Marriage (Mas Ruscitadewi, 1995)

Eave hanging (ider-ider) with scenes from the Baratayuda (Great Battle) from the Mahabharata, Ink and pigments on handwoven cotton cloth 18th-early 19th century, 39 3/8 × 276 3/4 inches (100 × 703 cm). Donated originally by Claire Holt and Ben Anderson and transferred from the Echols Collection at Cornell University’s Kroch Library. Photo: Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

The melody of Arjuna’s wedding song triggers a stream of fatalistic thoughts for Asih in Mas Ruscitadewi’s Marriage. Surrounded by men in her family who appear to Asih like the ten heads of Rahwana, the demon king in Ramayana, she laments her wedding celebrations and “the karma” that befell the wives who became abused docile companions to their husbands. Referencing Rahwana’s weapon of choice, Asih says to herself: “They are sharpening their knives to use on me…”. As a woman in a family of womanizers, Asih believes that she will suffer the pain the men in the family have inflicted on other women. She contemplates suicide to have another shot at life in a different incarnation. But in a split-second, she decides instead to kill the bridegroom whom she fears would shed his disguise as soon as they are wed. But the irony is that it was she, Asih, who had to put on a disguise; that of an elegant, beautiful and obedient wife who is able hide her disgust and fear behind make-up and fine ornaments.
Like the volcano Semeru carved on the projectile of I Made Sekar’s shell casing sculptures, Asih erupts and attempts to kill her betrothed with a cry and a hairpin (like the pin that detonates a grenade). But nature intervenes. A literal earthquake follows Asih’s emotional explosion, destroying the house which symbolized the protection of her family but also her prison as described by Ruscitadewi: “She held tightly to the bars which separated her from the world.” Like Lakshmana’s magic circle, the house was Asih’s perch from where she observed the world but was never part of the action that unfolded in it. By the end of the story, Asih would accept her fate in the patriarchal order even as she detested having the responsibility to rebuild their ancestral house. In agreeing to proceed with the wedding, Ruscitadewi tells the reader how deep the roots of this order are, that not even a case of force majeure can stunt its motions and cycles. The wedding will proceed even in the middle of a catastrophe.
         I Made Sekar gained a second wind of creativity as he turned shell casings into sculptures and trophies, the same with the ones used by the Indonesian Military during the decades of conflict in Timor Leste. Each projectile would have caused an explosion with enough magnitude to destroy entire villages, turning rice fields into craters of the moon. Sekar hammered the figure of lotus buds, trees, rice fields on the brass casings, impregnating an instrument of death with nature and life. This cyclical motif of destruction and creation, or the flowering of art after war or natural disasters can be found in many cultures but perhaps not as manifest as Sekar’s work.
         As Asih gazes up at the blue sky, could she be like Sekar’s Sita, who is slightly enraptured as she is horrified by Rahwana’s abduction? That despite the dangers of the ten-headed monster, it must have been quite a view to see from above rather than below? Valmiki would have not foreseen Sita’s transgression of the magic circle as an assertion of her will but did she weigh all the consequences before deciding it was worth it to crash and burn in exchange for seeing the world? It was, after all, Sita’s choice to be left alone; prodding Lakshmana to go after Rama after accusing the former of having his own designs on her. From the beginning of the story, Asih always imagined marriage to be a kind of suicide or exile but that at least she would be placated by learning of her karma—for better or for worse—a sense of belonging in the order of things. According to Balinese tradition, you lose both a home and a part of yourself but the shocking revelation to both Asih and to Sita is that the view is mostly just more of the same.