Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Rendra knew on whose side he stood

Rendra knew on whose side he stood
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Max Lane

   Rendra performing
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press

Rendra’s funeral outside Jakarta last year was a crowded, noisy affair. Ramai sekali would be the Indonesian language term used. Noise. People of all social classes. Thousands of people streaming in all day, coming and going. In attendance were a large number of local village people and Rendra’s comrades in arms from the 1970s, Hariman Siregar, Daniel Dhakidae, T. Mulya Lubis and others, as well as, of course, members of Bengkel Teater from that time.

Also at the funeral was a small group from the current generation of activists, who sat on a bench separate from the chaos, watching. Indonesia’s contemporary history is marked by various sharp disjunctures and little continuity, and the erasure of collective memory through the 32 years of the New Order’s systematic transformation of history into rote-learned superstition has drastically weakened the population’s ability to historically remember.

In all countries, the ruling class determines what version of history enters the minds of the population, and in Indonesia this phenomenon is particularly striking. This does not just apply to the false memories implanted in society about the events of 1965; it applies to the whole of the country’s historical experience. As a result, almost nobody among the current generation knows what a transformative period the 1970s was.

It was in the 1970s that the basis for Suharto’s dictatorial system was established but also when people like Rendra laid the basis for the emergence in the 1990s of a radical resistance to that dictatorship. As a result of political censorship, and school education that distorted history and did not teach Indonesian literature as a subject, knowledge of Rendra’s 1970s poems and plays has never become a mass phenomenon, even if arrests, lyrics for pop songs and movies have long made his image as a flamboyant dissident the subject of front page news.

Rendra and his works are themselves a manifestation of a historical disjuncture. Rendra’s political poetry and drama, and his political activism was a bridge between the anti-communist student activism of the late 1960s and the pro-Left student activism in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it was a bridge that Rendra himself was never able to cross, despite taking initial steps onto that bridge, a bridge of his own creation.

A reaction to political excess

The 1965 disjuncture was (counter-) revolutionary. The Indonesia of the 45 Generation, of the revolution, was to be remade in the image of the money-grubbing former sergeant in the Dutch colonial army of repression, Suharto. The poet of the 45 Generation was Chairil Anwar. The spirit of the revolution that he articulated was summed up in the short poem Maju written in 1943 whose last verse ends maju, serbu, serang, terjang (forward, attack, charge, advance) – four different words for going on the offensive. These were appropriately martial sentiments for the Indonesian people at the time under the Japanese Occupation, preparing to claim their independence. After the terror of the mass murder of a million people in 1965-66, under Suharto the people were no longer to advance forward and attack. Instead, they were to be forced into the ‘floating mass’.

No other intellectual or culture figure manifested the contradiction between the two Indonesias more deeply than Rendra. Before 1965, Rendra began to actively side with those literary and cultural figures who opposed the politics and ideas of the rapidly growing Indonesian Left under the ideological leadership of Sukarno and the organisational leadership of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He was a signatory to the Cultural Manifesto (MANIKEBU), along with other writers, opposing the Left’s campaign for literature and the arts to be weapons for the struggle for socialism.

Soon after that, however, Rendra took a decision that separated him from the activities of his MANIKEBU colleagues even as he continued to identify with them, taking a scholarship to study drama in Grenwich Village, New York. So while Arief Budiman, Goenawan Mohammed and others worked increasingly closer with the Indonesian army as it prepared for its confrontation with Sukarno, Rendra was experiencing the liberties and witnessing the injustices of American society. It was in New York too that Rendra was introduced to the social and political sciences.

Rendra’s experiences in America did not change his orientation towards Indonesian politics. He continued to identify with what became known as the 66 Generation, the coalition of writers and artists who supported the suppression of the Indonesian Left in 1965-66. However, this orientation was primarily based upon his aversion to what he perceived as the cult-like and decadent aspects of Sukarno’s rule and the bullying by the PKI-Sukarno alliance manifested in the banning of some parties and publications before 1965. So while Rendra identified with this generation of activists, their experience of deep collaboration with the military before 1965 was not his experience.

When he returned from New York, it was only a few years before he was the only writer of the 66 Generation to turn completely against Suharto and the New Order. Moreover, both his critiques of the New Order in the 1970s and their artistic form had much more in common with the communist writers of the 1950s and 1960s than anything ever produced against the New Order by the rest of his generation.

