Nov 18, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Cleansing the earth

Published: Sep 22, 2007

In the weeks leading up to 21 May, Indonesia experienced a cultural explosion of new life.


Marshall Clark 

On the humid evening before the riots of Jakarta's Black Thursday, May 13, Pramudya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's leading novelist who has spent much of the last twenty years under house arrest, was participating in what in hindsight can be regarded as the 'Last Supper' of the Suharto era.

The occasion drew a large crowd of students, activists, writers and literary critics. It marked the launch of Saman, a best-selling novel by Ayu Utami, an attractive 27-year old journalist. (See the review of it elsewhere in this issue of Inside Indonesia). The novel had already gone through its first edition in two weeks, and there were even rumours that its blatant political message was strong enough to bring down Suharto's New Order regime.

Although hard of hearing and now both unable and unwilling to read works of literature, Pramudya's presence at the launch, at considerable personal risk, said a lot. He was there as much out of respect for Ayu Utami as out of defiance to the New Order powers-that-be.

In the chaos of the last months of the regime, Indonesia's extensive intelligence network could evidently no longer cope with the rising tide of anger. Undercover spies had often been wheedled out of crowds and dealt with violently. In an act of self-preservation, even policemen had taken to wearing civilian clothes on their way home from work. Thus once again Pramudya could roam the streets of Jakarta, unwitnessed and unknown.

To open proceedings at the book launch, Sitok Srengenge, a well-known Jakarta-based poet, read out a proclamation signed by a number of leading writers, poets and playwrights. It denounced the military's shooting of six students at Trisakti University the day before.

After a communal prayer and a sombre rendition of Hymne darah juang, one of the student 'anthems' for what was later to be labelled the 'velvet revolution', the next few hours were spent in communion with Ayu and Saman. Almost as a weary backlash against the highly charged political atmosphere of the previous few months, politics were avoided. Instead, animated discussion of literature, language, feminism, style and form proceeded well into the night.

Yet in the previous month or so, the Indonesian literary scene was - as it has tended to be in a nation where the mass media suffer from strict self-censorship - highly political. What's more, in the midst of the country's greatest turmoil since the 1960s, the arts scene was literally on fire.


Apart from the appearance of Ayu's award-winning novel that evening, hundreds of artists and performers united under the banner of Ruwatan Bumi '98 (Earth Exorcism '98), a cultural movement designed to heal the nation's woes. Not unlike the Chinese 'cultural fever' accompanying the democracy movement in Beijing in the late 1980s, the Earth Exorcism was designed to use art as the medium of liberation, to reinvigorate the badly bruised political consciousness of the Indonesian people.

Historically, cultural exorcisms are a relatively common phenomenon in Indonesia. In ancient Javanese kingdoms, whenever the royal court was faced with a calamity of one form or another, all the court's writers, poets and puppeteers were sent out into the neighbouring villages to rid the kingdom of its defilement.

Over the space of one month - between the start of April and the start of May - at least 170 performances occurred in almost every major city. The performances included drama, music, video, pantomime, prayer, wayang shadow puppet theatre, poetry, dance and installation art. The cultural explosion was organised by a number of regional committees linked through the internet.

With the steady increase in Indonesia's economic fortunes over the last few decades, a highly educated, urbanised and western- oriented middle class has emerged. Consequently their children, the driving force behind the student movement, have long been accustomed not only to computers but also to the internet and email.

Just as the mass media played such a crucial role in bringing down the Berlin Wall, the internet in Indonesia proved a godsend not only for communicating the latest political rumours and analyses, but also for mobilising cultural and political activism. Unable to even keep a check on the whereabouts of celebrated dissidents such as Pramudya Ananta Toer, the authorities couldn't possibly monitor the millions of messages criss-crossing the borderless horizons of cyberspace.

Earth Exorcism performances were advertised primarily via the internet, email and the mass media, radically 'postmodernising' what is essentially an ancient ritual. According to its internet web-page 'manifesto': 'The Earth Exorcism is a number of small steps on the way to the path of a beautiful dream, the very beginning of a brave move to break free from the dead-end which has pinned down [Indonesians]. The Earth Exorcism rejects all the calamity that we have been burdened with. It is an effort to reinvigorate social cohesion, which can release the creative energies of the individual and society.'

