A SANDWICH COURSE IN PRESERVING CULTURE © Duncan Graham 2006
Javanese culture is like the meat in the sandwich. The slices of bread pressing on either side are Western lifestyles and Saudi Islam. But the filling is rich and nutritious, with protein, fruits and vegetables – enough to sustain.
You can digest the simile and make your own biting interpretation. Which is how it should be. For some things about the Javanese are not easily absorbed, according to culture buff and author of the metaphor above - Dr Soetrisno.
A former regent and Golkar parliamentarian in the Suharto era, and before that an administrator in the Department of Education and Culture, Soetrisno has now turned to writing.
With five published books on Javanese philosophy and arts to his credit he should be in a good position to help deconstruct the mysteries – though in doing so he tended to make them even more complex.
That’s not a criticism. As he said himself, some concepts just defy easy translation into English and Western logic.
“I learned much from my grandfather who was a village head in Blora (Central Java) where I was born,” he said.
“He told me about the symbolism of Javanese architecture, the way a house should be planned and built, the significance of the four main pillars, the importance of status and politeness.
“I learned the gamelan, the Javanese alphabet and how to sing. The language is alive and well, widely taught though spoken in different dialects according to the region.
“He gave me Javanese philosophy, and I still remember his words – to daily exercise the body, the mind and the soul. These were the basics and they should be held in balance. He said I should always be ready to discuss anything, and never let my brain become idle.
“We judge a person by five qualities – their way of speaking, sitting, eating, walking and dressing.
“I was blessed with a good memory, but warned against becoming an absent minded professor.”
The caution must have stuck because at 68 he’s still intellectually spry and direct, quick to contradict, a quality unusual in Javanese who often prefer to agree when they disagree.
“The Javanese are good at using hidden words,” he said. “’Yes’ is never absolutely ‘yes’, as I learned from my mother. It’s to preserve harmony but the origins of this behavior aren’t known and kids are often discouraged from asking ‘why?’
“However I encouraged my children to question the traditions and I’ve tried to fathom them myself. Why shouldn’t we sit on a pillow or perch a plate on our palm while eating?”
Apart from his fascination with Javanese traditions, Soetrisno has an extensive and eclectic collection of original paintings and artefacts from across the archipelago and overseas. These represent many other cultures.
Some works were gathered during tours he made of the Pacific and Hong Kong, and later of Europe, as leader of a Javanese folk art group of singers and musicians. A graduate of Airlangga, East Java’s most prestigious public university and Yogyakarta’s Gajah Mada University, he briefly studied in the US.
The urbane Soetrisno now teaches public administration at Brawijaya University in Malang. He lives in Surabaya where he spoke to The Jakarta Post:
“Traditional culture isn’t dying, but it has moved to the periphery of social life,” he said. “Some performances of theatre and dance can now be seen only in the villages, or in the cities as part of Independence Day celebrations.
“What’s happened? Well, television and modern entertainment has been partly responsible. But I also blame some artists who aren’t being creative enough by reinterpreting the stories and keeping interest alive.
“Much is imitation, not original. Maybe 75 per cent of young people in the cities don’t understand the traditional arts because they’re seldom taught.
“Despite this I don’t expect them to die out. The Javanese have a great capacity for acculturation. We withstood 350 years of Dutch colonisation, rejecting things and adapting others.
“We’ve taken some Dutch words – but not many. We no longer sit on the floor – but we sometimes bring our feet up and squat on the chairs. We eat at tables, but often with our hands.
“We have many ceremonies to honor the dead, at the funeral – then 40 days, 100 days and 1,000 days later. But in Mecca I was shocked to see they just bury the corpse and forget it – no flowers and no headstone.
“The sinetron (TV soapies) you see where Muslims use supernatural powers to fight ghosts and demons don’t follow the Saudi interpretation of Islam.
“The men who brought Islam to Java centuries ago adapted to fit local cultures and practices. For example they used the five-pointed star fruit to illustrate the obligatory duties of a good Muslim
“Only a few strict Muslims reject Javanese values – most people respect them. Some kiai (religious teachers) have a blinkered view of religion and won’t let students in their pesantren (boarding schools) have access to other ideas.
“We Javanese are very proud of our culture. We keep it alive by consulting our five-day week calendar for auspicious dates and holding special events, like burying a buffalo head at the start of a new construction. Some of these old ways date back to the Hindu era. All religions point to God.
“It’s much more difficult to be Javanese than a Westerner. You can drink beer, eat a hot dog, wear jeans and a T-shirt, and lounge in the chair. I can’t.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 September 2006)