Inul Daratista is the biggest pop music sensation in Indonesia today. Television ratings go up when she performs, and politicians are seeking her support for the 2004 elections. But Inul's bump-and-grind dancing has sparked a backlash among Muslim clerics who denounce her performances as pornographic, and even want her banned. In Indonesia, everyone has an opinion on Inul Daratista. From vendors at train stations selling rubber pencils with her likeness, to a sold-out special issue postage stamp of her image, Inul is without precedent as a cultural phenomenon in this predominately Muslim country.
Who is Inul Daratista? She is a singer and dancer of a style of music popular in Indonesia, called dangdut. Originally the music of rural Indonesia, it is a blend of Indian, Arab and Malay sounds, with a danceable beat.
Ratna Sarumpaet, director of an Indonesian arts center and a human rights activist, describes the evolution of dangdut.
"At the end of the 70's and early 80's, dangdut belonged to the poor people. But year-by-year, artists in dangdut did their job to make dangdut music become everybody's music," explained Ratna Sarumpaet. "Whether you are from authority, artist or professional, dangdut has strong possibility of getting close to you. It's honest, talking about husband and wife. That's what makes it pop."
Before she released her first music album a few weeks ago, Inul never made a recording. She is propelled by mass pirating of her VCDs (Video Compact Disk), which are sold in markets for less than $1. Authorities estimate that three million of these VCDs have been sold in Indonesia.
Inul Daratista does not have a superstar's voice. It is her dancing that has Indonesian women imitating her and men glued to their television screens.
She begins with a slow circular hip motion, and as the music picks up tempo, her torso gyrates and rotates at an increasing speed, moving her whole body up and down and all over the stage. To everyone, Inul Daratista represents sensuality.
"For me, what is sexy is relative," she said. "It depends on who views it. So, if they think that I can sing, [if] they think that my body is very good, that my shake is lethal, I think it is a blessing from God. This is something that I have to keep doing. So, for those who say I'm sexy, thank you very much."
Even though, by Western standards, it may be viewed as merely slightly risqué, the Muslim hierarchy and some composers have denounced Inul's dancing.
The composers union, PIMMA, headed by the so-called king of dangdut, Rhoma Irama, has even banned Inul from performing its members' compositions, because it says her performances are pornographic, and as such are ruining the reputation of dangdut music.
Professor Din Syamsuddin, the secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a religious organization, which groups the nation's top clerics, does not make a direct statement about what Inul Daratista does, but it is clear in what he says that he thinks she should not be on television.
"That for the Muslims not to show the part of the body that can attract other people to kind of have sexual attire," he said. "They have to have responsibility for God in the here and hereafter. That's religion."
Earlier this year, MUI declared that Inul's dancing and costume were outlawed by its July 2002 fatwa against pornography, claiming they are concerned that Inul's performances are encouraging Indonesians to take part in lustful acts.
Inul has made it very clear that she has no plans to hang up her Spandex outfits and call it quits.
Maria Bakkalapulo: "What do you say to people who say that you should stop dancing, that what your doing is not good for Indonesia, not good for Islam?"
Inul Daratista: Indonesia is a democratic country. It's not a Muslim country. So, there are many artists dancing more vulgar than I am. So, I don't understand why only me, they want to stop. If they want to stop them, they must stop all of them."
Maria Bakkalapulo: "If they tell you to stop - that it is not good for Muslim woman - will you stop?"
Inul Daratista: "No. No. It's my show."
Without the controversy swirling around her, Inul-mania may have come and gone quickly. As it is, few people have ever reached the national popularity of Inul.
Her popularity has given her a power of sorts. Authorities who criticize her choose their words cautiously, for fear of losing public support. Politicians who realize her appeal to the huge numbers of Indonesia's poor are vying for her endorsement in the 2004 political elections.
Inul Daratista, whose stage name translates as "the girl with the breasts," is pushing many limits in a country trying to find balance between its influential Muslim roots and its development of democratic rights.