The arts—especially painting, wood carving, dance, traditional music and puppetry—are very much alive in Indonesia. In contrast to some Muslim countries, there are few objections to using representations of humans and animals in Indonesian art or for women to engage in dancing. The most well known art forms are produced in Java and Bali. “Alus” (refined) is a term used to describe the traditional Javanese appreciation of art. But the other islands have equally rich cultural traditions.

Simon Winchester wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “'When you arrive you cry; when you leave you cry." This is a popular expatriate aphorism about India, but almost all who visit Indonesia for any time feel much the same. Arrival in Jakarta, the capital, is the worst. The pollution, the din, the ceaseless traffic. The garbage, the floods. Everything in those first few days is an assault. But then: Spend dawn on the top of Borobudur temple in central Java. The morning mist hugs the valleys; the rising sun spears shafts of gold between two great volcanoes; the ranks of Buddhas beside you are suddenly washed with a warm orange light, the figures becoming an army of the figures becoming an army of transcendent calm. Urban Indonesian nightlife centers on night markets, where people shop in toko (stores) and warung (food stalls). Also popular are forms of the performing arts such as pop music concerts, puppet shows, and the cinema. [Source: Simon Winchester, Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2014]

Indonesia is culturally rich. Indonesian art and culture are intertwined with religion and age-old traditions from the time of early migrants with Western thoughts brought by Portuguese traders and Dutch colonists. The basic principles which guide life include the concepts of mutual assistance or “gotong royong” and consultations or “musyawarah” to arrive at a consensus or “mufakat” Derived from rural life, this system is still very much in use in community life throughout the country. [Source: Embassy of Indonesia, Athens |+|]

Though the legal system is based on the old Dutch penal code, social life as well as the rites of passage are founded on customary or “adat” law which differs from area to area. “Adat” law has a binding impact on Indonesian life and it may be concluded that this law has been instrumental in maintaining equal rights for women in the community. Religious influences on the community are variously evident from island to island. |+|

Intertwined with religion and age-old traditions from the time of early migrants the art and culture of Indonesia is rich in itself with Western thoughts brought by Portuguese traders and Dutch colonists. The art and culture of Indonesia has been shaped around its hundreds of ethnic groups, each with cultural differences that have shifted over the centuries. Modern-day Indonesian culture is a fusion of cultural aspects from Arabic, Chinese, Malay and European sources. Indonesian art and culture has also been influenced from the ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East leading to many cultural practices being strongly influenced by a multitude of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. |+|

“In music, in metropolitan Jakarta, the Java Jazz Festival is the annual meeting highlight for top international and Indonesian jazz musicians. Indonesia also boasts some of the best rock and pop bands and singers. Bands like Nidji, Ungu, Slang, Peter Pan and singing celebrities like Rossa, Agnes Monica, Kris Dayanti, Pasha, Ari Lasso, and many others, never fail to create a sensation wherever they appear in Indonesia as also in Malaysia and Singapore.

Diversity of Indonesia’s Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: The Republic of Indonesia comprises 17 500 islands. With its estimated population of around 250 million people it is the world’s fourth most populous country, and has the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesia is a republic (since 1950 the Republic of Indonesia), with an elected legislature and a president. The nation’s capital, Jakarta, is in Java, Indonesia’s central island. The transcontinental country shares land borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Malaysia. There are hundreds of theatrical traditions in Indonesia. Many of them belong to the smaller ethnic groups of remote islands while some of them form what could be classified as “classical traditions”. These latter consist of the traditions of Indonesia’s central island, Java, and the neighbouring, smaller island of Bali. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

Indonesian culture and art reflects regional histories, relegions and influences of the archipelago’s mind-boggling array of ethnic groups. Indonesia arts can be classified in to the three main streams within Indonesia. 1) The first, is that of the outer Indonesia, the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, Papua and Maluku, which have strong animist traditions. Carvings, weaving, pottery etc, have developed from a tribal art in which art objects are part of worship. 2) The second stream is that inner Indonesia, the islands of Java and Bali that have come under the greatest influence from Hindu-Budha tradition. The Technique and styles that built Borobudur and the Indian Epics such as The Mahabarata, that form the basis for wayang theatre are still a major influence in arts. 3) The third influences is that of Islam, which not so much introduced its own art & crafts traditions, but modified existing traditions. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Java, Indonesia’s Cultural Heart

