in Suriname strive to preserve origins
By: Santo Koesoebjono
The Jakarta Post, March 14, 1999
PARAMARIBO (JP): The sound
of the gamelan music was alluring on a sultry evening in Mariënburg
in a rural area some 20km east of Suriname’s capital.
There was a full
moon. Scores of descendants of Javanese indentured laborers had come
to attend a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance.
The festivity was part
of the tradition called bersih desa (cleaning the village) held
after the fasting month. The majority of the audience were the elderly,
whose emotional attachment to their culture of origin is stronger than
that of their children and grandchildren.
The performance took
place in the illuminated open hall in the home of a Javanese family.
People sat on floor mats or chairs, facing the grouped leather puppets
neatly arranged on banana trunks. They watched the show from behind
the dalang (puppet master) and gamelan (musical instruments)
On the other side of
the screen a number of women played cards for money. Others watched
television. Children played under the street lamp outside. The hostess
putting on this traditional event offered all the guests a meal comprising
a plate of rice with three different dishes, dessert and soft drinks.
In the meantime, the gamelan continued playing and the pesinden
(female singers) singing and smoking before the wayang performance
started at ten o’clock.
The puppet master was
dressed in traditional Javanese costume. The other six male gamelan
players wore a combination of Javanese and western dress and the
singers the usual Javanese kebaya dress.
During the entire performance
that lasted until three o’clock in the morning, the puppet master told
the story in high Javanese. The dalang must be one of the very
few people who speak high Javanese as most Javanese in Suriname speak
the middle and lower level varieties.
A friend in his 30s said
that he did not understand what the dalang was saying.
"In the past the
wayang performance lasted for almost twenty four hours," explained
the organizer "but it would be too strenuous nowadays".
The Javanese tradition
as practiced in Suriname, a country four times the size of West Java
located in northeast South America has developed along its own lines.
These traditions were passed
down by the first generation Javanese that migrated to Suriname between
1890 and 1939. The stories and knowledge of shadow puppetry and gamelan
as well as other expressions of tradition such as jaran kepang
("horse dancing") and tayuban (courtship dance),
are passed from one generation to another.
Because the cultural heritage passed through tradition,
various aspects’ have become blurred and missing from the original
and new interpretations have arisen in the course of time. The Interpretations
of traditions and the use of words vary by community, reflecting differences
in ancestral places of origin and the formal practice of Islam.
Anthropologist Dew notes in his book The Difficult Flowering
of Suriname that the practice of traditions such as slametan
(thanksgiving), tayuban and other ceremonies has divided
the reformist and traditionalist Javanese Muslims. A third generation
descendant says that the reformiSfu tend to practice Javanese mysticism
(kejawen) that has become part of the practice of Islam.
Lack of equipment and
skills to make leather puppets have forced the artists to look for alternatives.
There is no artist specialized in carving leather puppets, according
to painter/sculptor Soeki Irodikromo who studied batik techniques at
ASRI in Jogyakarta in 1979/80.
The 80 year-old set of
leather puppets used at this performance is therefore very much treasured.
This set, like the gamelan musical instruments, is often rented
by communities conducting a wayang show. Also the puppet master and
the singer travel allover the country for shows. To organize such an
evening means hiring performers and renting materials from different
communities and it requires good logistics.
shows the person’s love of their cultural heritage and the strong bond
among the Javanese.
The younger generation shows
little interest in learning to play gamelan or perform traditional
Javanese dances. This endangers the sustainability and further development
of Javanese culture in Suriname.
The education system and lifestyle
of the younger generation alienate them from their Javanese tradition,
Cultltre and language. They speak the official language (Dutch) at school
and at work. They may speak some Javanese at home and the Sranantongo
dialect with friends or at the market and shops.
"My children had to learn
Dutch when they entered school. As small kid; they spoke Sranantongo.
Must we then burden them with learning Javanese, too?" a parent
According to Soeki the
association of Javanese immigrants (VHJI) regularly organizes courses
in gamelan, dances and the Javanese martial art pencak-silat
in Sena Budaya community center in Paramaribo to stimulate the interest
of youths in Javanese culture.
