JAKARTA A young woman has stirred Indonesia with an inspiring rags-to-riches story that is giving vicarious satisfaction to the masses of ordinary citizens who continue to struggle with poverty. Inul Daratista has taken dangdut, a unique cross-cultural blend of music once denigrated as the sound of the lower classes, to center stage. By singing songs primarily identified with the "little people," Inul has captured Indonesia's imagination, making her an instant icon.
Along with Inul's rise in popularity, however, has come a national controversy over her sizzling dance - a sometimes dynamic, sometimes slow and sensual movement of her hips, which Indonesians call "drilling." Such hip movements may be normal for singers in many countries. But in Indonesia, which has more Muslims than any other nation, it is creating a furor.
Indonesian singer Inul Daratista who is famous with her 'drilling' dance, sings in this photo taken in March 2003, at a cafe in Surabaya, East Java. (AP Photo/File)
Inul has forced Indonesians to confront the increasingly sharp struggle in their society between conservative, closed and fundamentalist forces and those that are open, liberal and progressive in their quest to advance democratic principles and practices.
Indonesia's Islamic clerics and organizations say that Inul's trademark dance is pornographic and therefore haram, forbidden by Islam. But those who defend the right of artistic free expression find it hard to imagine how Inul's hip movements could be more devastating in corrupting the nation than unemployment, gambling, drug abuse, pornographic videos and the trafficking of women and children. All are widespread and on the rise in Indonesia.
The attack against Inul by conservatives has aroused feminists, intellectuals, human rights activists, journalists, artists, and even lawyers and politicians, to defend her. They include the family of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Even in the ranks of Islam, Inul has defenders, among them Abdurrachman Wahid, Indonesia's former president, and Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, who had a death fatwa issued against him because of his liberal interpretations of Islam.
Inul's defenders see the criticism of her as an attempt to revert to the repression of former President Suharto and his methods of banning, blacklisting, arresting and confining those who dared defy his regime's rules. "The desire to eliminate something that is considered 'different' is still deeply rooted," Ulil said.
Indonesian women perform 'drilling' dance during a demonstration supporting Indonesian singer Inul Daratista, in Jakarta, Friday, May 3, 2003. Hundreds of people gathered at the main roundabout in Jakarta to support the singer who was famous with her 'drilling', revolving her lower body at ever increasing speeds, a dance style which invited criticism from Islamic authorities calling her to stop dancing, saying it is damaging the country's morals and could lead to an increase in sex crimes. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)
Yet various aspects of Indonesian culture are very sensuous. They predate the arrival of Islam and can be seen in carvings in the various Hindu temples in Central Java and in many traditional performing arts. Compared with the jaipongan dance of West Java, the tayub of Central Java, or indeed, other established dangdut singers, whose movements are slower but more suggestive, Inul's dancing is much less erotic.
Dangdut, the music of Inul's motion, is a reflection of Indonesia's rich culture and ethnic diversity. It is a blend of music from India, the Middle East, Portugal and Spain concocted by local artists into a distinctive Indonesian Malay rhythm.
The onomatopoeic name dangdut probably derives from the sound of Indian and other instruments going "dang dang, dut dut." Today it is well-known, if not well-appreciated, by everyone across the country - thanks largely to the sensuous gyrations of Inul.
Some students have accused politicians of engineering the Inul controversy to create a distraction from the economic hardship and the slow pace of democratization since the former Indonesian strongman Suharto was forced to resign in 1998.
According to one social critic, "Inul has given happiness to the people, not like officials and politicians who can only give promises."
Bringing happiness, as it turns out, may be her greatest achievement - and also her most unfortunate burden. But no matter the outcome, the Inul affair has forced Indonesians to look at themselves, as well as at her.
The writer is a free-lance social and political commentator based in Jakarta.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune