The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Raising triple threat performers

Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs Worthington to keep her daughter off the stage could have been written for Daryusti.

Like the famous English performer and composer Daryusti is multi-talented, a dancer, choreographer and academic – head of the Padangpanjang Institute of Arts in West Sumatra. He’s also the father of three girls.

“One is a chemist, another a doctor and the third is still studying,” he said. “I didn’t push them to go on the stage, though that’s what my father did to me. I know just how tough it can be.”

Daryusti’s father, a teacher and amateur drummer, urged his talented son to study the arts – which he did in Yogyakarta to get a master’s degree. Dad also sold food to help young Daryusti get a formal education along with qualifications from the university of hard knocks.

Those who think the entertainment industry as a life of non-stop glamor punctuated by air kissing get gored by reality when they seek enrolment at the Padangpanjang institute. Half the candidates don’t get beyond the doors of the stylish Minangkabau building with its multi-peak roof because they don’t make the grade.

At the moment 1,800 have gained entry to a multiplicity of courses in seven faculties covering most art forms, but they do need to watch their step. Failure to match the high standards required can rapidly lead to a dash for the exit, said Daryusti.

“We insist on students being disciplined,” he said in New Zealand while leading a cultural group called Sumatran Sounds. “None of our graduates are jobless because their quality is so high. We attract students from all parts of the Archipelago and most are women.

“That’s not surprising because Minangkabau culture is matrilineal. In West Sumatra children are close to their mothers – in Java they’re close to their fathers. Women are dominant in many areas including land and property ownership. Our fees aren’t high – Rp 600,000 (US $66) a semester for locals – and we have 22 overseas students.

“Applicants must also show creativity, talent, devotion to the arts and demonstrate a strong willingness to learn. Their flexibility and ability to improvise are also taken into consideration.”

Kiwi ethnomusicologist Dr Megan Collins who spent two years studying in Sumatra said the Institute was equal to prestigious arts institutions in Yogyakarta and Solo.

“It’s successful because it’s supported by the local communities as well as the national government,” she said. “It’s helping keep the arts in Sumatra alive.”

Some of these arts were on display during a week of workshops and performances in the NZ capital Wellington.

The visit of the 15 performers and four officials led by Daryusti was funded by the Indonesian Department of Education and the Indonesian Embassy in NZ.

Sadly the tour was not well publicised so few got the chance to see some spectacular and polished presentations that drew standing ovations from those lucky enough to attend two public performances.

These featured traditional Sumatran dancing and music, along with contemporary items featuring new instruments, and works exploring the fusion of European, Maori and Indonesian art. The artists were not afraid to adapt and alter, modify and contract to suit foreign audiences.

It’s not the first time the Institute has sent performers overseas. “We’ve been to Holland, Germany, Australia and the US,” said Daryusti. “We need to experience other cultures and draw on what we see and hear.

“We’re in Wellington because the previous ambassador Amris Hassan knew of Dr Collins’ studies in Sumatra and her role in the NZ School of Music which has a gamelan orchestra. ”

On the Wellington program that included “serious and challenging artistic material aimed at artists and university students” was a dynamic item called Tari Rundo (night watchman’s dance). This was choreographed by Daryusti and based on the neighborhood security system used in Indonesian villages.

Deftly using torches and sarong the male and female dancers moved with the elegance normally seen in traditional Western ballet, through to the energy found in boisterous Broadway musicals. The result was a robust piece that also owed much to contemporary Chinese theatre, as its creator acknowledged.

“Dance has to be created out of knowledge,” Daryusti said. “After observing, I write then deliver my ideas to the cast.

“When I’m directing dancers at first I tend to be authoritarian. If a doctor can’t cure his or her patients they can’t stay in medicine. It’s the same with the arts – do it right, get it right or quit. Dancers need to be fit and strong.

“However as the work develops I allow more ideas to come from the performers. I start as a dictator – but end as a democrat.”

More traditional works included the piring (plate) dance representing seasonal changes. The performers hold dishes in their palms only using centrifugal force to keep the crockery in place as they twirl, leap, dash and roll. It’s a dazzling piece demonstrating the performers’ dexterity – not a dance to try in the kitchen.

Randai is folk theatre that features much loud pounding of baggy pantaloons. It’s a rugged athletic work with elements similar to the Russian kalinka dancing.

Many pieces in the Sumatra Sounds repertoire require the cast to be ‘triple threats’ – the most feared and admired of stage performers able to sing, dance and act.

Daryusti is a small, dapper man with a penchant for flamboyant multi-colored ethnic jackets matched – or mismatched -with Western clothes. This makes him look nothing like the standard senior academic in bureaucratic black.

At 49 he still occasionally dances, but said his time was now taken up moving between board meetings, leaving little opportunity to star on the boards. It took four months of rehearsals to perfect Tari Rundo. His last public performance was in Melbourne in 2009.

“We like to tour overseas so people can learn more about Indonesian culture and visit our country,” he said. “Sumatran culture is seldom promoted, unlike music and dance from Java and Bali.