Looking at the growing
number of youngsters of Javanese and non-Javanese descent participating
in these lessons, Soeki feels quite optimistic. The center is equipped
with a set of gamelan donated by the Indonesian government
and has been used for the activities for some time.
Moekti Moertini, an employee
at the Indonesian Embassy said she was also optimistic about the activities.
During her first year in Paramaribo she has regularly orgarlized courses
on dances, including contemporary Javanese dances. Some 20 women aged
between 10 and 25 years coming from different ethnic groups participated
in the ten-week course.
Recently a one-month
course held during holidays received wide publicity in the media. "A
crash course in Javanese dance created by Bagong," Moertini said
proudly. Scarcity of dalang and
experts in Javanese culture hampers the Indonesian Embassy from organizing
gamelan courses. Due to limited resources these cultural activities
can only reach people living in Paramaribo and its surroundings.
The present Javanese people are descendants of young men
and women mostly originating from Central and East Java, lured and deceived
into working in plantations in far away Suriname by the Dutch colonial
administrators. They were promised riches by the end of the five-year
contract when they would return to their villages. These promises turned
out to be false.
By the end of the contract they were not rich, they felt
ashamed to go home without money and, moreover; there were no ships
to take them back home. So they were forced to stay. The large majority
of the migrants remained, got married and formed the Javanese diaspora.
"My grandfather met my grandmother on the ship or
at the plantation," is a remark frequently made by the younger
generation. Those who can afford it have Visited Indonesia to see their
ancestors’ places of origin. The present economic and political situation
in Suriname as well as in Indonesia may reduce the number of these visits.
The desire to see their ancestors’ place of origin is very’
strong although most people do not know where that place might be. These
ancestors had neither pictures nor home addresses and their children
were not alert enough to ask about their origins.
Someone has even raised a question whether it is possible
to have a grandparent whose skin was dark and had curly hair. This person
did not take into account that not all contract laborers came from Java.
At present the Javanese
form the third largest ethnic group in Suriname after Creoles and Hindus
of Indian origin, and represent some 20 percent of the total population
of around 400,000. In contrast to the Hindus, who also arrived there
as indentured laborers, the history of the Javanese in Suriname
is still poorly documented.
The struggle to maintain
and develop the Javanese culture and language can also be illustrated
by the presence of three radio stations that use the language. They
advertise forthcoming Javanese cultural performances in the country,
requests for music and obituaries. They also broadcast western pop music
translated into Javanese.
Cassettes with most recent
Javanese pop are very much in demand in shops and at the Sunday market
in northern Paramaribo where most vendors are of Javanese origin. People
sing and hum the songs of the popular singer Didi Kempot who has visited
Suriname three times.
"You know, the language
he uses and the words he chooses are touching. He is part of us",
said a Javanese employee of an international organization. Next to music,
consumer goods are also imported from Indonesia, such as garments, furniture
and recently Kijang cars. "The balance of trade is in favor of
Indonesia," said a diplomat at the Indonesian embassy. The Javanese
in Suriname show a strong desire to know about Javanese ethics, philosophy
of life and thoughts. Negara Express magazine of the broadcasting
company Garuda publishes in each issue a lesson in Javanese next to
other informative articles such as a Javanese bedtime story kancil
(mouse deer) and Javanese , days (pasaran).
Since 1980 the Indonesian Embassy has been providing a course in Bahasa
Indonesia for beginners and advanced students in Paramaribo and in a
township with a high concentration of Javanese some 20 kilometers south
of the capital city.
Nowadays most teachers
are alumni of these courses. These laudable efforts apart, descendants
of the Javanese are very much interested in learning about their origins
in terms of tradition, culture and language. Whether they do this in
search of their roots or merely out of curiosity is debatable.
Referring to the first
generation Javanese, anthropologist Dew notes that perhaps more than
the formal practice of Islam, the reconstitution of many of the traditional
folk institutions known in Java provided bonds that held the Javanese
community together vis-a-vis the other ethnic groups.
The writer is an economist demographer based in the Netherlands.
He visited Suriname as consultant to a government organization.