Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (13 of 14)

Champion of Sundanese Arts
For Tan De Seng art is an obligation.

With his aging fingers, Mohammad Deseng, alias Tan De Seng, teases out the suling (traditional bamboo flute) piece Surupan 62. Behind him, the slender curving fingers of Fitri Juliani Cintania-his daughter and second child-plucks the strings of the kecapi (traditional stringed instrument). All of a sudden, the sweet tunes of Raja Mantri can be heard, with an almost otherworldly serenity.

Deseng, 60, is like a champion in the cause of Sundanese art. At the end of 2002, along with his friends, Liang Tze Hai and Ibu Lim Chay Hin, he founded traditional arts-training center Padepokan Pasundan Asih. They work on various things: dance, music, group vocals and even theater. In Deseng's rented house in Jalan Malabar, Bandung, which serves as the headquarters of the establishment, there are a collection of various musical instruments such as flute, kecapi, and drum.

What could possibly have pushed this fifth of Tan Tjin Hong's and Yok Mbok Jie's eight children elect to so diligently champion the cause of Sundanese art? "I was born in Sunda, and live among the Sundanese," says the father of three. Furthermore, when the final hour is upon him, according to this aki (grandfather) of one, he would like to be laid to rest in Priangan soil. For this reason, "Pushing Sundanese art has become my duty," says the man born in Gang Tamim in the area of Pasar Baru, Bandung.

Deseng began learning the Sundanese traditional flute around the age of 5. His first teacher was Tan De Tjeng, his own older brother, who also coincidently enjoyed the arts. He also had the opportunity to learn with a bricklayer, employed in the renovation of their house. Unfortunately Deseng does not remember his name. This graduate of Tsing Hoa High School in Jalan Champelas, Bandung, subsequently became the student of a number of flute maestros such as Ki Oyok and Mang Suarta.

At 9 years old he began learning to play the kecapi. There is a story about that: at that time his friend Adjat Sudradjat asked him to be taught to play guitar. Deseng had certainly been a formidable guitar player since his early childhood. As it turned out, Adjat's aunt was Etty Handa, a Cianjuran vocalist, who was also quite well-known at that time. Deseng eventually learnt the kecapi from Adjat's family.

Deseng even later visited high level kecapi players such as Ebar Sobari, Mang Ono, Sutarya as well as puppeteer Abah Sunarya. With his penchant for playing guitar, kecapi and suling, along with several friends, he established himself in various cities around West Java. With the guitar, he was active in the groups of Haming Youth, Young Brothers, Palmor, and Marya Musika. For the kecapi-suling, he formed the group Bhakti Siliwangi.

In 1985, after successfully teaching his daughter Fitri Juliani Cintania to play the kecapi, and her younger sister as a vocalist, Deseng formed the group Patanjala. Deseng's wings have gradually spread far and wide, even as far as Japan. His newest group is, of course, the Padepokan Pasundan Asih. With an original cast of only three or four people of Chinese origin, its membership now numbers in the hundreds.

Despite the barongsai (lion dance) being permitted to be performed again, Deseng and his group stay loyal to the kecapi and Cianjuran flute. He is grateful for the reform era, but says "We have to have art and culture belonging to the place where we live and born." Apart from keeping up performances, Deseng has also built a mini-studio for recording.

Hundreds of recorded cassettes are stored neatly. There is jaipong, ketuk tilu, Indian Sundanese, Sundanese kliningan, rampak sekar, gendang pencak, and the like. In principle, it is all in Sundanese. It is not a surprise, therefore, if among Sundanese art lovers, Deseng is often referred to as being more Sundanese than the Sundanese themselves.

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