Another characteristic of the exorcism was its highly democratic nature. For once Indonesia's artists managed to forget their artistic and ideological differences and participate as a unified, yet diverse, cultural movement.

Whilst Indonesia's more established cultural icons such as Emha Ainun Najib and Y B Mangunwijaya lent their considerable intellectual influence to writing essays in the mass media and addressing student rallies, the exorcism was also a chance for Indonesia's younger artists to come to the fore.

Fringe artists such as Jalu G Pratidina, Afrizal Malna, Erick Yusuf and Slamet Abdul Syukur were suddenly prominent. Music- drama was a common performance medium used by each of these artists, with dialogue at a minimum. Jalu's performance used almost 60 types of percussion instruments. Slamet Abdul Syukur's 'Wanderer' used a simple bamboo reed and a recording of a woman making love.

Afrizal Malna collaborated with choreographer Boi G Sakti in 'A Panorama of dad's death', a minimalistic performance involving dance, violins and poetry. As in many of the Ruwatan Bumi performances, in this drama sounds and movements often jarred, defying cohesion. Yet one unifying element was an almost overpowering sadness, with each dancer and darkly robed foot soldier expressing an existential angst that words couldn't possibly express.

Another performance without any coherent dialogue, Erick Yusuf's 'Bread and circuses', also used image and music to reflect the fragile state of Indonesia's collective psyche.In this unsettling drama, a soldier, a public servant and a sarong-clad villager sat at a table greedily eating bread and Pepsi. Naturally, as soon as the bread ran out, chaos took over. The public servant crouched into a foetal position, the soldier waved his gun around threateningly, and the villager circled the table, gesticulating angrily for more. Eventually, accompanied by a terrifying cacophany of synthesisers, each character was dragged off the stage to an unknown fate.

According to Erick Yusuf: 'Indonesia's present problem is a problem of bread and circues. As the people's access to their "daily bread" is hampered by the government's inability to provide economic equality, and as the circus comes to an end, it's only a matter of time before the people's anger will explode.'


Prostitutes and princesses

In the largest student city of Indonesia, Yogyakarta in Central Java, the performances were strongly oriented towards 'the common people', both in terms of the artists and their audiences. Popular pantomime artist Jemek Supardi brought his silent protest to the streets, and beside the Code River the Girli street people performed drama. Elsewhere some prostitutes performed their own play, humorously bemoaning the lack of business since the onset of the monetary crisis.

On buses it was not unusual to hear buskers singing self- penned songs venting their frustration and anger. In Jakarta unemployed actors walked bus aisles with outstretched hats, reciting poetry not only to criticise the government but also to pay for their next plate of rice.

Throughout Java the traditional wayang shadow puppet theatre thrived, using Java's much-loved puppets to present sharp satire. Many performances depicted stories from the Indian epic the Ramayana, which tells of the kidnapping of beautiful Sinta, Prince Rama's wife-to-be, by the evil king Rahwana. The political allegory was clear. Somehow the Indonesian people had to try and rescue the kidnapped nation from the clutches of their very own evil king, commonly perceived as President Suharto.

As with much of Indonesia's day-to-day politics, the student struggle was often seen in wayang terms. Two of the first students killed by the military happened to be named after wayang characters who had similarly unfortunate fates despite fighting for the 'good side': Moses Gatotkaca and Elang Lesmana. This fact added a certain element to the despondency that gripped the nation in their deaths.

Yet just as significantly, one of the student leaders, Rama Pratama, was, like his mythical namesake, eventually successful in rescuing his kidnapped beauty from the evil ruler.



It is well known that May 20th 1998 was a highly significant date for the 'velvet revolution'. It was a national holiday charged with political significance. National Awakening Day marks the day in 1908 when student nationalist movements were born, dedicated to independence from Dutch colonial rule. Eventually, at 11pm on the 20th, Suharto decided to resign from his position as president.

What is not as well known is that the following day was also a national holiday, to mark the ascension of Jesus Christ. Whether Suharto deliberately chose May 21st to resign formally as opposed to another, less auspicious date is yet to be seen. Yet if the world is a stage and the last few months of the New Order were following a script to be played out, one could not ask for a more symbolic - nor more ironic - denouement.

Marshall Clark is writing a PhD on Indonesian literature at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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