Jamboe-UK dancers opening the performance with greetings to the audience at the SOAS Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre. Photo by Darryl Lim.

Riwang: The Dalā’il al-Khayrāt in Contemporary Dance

by Alan Darmawan

The Acehnese word riwang means to return or revisit. When someone is away from home for long time, the return is termed riwang, as is a visit to one’s family, or even to the grave of one’s parents. With its rich layers of meanings, riwang can be used to frame the relation between people, manuscripts, and their associated performance traditions in Aceh, north Sumatra. Created by Acehnese choreographer Syera Fauzya Lestari with her troupe, Jamboe-UK, “Riwang” illustrates her experience of being far from home for many years. Her longing for the traditions she first experienced in the meunasah, or Islamic school, in North Aceh inspired her interpretation of the Dalā’il al-Khayrāt, a devotional text known across the Muslim world but with a distinctive performance tradition in Aceh. Through her work, she is able to ‘return’—and bring to life for a new audience—the performance traditions of the now defunct meunasah in her home village.

Commissioned as part of a SOAS Research Culture Fund project in conjunction with the Leverhulme Research Leadership Award ‘Mapping Sumatra’s Manuscript Cultures,’  “Riwang” was performed as part of the “Resonant Pages” event at the SOAS Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre on 24 May 2023. Along with two other new performance pieces—Rani Jambak and M. Hario Efenur’s “Baco Aso Curah Raso” and Leva Khudri Balti’s “Zamnidur Alam”—the works arose from a collaborative effort to engage creatively with artists and community members from the manuscripts’ places of origin.

The digital copy the manuscript of Dalā’il al-Khayrāt from the collection of the State Museum in Banda Aceh. Source: Qalamos.net, MUSNEG 78.

Syera Fauzya Lestari and Jamboe-UK drew on two Sumatran manuscripts of the Dalā’il al-Khayrāt to create their work. One, in the State Museum in Banda Aceh, is available on Qalamos.net (see MS Musneg 78), digitised after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean which struck Banda Aceh and other areas in 2004. This precarious landscape and tropical climate give us a sense of fragility of perishable materials in the region, including manuscripts. The other is a copy of the Dalā’il from the Palembang palace library (one of the Leverhulme project’s case studies), now in a German collection, and also available digitally (MS Gabelentz 52). In the beginning of the production process, postdoctoral researchers Dr Alan Darmawan and Dr Zacky Umam introduced the dancers to the Dalā’il manuscripts in Southeast Asia and the Islamic world more broadly. As well as the textual tradition, the dancers, mostly MA and PhD students from Indonesia in the UK, learned more about aspects of Acehnese culture (language, songs, stylised movement), providing them with a space for reflection and, as some of them noted, stimulating a sense of belonging to cultural heritage and identity.

The opening pages of the manuscript of the Dala’il al-Khayrat from the royal collection of Palembang owned by Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II. Source: MS Gabelentz 52, Qalamos.net.

“Riwang” did not, however, simply re-present traditional forms, but rather reimagined them for a contemporary audience. In Aceh, the Dalā’il is traditionally recited with certain melodies by groups of men, but for “Riwang” the troupe was all women (see the audio-visual recording here). Music specially commissioned for the piece, by Rahmad Amjusfa, also fused contemporary and traditional elements. In terms of movement styles, “Riwang” combined motifs from a variety of Acehnese dance forms, such as saman, seudati, rapa’i geleng, and ratoeh duek, as well as rhythmic body movements taken from Islamic rituals of recitation. 

“Riwang” had three distinct phases. In the first phase, the movements and songs represent Acehnese ritual and performing traditions. In the second phase, the dancers split into two groups: one, in the centre of the stage, reflects abandonment of cultural heritage and the other, on the edge, represents attempts to practice the traditions. The third phase offers a sense of hope and a call to value tradition, represented here by a copy of the Dalā’il. Finally, the “revisiting” or “return” to the Dalā’il al-Khayrāt is embodied through the recitation of the text, with the dancers moving rhythmically, evoking the actions of dzikr or ratib, forms of devotional performance. Audience members responded that they found “Riwang” “moving and poignant” as well as “energising.”

The Jamboe-UK dancers reciting a salawat while dancing in the sitting position. Photo by Darryl Lim.

The Jamboe-UK dancers in the standing position, acting at the closing part of the performance of Riwang. Photo by Darryl Lim.

Philological scholarship, with its colonial legacy, tends to focus on textual history, transmission, and curatorship to produce academic works. “Resonant Pages” had a different aim: to bridge art production and scholarship, providing space to the artists and researchers to collaborate in producing new works inspired by the manuscript heritage. As Syera and the dancers sang in closing part of the “Riwang”:

On the waves of the sea water, boats are returning home side by side
Oh, fellows, don’t be indifferent in taking care of our traditions.

Ie laot aro meupulo peuraho woe dua-dua
Hai rakan bek lee lalo budaya droe beutajaga, hai…

Alan Darmawan is a SOAS Postdoc Researcher 


The “Resonant Pages” event was funded by SOAS Research Office, held in conjunction with the Leverhulme-funded Naskah Sumatra workshop, and with support from Dr. Mulaika Hijjas, Dr. Zacky Umam and Dr. Adrienne Johnson (Naskah Sumatra team); Tatiana Lima Faria (SOAS Research Office), and the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia for the United Kingdom; and in collaboration with Rahmad Amjusfa (music composer in Aceh), Tasyah Maichel Sulaiman (Dala’il al-Khayrat reciter in Aceh), Syera Fauzya Lestari (choreographer), and the dancers: Gilang Desti Parahita, Fathiannisa Gelasia, Nina Yuliana Hutasuhut, Ria Aulia Sasongko, Farisya Yuni, Hildegardis Mulu, Reliza Onidema Miskatu, Fitri, Dieska Adisty Tanya, Raisa Kamila.