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The long history of Java, the central island of Indonesia, is marked by international maritime contacts. The island is a natural crossroads of the sea routes between East and South Asia, and it has been the melting pot of cultural influences for thousands of years. This is clearly evident in the island’s rich traditions of theatre and dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The present classical forms of drama and dance were created by the Islamic courts of Central Java over the centuries. They combined old indigenous traditions with mythical story material and classical dance technique from India. Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java and the capital, Jakarta, in the western part of the island are the main centres of Javanese dance and theatre today. **

“Java is also home to various classical forms of gamelan music and dance styles, of which the most important ones are the West Javanese style (Sunda), the East Javanese style, and the Central Javanese style, whose best-known traditions were refined in the kratons of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. The Central Javanese dance style can be described as the most classical dance style of Java. During the period of Indonesian independence the dance style of Java and its theatre traditions have spread to other islands, forming a kind of pan-Indonesian style. **

“For over a thousand years, wayang kulit shadow theatre has been the core of Javanese theatre, influencing the development of other genres. Over the centuries, the various sultanates with their kraton have developed their own art forms by adapting and combining ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions in the spirit of Islam. **

Traditional Culture of Indonesia

“Halus” (refined) Javanese culture still exits. Rooted in Hinduism, it revolves around respect for the sultan and appreciation of the high culture and arts that are associated with it. Sultans—particularly those in Yogyakarta and Solo— have traditionally presided over Muslim rituals and served as unifying symbols. They have been regarded as the focal points for art forms such as painting, batik. music and masked dance. Sultans are known officially as "Susunan"—the "Volcano" or 'Life-Giving Mountain," Every year the Sultan of Yogyakarta throws an offering of his hair and fingernail clippings into Merapi volcano.

In 2009, UNESCO recognized Indonesia’s “Batik” as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage, adding to the earlier recognized Indonesia’s “Keris” (the wavy blade dagger), and the “Wayang” shadow puppets. Further being considered as World Heritage is the “Angklung” bamboo musical instrument from West Java, being uniquely “Indonesian”. [Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic of Indonesia]

The Indonesian archipelago harbours many ancient cultures that are rooted here, while throughout its history through centuries until today the islands have been influenced by Indian, Chinese, Arabic and European cultures, and lately also by the global popular culture, international travel and internet. Foreign cultures and traditions, however, are absorbed and assimilated by the people producing unique “Indonesian” creations found nowhere else in the world.

Indonesia’s culture is indeed rich in the arts and crafts. In textiles, Sumatra produces some of the best gold and silver-thread woven sarongs, known as songket; South Sulawesi women produce colourful hand-woven silks, while Bali, Flores and Timor produce some of the best textiles from natural fibers using complicated motifs. In wood craft, Bali’s artisans produce beautiful sculptures, as do the Asmat in Papua, both traditional and modern, Central Java’s craftsmen produce finely carved furniture, while Bugis shipbuilders of South Sulawesi continue to build the majestic “phinisi” schooners that ply the Indonesian seas until today.

Indonesia is also strong in the performing arts. The beautiful Ramayana dance drama is enacted during the dry season at the large open stage at Prambanan near Yogyakarta under a tropical full moon and against the dramatic illuminated background of this 9th.century temple. Indonesia’s dances are colourful, dramatic or entertaining. They vary from the highly synchronized “saman” song and dance from Aceh, to the sedate and sophisticated court dances from Java accompanied by the liquid sounds of the gamelan orchestra, to the war dances of Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi. Chinese influence can be seen along the entire north coast of Java from the batik patterns of Cirebon and Pekalongan, to the finely carved furniture and doors of Kudus in Central Java, as also in the intricate gold embroidered wedding costumes of West Sumatra.