A fierce critique

Rendra’s divergence from the mentality of the 66 Generation was signalled first by such theatrical productions as Bip Bop. It was in the 1970s, however, that we saw the explosion of theatrical and poetic creativity integrated into political activism against the dictatorship. It lasted from 1973 until 1978, when he was imprisoned.

During that period he wrote a series of plays that were devastating in their ridicule. In 2010, it is easy to forget that such savage ridicule was against a military dictatorship that had been actively engaged in mass murder only five years earlier. It was an act of deep courage. There was Mastodon and Condors, a story of student rebellion against a military dictatorship; his adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a hilarious comic savagery of the impotence of the military character (and, I think, Rendra’s greatest linguistic achievement); The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, a satire, and manifesto against New Order political and economic development; Sekda, a sharp expose of the workings of bureaucracy under a dictatorship-for-profit; and his adaption of Schiller’s Der Rauber, The Robbers. In addition, he wrote over twenty poems, most of which were circulated in a handwritten collection, known as The Poet’s Pamphlets.

For those five years, from 1973 until 1978, Rendra led the opposition against the Suharto dictatorship and its development strategy. He did this through the performances of his plays and his poetry readings. He did it too through a series of public forums and well publicised meetings with political figures, including military rivals, such as General Sumitro, Suharto’s second-in-command, who started to manoeuvre against Suharto. He also collaborated more with student groups and leaders.

The opening salvo of his campaign was Mastodon and the Condors, which attracted thousands to its 1973 performance in Jakarta. Its manifesto was The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, performed in 1975, setting out a comprehensive critique of New Order politics and economic development as well as elucidating the principles he thought could underpin an alternative. The critique can be summed up by listing the cast of characters. On one side was a money-grubbing queen backed by sunglass-wearing corrupt military officers and a yes-men chorus of parliamentarians who used the army to pave the way for foreign businesses to enter the country to exploit the local market and the natural resources, with no interest in the welfare of the people. On the other is a village community who mobilise to defend their land from the encroachment of a mining company. They receive the support of a young, foreign journalist who promises to expose their struggle to the outside world – the world of the Big Boss.

The greed, violence, arrogance and anti-democratic character of the New Order is vividly summed up in the Queen-Army-yes men Parliamentarians’ relationship with Mr Joe (the US Ambassador) and the Big Boss, the owner of the American mining company. The raucous enthusiastic reaction from the audience indicated that his depiction of the New Order was accurate in their eyes. What was interesting in the play was that Rendra also identified this situation as being linked to an underlying system. A chorus of machines speak:

Bum. Bum. Bum.
Jas - Jis - Jos.
Gerak mesin bergedebum.
Gerak orang hongos-hongos.

Ketipak. Ketipak. Ketipung.
Gudang penuh jadi luber.
Hasil kami tak tertampung.

Sah - soh - sah.
Ketoprak - gebyar - gebyar.
Hasil kami harga murah.
Kami butuh pasar lebar.

Kerja cepat pasar lebar
barang murah jauh perginya.
Untung nambah modal
Modal nambah untung.
Tambah uang tambah akal
jangan macet, jangan tanggung.

Boom! Boom! Boom!
Machines moving go gedeboom.
People moving, panting.


Ketipak. Ketipak. Ketipung.
The warehouses overflow.
We’ve got nowhere to store our goods.

Sah - soh - sah.
Ketoprak gebyar gebyar.
We sell our products cheaply.
We must have a huge market.

Working fast in a big market.
Cheap goods can be sent far and wide.
Profit increases capital
Capital increases profit.
More money means more schemes,
We can’t be held up, we can’t be interrupted.

It is difficult to imagine pre-65 writers from the Left having any major disputes with this general depiction of the system driving the New Order’s activities. Rendra sums up the principles underpinning his alternative: ‘Land is the basic need of a village society, and therefore, ownership of the land must be organised and controlled by the village.’ Rendra depicts the ownership as being by individual villagers, possessing only the amount of land they can farm.

Ideas as agents for radical change

For many among the literati in Indonesia at the time, Rendra had, as Ikranegara wrote, ‘murdered nuance’ and presented nothing more than ‘indoctrination’. These were the same accusations that the Generation of 66 had made against the communist writers of the period before 1965. Rendra was now in their company – or was he?

Rendra’s plays and poems of this period were indeed the conveyor into post-1965 politics of a revived articulation of class antagonism. In The Naga Tribe a class of rural farmers is pitted against a capitalist class. The play Mastodon and Condors opens with a beautiful and vivid presentation of class difference:

Angin gunung turun merembes ke hutan,
lalu bertiup di atas permukaan kali yang luas,
dan akhirnya berumah di daun-daun tembakau.
Kemudian hatinya pilu
melihat jejak-jejak sedih para petani – buruh
yang terpacak di atas tanah gembur
namun tidak memberi kemakmuran bagi penduduknya.

