Indonesia’s Bob Hope hoofs for heritage
A man and woman are neighbors. The woman insists on sitting outside to breastfeed her baby. The man next door calls out: ‘Ibu, please don’t keep opening your window or you’ll wake my child.’
Slightly risqué double-entendre jokes were a speciality of Kwartet S, a comedy group that often performed for Soeharto in the late president’s palace.
“But Soeharto never laughed out loud,” said Djathi Koesoemo, 70, the last surviving member of the quartet that kept Indonesia chuckling from 1970 to 1992. “He’d look down into his lap and put his hand over his mouth.
“Ministers and officials didn’t know how to react – to laugh or look stern. They were too frightened.
“Although I supported [first president] Soekarno I got on well with Soeharto until he started to dilute Pancasila. So I then wrote Manusia Pancasila [Pancasila for People] to help hasten his departure.”
Pancasila was designed by Soekarno to contain competing religious and national interests when the Constitution was being written. He claimed it was a fusion of Javanese thinking with Eastern and Western values.
The principles are belief in one God, a just and civilised humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice.
As with all grand attempts to boil noble truths down to one-liners, it has been reinterpreted, dissected and sidelined – but remains the national philosophy.
Unlike many retired entertainers Djathi doesn’t bore with long accounts of the funny things that happened on the way to his present life as an art collector and wisdom seeker.
He’ll briefly reminisce, but doesn’t embroider. “I’m interested in the future of our nation,” he said in Malang, East Java, where he lives in a house that’s a gallery, museum and shrine to Soekarno.
On a desk, a Bible, a crucifix, some flower offerings and the Koran. He’s been to Mecca twice but won’t use the honorific ‘Haji’, much loved by politicians to prove their alleged piety.
Atop a table an award for Djathi’s ‘dedication to encouraging young people to understand their culture’. On the wall a statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu, nearby a bust of Buddha. And yet another portrait of Soekarno with a caption from a 1960 speech urging Indonesians to ‘follow my teachings’.
Above the carved doorway is an illustration of a Prince Panji story, a picture of Nyai Roro Kidul, the legendary Queen of the South Sea, and another stirring portrait of the 1945 Proclamator.
This eclectic collection suggests a magpie mind or a man with more money than discipline. Neither is true. Djathi remains mentally and physically nimble and knows what he’s doing even if some might find his thinking discursive and lacking academic rigor.
His end goal is clear: “I want to keep Indonesian culture alive and preserve the spirit of Pancasila.”
During the 1970s and 80s Djathi worked in films. Known as Indonesia’s Bob Hope [after the late US comedian] he was gifted with what entertainers call ‘the triple threat’ – acting, singing and dancing.
To this he added the skills of the dalang, or puppet master in the wayang kulit [shadow puppet] plays, talents discovered when still at school in Blitar, East Java.
“I was always active and enjoyed making people laugh,” said the eldest of 11 children. “I followed current affairs and was kept out of high school for six months for opposing the Communist Party’s influence on Soekarno.”
That setback didn’t damage his future. He graduated in economics at Brawijaya University and politics at Waskita Darma University. He wanted an academic career, but it was his silver tongue that got him into the government’s Information Department.
Until dissolved in 1999 by fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, this Orwellian bureaucracy ensured citizens only read, saw and heard what the government considered appropriate – while alert for wayward journalists inclined to report the truth.
Before he quit to start his own film business Djathi’s role was to act as Mbah [Grandfather] Gondho on Radio Republic Indonesia where for a decade he imitated a sage villager extolling the virtues of Pancasila.
“Although my parents were poor we had good relations, including cousins in Soekarno’s family,” he said. “An aunt adopted me and one of my brothers so we got an education.
“Apart from these connections I admired Soekarno. I met him three times, the last occasion in 1964. He had a premonition that something serious was to happen. [Soekarno was deposed in 1965 and died five years later.]
“He told me to never hate anyone, and to help care for his children.”
Which is why Djathi ended up in 1993 working on Megawati Soekarnoputri’s presidential ‘success team’, though it would be another eight years before the first president’s daughter was able to achieve her ambition. He also held a seat in the East Java regional parliament.
Politics have now yielded to his quest to frame Javanese cosmology as the centrepiece of international harmony while drawing in knowledge from other cultures. His esoteric thinking is outlined in his book Jagad Merenovasi Diri [the universe reforming itself].
To give substance to his ideas he’s developing a bigger museum for his rich collection. This is just north of Malang at Singosari, center of the 13th century kingdom of the same name.
Little remains of that era other than the crumbling temple mortuary for Kertanegara, the kingdom’s final ruler, a bathing pool and two grotesque dwarapala guarding what was probably the entrance to the most holy places.
It’s past these carved giants and into the foothills of Mount Arjuna, 3,339 meters, where Djathi is building his studio on a three hectare site opposite an ancient cave above the Snake River. Some rooms are already cluttered with carvings, ancient Javanese scripts and murals, but this is still a work in progress.
“We must rediscover the wisdoms of the past to make this country whole,” he said. No smutty jokes – this is serious: “There’s no better philosophy than Pancasila, and this is the right place because it’s our heritage.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 February 2015)