Support for the Arts

In the past in Java and Bali, royal courts or rich persons were major patrons of the arts. They continue their support, but other institutions joined them. The Dutch founded the Batavia Society for the Arts and Sciences in 1778, which established the National Museum that continues to display artifacts of the national culture. The Dutch-founded National Archive seeks to preserve the literary heritage, despite poor funding and the hazards of tropical weather and insects. Over the past several decades, regional cultural museums were built using national and provincial government funding and some foreign aid. Preservation of art and craft traditions and objects, such as house architecture, batik and tie-dye weaving, wood carving, silver and gold working, statuary, puppets, and basketry, are under threat from the international arts and crafts market, local demands for cash, and changing indigenous values. [Source:]

A college for art teachers, founded in 1947, was incorporated in 1951 into the Technological Institute of Bandung; an Academy of Fine Arts was established in Yogyakarta in 1950; and the Jakarta Institute of Art Education was begun in 1968. Academies have since been founded elsewhere; the arts are part of various universities and teacher training institutes; and private schools for music and dance have been founded. Private galleries for painters and batik designers are legion in Yogyakarta and Jakarta. Academies and institutes maintain traditional arts as well as develop newer forms of theater, music, and dance. [Ibid]

Culture Wars Between Indonesia and Malaysia

Simon Winchester wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ““Culture wars” also were underway. In a series of disputes with neighboring Malaysia over traditional cultural heritage, public voices— many on the Internet—became surprisingly shrill, including characterizations of Malaysia as “a nation of thieves,” and threats of war. In mid2009, a Malaysian Ministry of Tourism advertisement aired internationally on the Discovery Channel portrayed a Balinese dance as part of Malaysia’s cultural heritage; the government subsequently withdrew the advertisement and apologized for what it said had been a production error. But the uproar nevertheless gathered steam, and by September, despite some Indonesian commentators’ dismissal of the issue as trivial and an indication of Indonesian feelings of inferiority, it had become a cause célèbre threatening diplomatic relations. Some of the sharp feelings on the Indonesian side were apparently assuaged in October when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared batik to be part of Indonesia’s intangible cultural heritage, adding to a similar declaration in 2008 for shadow puppet theater (“wayang kulit”) and the “keris”, an asymmetrical dagger, which many Malaysians had felt were at least equally theirs. [Source: Simon Winchester, Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2014]

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ For decades, Uni Histayanti has performed the enigmatic movements of her country's traditional pendet dance. She learned the rhythms as an infant and years ago opened a dinner theater in Jakarta where, dressed in native costume, she performs nightly. As she flutters her arms bird-like, darts her eyes and tilts her head at exotic angles, she invokes the welcoming spirit of the Hindu-majority Bali island where it originated centuries ago. That's why it floored her to hear that neighboring Malaysia had reportedly tried to seize the pendet as its own. It's pure cultural piracy, Histayanti insists. And it makes her mad. "It's a symbol of our heritage, not theirs," she said as she applied makeup in a backstage dressing room of her theater. "If you have something and someone tries to steal it, you take it back." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

“These two predominantly Muslim neighbors, which share ethnic and physical traits, are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority. Nowadays, the rift is widening. It's cultural. It's political. And recently, it has gotten personal. Many Malaysians dismiss the teeming Indonesian archipelago as a source for the low-class maids, parking-lot jockeys and waiters who work in Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia. For their part, Indonesians icily counter that Malaysia is so desperate for a culture that it will resort to anything — even outright theft — to acquire one.

“The pendet dance tiff is only one example of battle over so-called proprietary traditions. “A fresh skirmish of the culture wars breaks out now and then when Indonesians claim Malaysians have yet again plagiarized their indigenous art and music. Malaysians have reportedly laid claim to the Indonesian reog performances — a mix of dance and magic, as well as the angklung, a bamboo musical instrument, activists say. In 2007, Indonesia threatened legal action against Malaysia for allegedly co-opting Indonesian songs and dances in its national tourism campaign. That resulted in a high-profile panel being convened to settle the dispute.

