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Lecture | LIAS Lunch Talk Series

Warrior Women, Gender-bending Plots, Perfect Masculinity: Paradigms of gender in Javanese Amir Hamza narratives

Wednesday 15 February 2023

1.04 (Verbarium)


Amir Hamza: the infidel-conquering Arab hero of an expansive epic first put to paper in eleventh-century Iran, currently famous especially because of Mughal emperor Akbar’s stunning Hamzanama paintings. Over the centuries this epic spread not only to Cairo and Istanbul, Turkestan and Bengal, but to Java and neighbouring islands as well.

Leiden University Libraries
Srimpi Putri Cina, depicting the battle between Chinese princess Adaninggar (right) and Kelaswara, princess of Kelan, a wife of Amir Hamza. Sultan’s court of Yogyakarta, c. 1885. Photo by Kassian Céphas, detail. Source: Leiden University Libraries, Digital Collections.

Mention the Hamza epic in the Sultanate city of Yogyakarta today, and the image that most readily springs to mind is colourful and deliberate dance depicting female warriors meeting in single combat. It will be mentioned by any commentator that the object of their conflict is a man. The prominence of female fighters is a feature of the epic of Hamza also elsewhere in the Muslim world. As discussed in this presentation, in this and other respects, including an explicit theory of perfect masculinity but also gender-bending plot patterns, the Hamza epic evinces a peculiar genderedness. With reference primarily to all-female dances and their patronage by sultans and princes in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, but also to the patronage of landmark Javanese poems by Muslim noblewomen from 1715 to the late 1800s, and a popular performance of rod puppetry in a colonial museum in 1939, I ask what major changes occurred across historical contexts in the epic’s gendering paradigm, and how this changing paradigm resonated with the gendering of humans in the social environments of performance.

About the speaker

Bernard Arps is fascinated by worldmaking through performance, texts, and media, particularly in religious contexts in Southeast Asia. At Leiden University, where he is Professor of Indonesian and Javanese Language and Culture, he teaches cultural politics in Southeast Asia, literatures of South and Southeast Asia, (meta)theory of Area Studies, and Javanese language in/as culture. His most recent book is Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind: The Javanese Shadow-Play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto; A Study in Performance Philology (Singapore 2016).

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