Rendra the Muslim
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Julian Millie

   Rendra reads his poetry at a Kantata Takwa concert
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press

Rendra's life, writings and work indicate that spirituality and performance were not separate categories of human experience for him. They depict a man who conceived (perhaps nostalgically) of the artist as a spiritual mediator for a community, fulfilling a creative role not only by reminding society of other social and political possibilities, but also by leading communal rituals intended for the betterment of the collective. As a result, his version of the divine or supernatural took shape as something that transcended religious denominations in the strict sense, projecting instead a universalising feel for spirituality.

Nevertheless, at various times during his life he did take on a more orthodox role as believer, falling into the roles and institutions of a recognised religious denomination, namely Islam. These moments created a tension with his humanist religious sensibility, and attracted some suspicion and speculation about his motives. But the story of Rendra's engagement with formalised spirituality is logical: he was an artist constantly seeking a greater audience for his work, and in Indonesia, a country where profession of a religious denomination is a social expectation, it is hard to see how that could be achieved without a distinct religious affiliation.

Rendra converts to Islam

Rendra was born in 1935 into a Javanese-Catholic family as Willybrordus Surendra Broto Rendra. His father was a teacher of Indonesian and Javanese at a Catholic high school in Central Java. His mother had been a dancer at the Surakarta court. He was raised and educated as a Catholic, and his Catholicism is a major presence in his early verse, in which he locates Christ not in the theological domain, but in portrayals of suffering, social injustice and disenfranchisement. These poems are critical of the church in its formal aspect - a dissatisfaction amplified by his experiences in the US, described in Anne-Marie Morgan's contribution in this special edition.

Rendra converted to Islam in August of 1970, taking the name Wahyu Sulaiman Rendra. At that time, he told Harry Aveling that he had not left the church; it was the church itself that had left the church.

One of Rendra's theatrical projects was instrumental in his decision to convert. This was his 1969 adaptation of a maulid text known in Indonesia as The Barzanji. Maulid is the annual celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, and many Indonesians mark this date by narrating one of a number of popular Arabic biographies of the prophet. The 18th century biography by Ja'far ibn Hasan ibn 'Abd al-Karim al-Barzanji is possibly the most popular of these.

Rendra's attention had been drawn to Barzanji's version by Syu'bah Asa, a member of the Bengkel Theatre who translated it into Indonesian. Rendra converted this prose-poem into a major theatrical work, Kasidah Barzanji, which was staged in a number of Indonesian cities. The work was performed again in 2003 in a larger format. The three-hour stage performance consisted of songs of praise to Muhammad accompanied by hand percussion, interspersed with dance and declamation. Although Barzanji's maulid may seem like an unusual choice for a nominally Catholic theatre director, in fact the work is a logical fit with Rendra's grounding of spirituality in everyday life and performance. The text is written and recited in Arabic, but it is by no means an elite tradition. In fact it is extremely popular as a supplication for routine life-cycle events. It is still common all across Java for villages to have at least one person recognised as a mediator of The Barzanji. This person is called upon to sing or recite it at ceremonies such as the first cutting of a newborn's hair, or at rituals to rid houses of bad spirits and so on. Rendra once recounted that it was during the performances of The Barzanji that he uttered the shahada (Muslim profession of faith) for the first time, although he had been reciting this in his heart even before that.

Friends were also instrumental in the decision, and a number of close Muslim companions provided exemplary role models for him. One of these was Syu'bah Asa, who impressed Rendra with his faith-inspired stoicism when suffering personal tribulations. Another was Arief Budiman, who, according to Rendra, had inspired him when the two of them were trying to raise funds in Jakarta for the production of Oepidus Rex. The need to utter the shahada came to him intellectually, he later wrote, as a response to rising individualism in modern society, and spiritually in the form of a 'mysterious sense of beauty'.

Rendra's conversion to Islam was met with speculation and gossip

Rendra's conversion to Islam was met with speculation and gossip. Some believed that the real motivation behind it was his desire to marry Sitoresmi, a talented and beautiful member of Rendra's Bengkel Theatre group. At the time, he was already married to his first wife Sunarti, who was a Catholic. Others commented on the improbability that a person so clearly dedicated to humanism, as opposed to formalised religion, could sincerely wish to become a Muslim. And indeed, it could not be said that after Rendra's conversion his spiritual practices came to greatly resemble common Islamic practice. A visitor to the Bengkel Theatre community in 1976 described finding there a prayer room filled with furniture, decorations, images and ritual objects of many denominations, especially Chinese religions. During his visit, he witnessed a 'circle prayer', used by the community to supplicate and mark special events. The ritual featured utterances adapted from several denominations, and concluded with participants verbalising formulas of their own preference. Participants were given a cloth with a message from Rendra written in Chinese letters: 'Return to childhood and melt into the universe'. The disciplines of silat, described by Bramantyo Prijosusilo in this special edition, were also a primary spiritual reference.

A muballigh is born

At the time of Rendra's conversion in the 1970s, the social meanings of Islam were beginning to change in Indonesia and its prestige had begun to rise. By the early 1990s, more Indonesians from diverse social groups were openly practising their Islam, and receiving it through a greater variety of mediations. The time was right for Rendra to take a performance role that would attract attention from a broader cross-section of Islamic Indonesians. Rendra performed and wrote lyrics for the hit 1990 album Kantata Takwa (The Cantata of Devotion) alongside the Indonesian rock idol Iwan Fals, and also toured with the group. The song entitled Kantata Takwa opens with the sound of dhikir (repetitive formulas for remembering Allah), highly illustrative of the changing location of Islam in Indonesian popular culture.

In 1991 Rendra undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca in the company of the 'king of dangdut', Rhoma Irama, star muballigh, Zainuddin MZ, and entrepreneur/artist, Setiawan Djody, the producer of the Kantata Takwa project. They resolved to form a dakwah foundation for preaching Islam called the Yayasan Hira, named after the cave in which the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation. In January of 1992 this Yayasan Hira group performed to a crowd of perhaps 300,000 people in the eastern parking-lot of the Senayan Stadium, at which Rendra recited Indonesian translations of verses of the Qur'an. At around the same time, Rendra began to receive invitations to speak at dakwah gatherings. Tempo Magazine reported in 1992 that Rendra was giving sermons at five-star hotels to patrons paying 25,000 rupiah each.

Islamic commentators expressed scepticism about the rise of this new wave of preachers who had no specialist training in the Islamic sciences. There were speculations that some of these muballigh were motivated by the large sums they could earn from giving sermons and religious talks. It is significant to note also that this aspect of his working life has not received much serious attention from his colleagues, critics and admirers. They do not seem to have regarded it as a serious undertaking by Rendra in comparison to his theatrical and literary activities.

It would be unjust and inaccurate however to suggest that Rendra's dakwah was motivated by personal gain. The Bengkel Theatre group was an expensive operation, and his appearances as a muballigh provided financial support for the troupe. The Hira venture provided valuable exposure to a wider audience with deep pockets, as it gave Rendra the opportunity to take advantage of the massive drawing-power of Rhoma Irama and Zainuddin MZ. But it would also be incorrect to view these 'Islamic' performances as mere concessions to economic imperatives. The concerts with Fals, in particular were stages for rarely-expressed statements of opposition to the Suharto regime. As such they were in complete conformity with the sympathy for the oppressed that Rendra had displayed throughout his life, and for which he suffered persecution. They were also in complete conformity with his sense of the spiritual as something bigger than religion in its formal aspects.

Julian Millie (Julian.Millie@arts.monash.edu.au) is a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Monash University, where he researches Islamic oratory in West Java.


Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010