music and film from other nations are absorbed and retooled for and by Southeast Asian consumers (for a lively exploration of music in Southeast Asia, we recommend Craig Lockhard’s Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Modern Southeast Asia [1998]). In our current globalized era, art is a key avenue for intercultural interactions: tourists from around the world travel to Southeast Asia to study Balinese dance, to practice muaithai, and to “jam” with Southeast Asian musicians. Likewise, Western and Middle Eastern forms of music travel to Southeast Asia, where they are enthusiastically embraced and also transformed, as they become imbued with locally relevant meanings. We have only touched the surface of these varied and complex art forms.



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