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

Mao's ghost in Golkar

Published: Jul 30, 2007

1960s Artists struggled to create solidarity with the oppressed. One of their slogans survived in Golkar, but not their spirit.

Julie Shackford-Bradley

Turba' is an acronym for 'turun ke bawah', meaning 'descend from above'. It has a complex historical lineage from the 1950s and 1960s to the present. In New Order parlance it has cropped up to refer to visits by state officials out beyond the limits of the metropolis. Thus we read that World Bank President James Wolfensohn, during a recent visit to Indonesia, 'turba' to the slums (kampung) to witness the effects of the economic crisis. National Development Planning Board bureau chief Triono Soendoro also 'turba' to a central Javanese village to gather research on infant malnutrition. In a different context, former vice-president Try Sutrisno, as chairman of the Association of Armed Forces Retirees, 'turba' to the regions beyond Java to create interest in his political party the PKP, a spin-off of Golkar.

The contemporary usage of the word amounts to a misappropriation of a concept and practice developed by leftist thinkers in the 1950s. The word turba gained its initial currency when it was used to refer to the movement of urban artists and activists to rural areas as part of a programme sponsored by the Communist Party PKI and the People's Cultural Association, Lekra. Through interviews conducted with Lekra organisers, and from readings on the topic, it has become clear to me that the term evokes a variety of interpretations of the Maoist concept of xia fang, to go out into the countryside. Mao himself outlined the concept in the following way in 1953:

'China's revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses... go into the heat of the struggle, ... in order to observe, experience, study and analyse all the different kinds of people, all the classes, all the masses, all the vivid patterns of life and struggle, all the raw materials of literature and art.'

As writer and Lekra member Hersri Setiawan describes it, part of the purpose of turba in Indonesia was to introduce urbanised leftists to the physical deprivations and psychological hardships of village life, in the hope that they would be transformed in a deeply personal way. This element of personal transformation was, however, subsumed in a larger, politically-oriented structure in which turba participants were sent out to specific areas to conduct research and create revolutionary art forms. The intention, in essence, was to set up a two-way flow of information between village and city.

Participants would practise the 'three togethernesses' (tiga kesamaan): eating, living, and working together with village farmers. They would honour the four 'don'ts', which included prohibitions against lecturing to farmers or taking notes in their presence, along with the four 'musts': humility, learning the language and cultural practices of the area, and contributing to the farmers' households.

Lekra members I interviewed in Amsterdam in 1998 emphasised that a great deal of research was gathered about Javanese villages through the turba programme. This information became the basis for Communist Party chairman Aidit's discussions of the '7 Demons' village farmers faced, which in turn sparked programmes in land reform, among others.

Lekra artists and dramatists practised turba as a way to study the village-based arts, including the ketoprak, wayang, and ludruk, to determine how these forms could be utilised to disseminate information and radical ideologies. Lekra member Kuslan Budiman recalls discussions of the politicisation of the shadow puppet theatre (wayang). It was determined, for example, that it would be more appropriate to have clowns talking about politics than to merge the identities of the mythical hero Arjuna with the revolutionary president Sukarno.

New art forms

For some turba artists, however, the goal was to go beyond the politicisation of the wayang. These artists wanted to create new art forms by blending elements from the local genres of drama, dance, and music with Marxist ideology. Tragically, the results of this kind of artistic experimentation exist only in the memories of the participants still living. When they are re-collected, these memories reveal an underlying ambivalence.

Hersri suggests that, according to prevailing opinion at least, the art produced in the turba programme was a 'failure'. It did not bring about the desired effect of conscientising the masses and spurring them on toward revolution. One problem was that turba dramatists and choreographers who wanted to incorporate local forms found themselves trapped within a 'feudal' sign-system when they evoked rhythms and dance movements that audiences associated with pleasure and entertainment, rather than those that would spur defiance or revolutionary fervour.

Recalling Lekra dramatist Suyud's sung poem Blanja wurung ('No more shopping'), Hersri describes a piece that might, in other contexts, be categorised as experimental performance art. Against the soothing gamelan background, a voice chants: 'Ngono ya ngono, mbok ya 'ja ngono!' ('it's like that, ya, like that, but don't let it be like that').

As an alternative, choreographers dismantled existing structures to create new forms, as in the case of Tari ronda malam ('Dance of the night watchman'). Here only the gamelan's kendong drum accompanies the dance, a representation of the rhythms and movements of the villagers' labour.

But did the rural audience 'get it'? In Hersri's estimation, they did not. But, as fellow Lekra member Agam Wispi responds, this was not the only measure of success or failure for artists of the period. 'I did not write poetry for the farmers,' he says, but rather 'about the farmers,... studying their songs, and voices... in order to portray their strength and courage.'

The Lekra members with whom I spoke agree to disagree on whether the primary objectives of Lekra and of turba were artistic or political. Those who participated in the turba movement do agree, however, that their village experiences forced them to confront their class-based prejudices in a transformative way.

Personal recollections of turba experiences reveal the tensions that arose between the urbanised youths and rural folk. For those who went 'down' into the villages, according to Kuslan and fellow Lekra artist Mawie Ananta Yonie, class differences were only magnified when they were experienced on the physical level. Contrary to their own intentions, turba participants struggled not to make value judgments about village farmers when forced, for example, to defecate unsanitarily in the river, or when watching 'boys become men' in the ritualised prostitution called tayuban.

At the same time, the Javanese farmers could not help but treat the city boys as guests, offering them greater portions of the best food they had. This caused some turba participants to eat elsewhere, at local warungs for example.

Many also tired of the labour after a few days. 'Our bodies were not suited to that kind of work,' Kuslan recalls. 'Our muscles were not developed, our hands were not properly callused.' Moreover when only 'sleeping together' remained of the three togethernesses, anti-communist critics, as Hersri notes, jumped at the chance to exploit the sexual innuendo inherent in the phrase.

In the heat of the moment, turba participants were hesitant to confront such tensions, much less write about them. As these tensions surface in retrospect, however, they cannot be separated from the biases inherent in the term itself. The very concept of 'descent from above' is based on a spatial configuration of class that is uncompromisingly hierarchical.

'Descent' to the slums

In recent New Order usage, 'turba' retains that hierarchical quality, while ignoring the original philosophical intent. We can see from the examples above that the term is now used in such a way as to gloss over the ever-larger gaps between metropolis and village, between elite enclaves and kampungs, and between Java and the 'outer regions.' The term becomes a shorthand, when used in the context of 'descending' to the slums or to the regions beyond Java, for crossing a boundary that has been made to look so 'natural' as to need no explanation.

The contemporary usage reminds us that the means by which that boundary is traversed will determine how the boundary itself is conceived. Even if we now consider the three togethernesses, the four don'ts and musts as a throwback to rigid communist rhetoric, these mottoes forced the turba participants to acknowledge the class divide for what it was. When turba is practiced in an air-conditioned Mitsubishi, the wall between the classes is only strengthened, and that is precisely the point.

Misappropriation of the term reaches an ironic pinnacle in recent pro-Golkar political activities. Try Sutrisno, for example, uses the word turba in the context of 'socialising' (mensosialisasikan) the retired generals' new political party PKP. As with all misappropriations, there must be some convergence between the original and the copy that creates the basis for a relationship. Here, PKI is replaced by PKP, and land reform is replaced by the 'socialising' of development projects with military support.

Indonesian newspaper readers and Western observers have gotten used to this tactic of misappropriation through the decades of New Order rule. In the period of change now taking shape, such practices can now be openly challenged in the interests of uncovering lost histories.

Julie Shackford-Bradley ( is conducting doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley.

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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