“This creates a misconception that Indonesian culture is only found in particular areas when in fact our unique cultures are spread throughout the Archipelago. We should love Indonesian culture, it is so diverse and every region has its own special characteristics.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 Sept 2010)


Wednesday, September 22, 2010


A JOB WITH BITE Duncan Graham, Nias

Most health professionals display their qualifications with pride.

Well framed, the fancy calligraphy glows from surgery walls assuring agony-wracked patients that they’re in good hands – and to justify charging equally painful bills.

But there’s no fancy diploma on the coarse-planked walls of dentist Warnidar Hulu’s riverbank surgery in Gunung Sitoli, capital of the west coast Sumatra island of Nias.

In fact there’s next to nothing in the nine square-meter shack which serves as surgery, waiting area, office and drop-in center. There’s a thin blue half-length curtain to shield sensitive patients as they lie on the rickety examination chair, but nothing to dampen the groans and yelps, or the nerve-piercing noise from the pedal-power drill and grinder.

Less honest practitioners of the bloody arts of tooth pulling might have got someone to dummy up a false certificate on a computer, but Warnidar, 43, is not one for subterfuge.

“Before the 2005 earthquake the government health department registered me and helped show me what to do, but they seem to have forgotten that now,” she said.

“There’s no running water so I use bottled water and Dettol (an antiseptic) for the instruments. If the patients want an anaesthetic I inject them with lidocaine. I never use the needles more than three times.

“They get me to go the hospital to make sure I’m healthy and don’t pass on any infections. No problem. I’m fit. All my teeth are my own, and I’ve never had toothache. I’ve never had a patient get ill from my treatment.”

That’s some claim, because she’s been in the business for more than 20 years, honing her skills with pliers, gougers, picks, probes and other tools handed down through her family.

For Warnidar was taught by her husband’s grandfather. He learned from his father who fled with many other families to Nias from Fuzhou in China’s Fujian Province. They escaped from discrimination and fighting during an early unsuccessful attempt at revolution, probably around 1911.

Then and now the family hasn’t been short of clients driven by pain and desperate for relief – or a new set of dentures.

Warnidar’s business is called Shonjaya, and it’s advertised on a hand-written board in red and white paint. The ‘S” is in the shape of a Chinese dragon. The title is a mix of the words for prosperity and the family name.

The location is ideal to attract attention, only meters from a bridge spanning the estuary of the River Nou, used by hundreds of vehicles every day. Many walk past to get access to the pig meat market opposite.

A regular sea breeze blows the noxious smells inland. The tide helps dispose of the waste. Well, some of it anyway. Stuck in the mud are the remnants of a police launch and other rotted craft along with plastic bags, street muck and all the debris of a busy town indifferent to garbage control. Close investigation unwise.

Warnidar’s neighbors are not so well housed. Her corrugated iron roof has been nailed down, and the shutters (no windows) actually open and close. The shop next door uses plastic string to hold down the scavenged rusting sheets and protect its stock of basic household goods.

A few planks on stilts lead to a tiny open-roofed shed. Bystanders can’t actually see what you are doing there, but they can view the results as they drop into the mud below.

“I used to visit my patients in their homes,” said Warnidar, “but it’s better for my five children if I’m in one place.

“The earthquake destroyed our house and with it my drill. My mother-in-law hurt her back. She was in hospital for six moths. The rest of my family was unhurt.

“The quake also damaged the examination couch. My husband Sho Cenghian is a good motorcycle mechanic. He used parts to make me a new drill and grinder. He also got some new pipes for the couch.”

She said that the government has tried to shut down her business three times, sending public order officials to tear down the riverside shanties.

“They smashed the other huts, but not mine,” she said. “I can be a tough woman. I threatened them with a knife. They’ve left me alone since then.”

But for how much longer? A new two-storey market built with post-quake reconstruction money and opened in 2008 stands empty. Warnidar said the rent of Rp 20 million (US $2,200) a year for a stall was too expensive for her and all the other small traders who are supposed to move off public land.

“I only earn Rp 3 million (US $330) a month. How can I afford to move?” she asked. “It would be better and cleaner there but we need government help and lower rents so we can shift.

“There’s no discrimination against the Chinese in Nias. Many have married with the locals. During the 1965 coup d’etat some people tried to force the Chinese out of Gunung Sitoli. However we weren’t bothered because my husband’s father had been a veteran (a revolutionary fighter in 1945.)

“I charge Rp 50,000 (US $5.50) for a filling and half that for an extraction. New teeth cost Rp 75,000 (US $8) each.

“There’s lots of competition – including the hospital. But you can walk in here and usually get treated straight away.”

The first interview was regularly interrupted as Warnidar treated one patient while another smothered her mouth with a bloody rag. Idle passers-by dropped in to gawk under the pretence of shooting the breeze.

The able Warnidar darted expertly between her plastic bowls of mixes and cements and patient, selecting the right instruments without hesitation, keeping up the banter with those not too pained to talk. There were lots of jokes and laughter, helping focus patients’ minds on other things.

She lacks formal qualifications. Her gear is primitive. The environment would repel those who expect hygiene in dentistry. But Warnidar’s couchside manner and obvious dexterity with pliers and grinder help offset the deficiencies. Just a little.

“Our grandfather used to say: ‘Better to be diligent in practice than theory,’” she said. “I agree.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 September 2010)