CALONARANG: The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy

In Calonarang the Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy one of Indonesia’s foremost feminist poets, Toeti Heraty, not only brings attention to the causes and the futility of the war between the sexes, but to the threat to peace which patriarchy personifies in its continual efforts to lay blame elsewhere for the humankind’s ills.

Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Rooseno is considered the grande dame of Indonesian poetry. She has also made a name for herself as a distinguished philosophy professor, art historian, businesswoman, and cultural and political activist.

In the same way that her intellectual and spiritual predecessor, Raden Kartini in her Letters of a Javanese Princess (1911) posthumously became a spokesperson for the liberation and education of woman in the early part of the last century, Toeti Heraty has taken up the same torch for her generation. But instead of choosing the epistolary form to espouse her views, Toeti presents her personal and social philosophy in free verse or, in the author’s phrase, “lyrical prose.”

Toeti chooses as her allegorical vehicle a powerful Balinese dance drama, Calonarang, which narrates a story from a 11th century East Javanese kingdom – the struggle of King Airlangga to save his kingdom from destruction by the widow-witch Rangda. In the character of Calonarang , she finds an example of the kind of demonizing of the mystical powers of female seers that has taken place in all patriarchal cultures across history.

In her astute interpretation of this famous literary work, Toeti delves into old Javanese history and its traces in modern-day Balinese history and culture. Anthropologists see the drama’s central character Rangda originally as a maternal figure. Drama historians claim she is the personification of the witch par excellence, the wise and eternal old crone. Historians claim that she was the legendary Queen Mahendratta. Archaeologists contend that her origin is Shiva’s wife Durga in her most evil and terrifying aspect.

The poet addresses her readers, sometimes with humor, other times with irony and pique, but always probing for answers, stimulating and provoking thought. Just as the performance of Calonarang today is essentially an act of exorcism against liak (witches), the reading of these stanzas serves the same liberating and cleansing purpose.

Yet another analogy can be drawn from the author selecting this ancient drama to contemporize her message. Though children scatter in terror upon sight of the bloody-fanged Rangda, she is not an entirely unsympathetic figure. The Balinese worship her ardently because she can protect them against black magic. She also serves a very critical role in guarding village temples from demons and helps recycle the dead into the Cosmos so that their spirits can be reborn.
Margaret Mead saw Rangda as the dark side of the Balinese female archetype – the supple and alluring young dancing girl metamorphosed into the horrific, angry old witch, but one that elicits in people sympathy for an old woman crying out in sorrow: “Do you know what it means to be a widow, what it means to be old? Who can answer these questions?”

But Toeti’s interest isn’t just confined to myths that are embodied in the traditional dramatic forms on display in modern Bali. She maintains that the historical literary heritage cannot be divorced from Indonesia’s contemporary struggles.

The book was first published in Indonesian in 2000 after the downfall of President Suharto. The fall of the New Order, preceded by vociferous women’s demonstrations against rising milk prices in Jakarta in February 1998, and the subsequent challenges of the Reform Era, also involve the struggle of women against the injustices and inequalities of male social hegemony.

Though the reader is constantly made to think about and evaluate the ongoing feminist struggle, there is also an additional challenge in Toeti’s work: readers, both male and female, are urged to take part themselves in overturning the pernicious and confining influences of patriarchy.

In a word, Toeti’s Calonarang belongs to what we understand as “engaged literature.” Its target is the ideology that underlies global culture in its most fundamental and all-encompassing form: the ubiquitous and all-pervading ideology of patriarchal societies that have already done so much to limit human potential – the god-given right of each and every one of us.

Not to be forgotten are the superbly executed, colorful and dramatic paintings interspersed throughout the book. A section in the backmatter, “The Artists and Their Interpretation,” gives full details of each painting – title, media and size of the work as well as biodata on the artist.

Rendered by 21 Bali-based women artists, these 22 wonderful high-quality reproductions on matte art paper – depicting cheerful and somber, traditional and modern themes, in many different oil and acrylic styles – are alone worth the price of the book.

Calonarang, the Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy by Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Rooseno, Saritaksu Editions 2006, ISBN 979-96975-9-X, 79 pages, illustrated in full color, one photograph. Introduction by Carla Bianpoen, afterword by Karlina Supeli, epilog by Keith Foulcher. Dustjacket.

Available for Rp. 200,000 in a diverse range of bookshops, hotels and sales venues around the island – to find the venue of sales nearest to you, please email and refer to the website <> for more reviews and information.

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