Today, at the invitation of Didin Nurul Rosyidin, I offered a seminar on Cirebonese history and culture to the history department of IAIN Syekh Nurjati Cirebon, the state institute for Islamic studies, before a meeting with Didin and his colleagues to discuss possible future research collaborations. The seminar was well attended, mostly by students, but there were as well a few members of the outside research community present, including Dr Bambang, a veterinarian and amateur historian, and Mustaqim, an independent heritage expert. I sweated profusely through the long introduction (with numerous communal prayers), my talk and the intense q&a session that followed, not because I felt under any pressure but because the room was not air conditioned. (We were all generously supplied though with a bottle of Aqua as well as a snack box and at the speaker's table there were imported oranges wrapped individually in plastic.)
My talk, which I titled Seni dan Budaya Cirebon dari Zaman ke Zaman, argued that Cirebon's history involved the invention of tradition through cultural production that became particularly intense starting in the 1960s. Cultural actors had long before inflated the importance of Cirebon under Sunan Gunung Jati, and a minor node in the Indian Ocean trading routes was reconfigured as the puser bumi, or centre of the world. During the last 45 years or so, Cirebon culture has become figured as a discreet object to be taught in schools, invoked at official occasions and monumentalized.
The questions after probed details of my talk, and also expressed a curiosity about where I came from and what drew me and continues to draw me to Cirebon. Some present were interested in what the government should do for Cirebonese culture. How to reconcile the mysticism of Cirebonese chronicle literature with Western historiography? Where does wayang come from and is it possible to return to an ideal of wayang propagating moral messages that is not contaminated by humour? Lots of other areas are characterised by cultural mixture, so why would Cirebon alone use the trope of mixture for its ancient name (Caruban)?
The most intense discussion came up around Sunyaragi, a ruin of a water palace on the outskirts of town. I quoted an English historical source that stated this was built as a place of recreation in the early nineteenth century. This was heavily contested by a number of participants, who were convinced that this was a more ancient site for pious meditation and the training of soldiers etc. I was prepared of course for such reactions, and spoke about how the meaning of Sunyaragi had been continually revised and its appearance changed over the decades, quoting the work of Sharon Siddique, a report from the Dinas Purbakala about how the archaeological service transformed the ruins into a Taman Arkeologi theme park, the building of the institution of the panggung terbuka and the change in its atmosphere from a place of quiet to a busy site next to the Jalan Bypass. Not everyone was satisfied though with my answers, and one participant made it clear that I should leave archaeology to the archaeologists....