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A dance with history

Rasinah’s story, like her career as a masked dancer, was complex and larger than life

Laurie Margot Ross

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   Performing in the Dago Teahouse
   Laurie Margot Ross

Mimi Ras, as Rasinah was affectionately known, was the eldest dalang topeng (masked dancer) of her generation when she died on 7 August 2010 at the age of around eighty. As practised along Java’s northwest coast, the masked dance, topeng, is a mystical Islamic form in which a female or male dalang wears a series of masks that portray male characters, each representing a metamorphosis in the life cycle and consciousness. Many practitioners were wet-rice farmers or other day labourers, who performed itinerant dance during the rainy season until itinerancy was banned in late 1965. Rasinah began studying Topeng Indramayu with her father, Lastra, at age five. By age seven, she was accompanying him as an itinerant dancer. She also studied gamelan, including kendang (drums). Although gamelan is usually a male activity in Java, most female dalang are highly competent musicians.

Difficult times

Rasinah’s family lived in Pamayahan village in the sub-district Lohbener, Indramayu, along Java’s northwest coast during the Japanese occupation (1942-45). She often revisited the fateful day in 1943, when a military officer stopped her on the street and asked how her father earned a living. ‘He is a puppeteer’, she replied proudly. Shortly after, military officers followed her home, rounded up the family’s heirloom masks and puppets, and

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