Para tani – buruh bekerja,
berumah di gubug-gubug tanpa jendela,
menanam bibit di tanah yang subur,
memanen hasil yang berlimpah dan makmur
namun hidup mereka sendiri sengsara.

Mereka memanen untuk tuan tanah
yang mempunyai istana indah.
Keringat mereka menjadi emas
yang diambil oleh cukong-cukong pabrik
cerutu di Eropa.

Dan bila mereka menuntut perataan pendapatan,
para ahli ekonomi membetulkan letak dasi,
dan menjawab dengan mengirim kondom.

The mountain wind moves softly through the forest,
sweeps across the wide river,
and finally comes to rest among the tobacco leaves.
Sadly it watches
the weary pace of the farm labourers
as they are impaled on the rich earth,
which offers them only poverty.

The farm labourers work,
planting seed in the fertile ground,
bringing in the rich, abundant harvest,
and lead lives of misery.

They live in shanties without windows
and harvest for landlords
who live in huge palaces.
Their sweat falls like gold
for the carpetbaggers who run cigar factories in Europe.
When they demand their share of the profits,
the economists straighten their ties,
and send them condoms.

But it is also in his depiction of the village population that the disjuncture between the 1970s and the decades that followed can best be seen. This is clearest in The Naga Tribe where Rendra actually shows two sets of villagers, the Naga and the Kariman. The depiction of the Naga is clearly meant to be positive: they are a democratic, socially egalitarian community in harmony with nature. The Kariman have lost their land to town dwellers and have become impoverished, exploiting labourers in their own village.

It is in the juxtaposition of these two communities that a set of contradictions is revealed. First, the humane and democratic Naga people show not the slightest sense of solidarity with the Kariman people, adopting a stance which would easily be classified as ‘blaming the victim’. Second, as a framework for proposing social struggle it separates the goal, the ideal – the Naga kind of society – from the potential force that could struggle for change in Indonesia’s reality – the Kariman. In Indonesia by the 1970s (indeed as early as the eighteenth century on Java), there were no villages like the Naga’s – if, in fact, there ever were. The situation of the vast majority of village Indonesians, especially in Java, resembled that of the Kariman. The real struggle that Indonesia faced was not the Naga struggle to defend a socially just society but Kariman’s to actually achieve one.

The struggle that was to actually unfold in the late 1980s and into the 1990s was one of maju, serbu, serang, terjang (forward, attack, charge, advance) by Indonesia’s Kariman, albeit if many of them had, in the meantime, been forced to move to the cities. The 1990s generation of activists adopted, in one form or other, moderate or revolutionary, a class struggle approach. Their ideological reference was Marxism and socialism. The literary icon was more Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other LEKRA writers, rather than Rendra. The poet of the radical activists themselves was Wiji Thukul.

But while Rendra separated the Kariman reality from the Naga ideal, it might be argued however that it was Rendra who saved the Kariman from oblivion in his writing. The beauty and vividness of his depictions of the ordinary people, their suffering and their contempt for the elites, forced the ‘floating mass’ mentality into a retreat. Moreover, while his preference was to view ideas rather than people as the agents of radical social and political change, he always knew that there were two sides and that it was correct to take sides. To quote 'Sajak Pertemuan Mahasiswa', 'The Student Meeting Poem':

ada yang jaya, ada yang terhina
ada yang bersenjata, ada yang terluka
ada yang duduk, ada yang diduduki

ada yang berlimpah, ada yang terkuras
dan kita di sini bertanya:
“maksud baik saudara untuk siapa?
saudara berdiri di pihak yang mana?

there are the triumphant, there are the humiliated
there are those with weapons, there are those with wounds
there are those who sit, there are those who are sat upon
there are those with abundance, those who have been robbed of all
and we gathered here ask:
‘for whom, are your good intentions?
on whose side do you stand?’

There can be little doubt that Rendra’s poems and plays will be part of the repertoire of the movement as the Kariman resume their struggles against the injustices of underdevelopment.

Max Lane ( is author of Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto (Verso, 2008) and a book on 1965, Catastrophe in Indonesia (Seagull, October, 2010). The translations provided are by Max Lane, except for the translation of ‘Song of the Condors’ which is from State of Emergency by Harry Aveling.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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