Javanese strive to preserve their origins
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) players.
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
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 reformist 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 all over the country for shows. To organize such an
evening means hiring performers and renting materials from different communities and it requires
good logistics. This 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, culture and language. They speak the official language (Dutch) at school and at work. They
may speak some Javanese at home and the Sranan tongo dialect with friends or at the market and
shops. “My children had to learn Dutch when they entered school. As small kid, they spoke Sranan
tongo. Must we then burden them with learning Javanese, too?” a parent asked.
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 orgarnized 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
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
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.
The Jakarta Post, March 14, 1999