“Many in Indonesia claim that even Malaysia's national anthem borrows from an Indonesian song. Experts solicited to settle the fight reported that both songs borrow from a 19th century French tune. At home, many Indonesians say, Malaysians are protective of their own culture. When a wave of Indonesian pop music began receiving play on radio stations there a year ago, officials sought to set a strict quota: 90 percent Malaysian songs and 10 percent Indonesian.”

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia Get Ugly

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ““The pendet dance tiff emerged in the summer of 2009 when rumors spread that Malaysia was responsible for television ads claiming the invention of the pendet dance. Within days, a private company producing a program for the Discovery Channel admitted they were behind the ads and that they had mistakenly picked the wrong dance to promote their upcoming program. The Malaysian government, they explained, had nothing to do with the foul-up.” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

“But it was too late. Indonesia's feathers had been ruffled. Indonesia's tourism minister demanded a written apology, which he said was needed for the record. Meanwhile, outraged Indonesians waged a "Crush Malaysia" campaign reminiscent of a nationalistic tirade in the 1960s. This time, mobs burned the Malaysian flag, which features a crescent moon and sun, and threw rotten eggs at the embassy in Jakarta.

“For days, protesters wielding sharpened bamboo sticks stopped traffic in search of Malaysian motorists and pedestrians. Six Indonesians were arrested. No one was injured, but the Malaysian Embassy complained about the safety of its citizens. Internet hackers attacked Malaysian government websites. One nationalist youth group began collecting signatures on the Internet for volunteers willing to go to war with Malaysia. Though the leaders of the youth group concede that such a face-off is extremely unlikely, they say they have stockpiled food, medicine and weapons such as samurai swords and ninja throwing-stars.”

The Straits Times reported: “The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. Protesters have pelted the Malaysian embassy with bad eggs. These came about after Indonesians accused Malaysians of hijacking a Balinese dance for a promotional campaign on Malaysia. The affair is doubly irrational when one considers the fact that the error was committed not by Malaysia but by the widely watched cable Discovery Channel. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

Bitter Feelings Behind the Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Such high jinks baffle many Malaysians, not to mention Indonesians."These guys with pointed sticks, they're from the loony left," said Ong Hock Chuan, a Malaysian-born public relations consultant who lives in Jakarta. "If it wasn't Malaysia, they'd vent their anger at something else." But many others here say the resentment is widespread and runs deep. Newspapers run stories about mistreatment of some of the 2 million Indonesian workers by their bosses in Malaysia. Last year, Indonesia temporarily stopped sending maids to Malaysia until better security was provided for the workers. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 ]

"Many who want to invade Malaysia are former migrant workers or people who know one," said Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. "There is a sense that Malaysians look down on us. They insult us. And to tell you the truth, many Indonesians are secretly envious because they view most Malaysians as being better off than us." The two governments also remain at loggerheads. "Each wants to be seen as the regional leader in Southeast Asia," he said. "They both claim to be the leading Muslim nation."

“The vitriol and bad feelings spill over into politics. Animosity rose this summer after two Jakarta hotels were bombed, an attack apparently planned by a Malaysian citizen linked to Al Qaeda, Noordin Mohammad Top, who was later killed. Ong, the Malaysian Indonesian consultant, writes on his blog that Indonesians should be angry at their own government "for doing so little to capitalize on their culture, which is varied and rich beyond description, and hence letting great opportunities slip away." But Ong says there is much blame to go around. The Malaysian government, he says, "needs to get off its high horse" and treat Indonesian officials as equals. For now, Histayanti says, she will continue to perform the pendet dance for all her customers — even Malaysians. "I feel sorry for them," she said. "They're just jealous of us."

The Straits Times reported: “ Malaysia has progressed much faster than Indonesia and jobs are more plentiful than could be created in Indonesia for its much bigger population. The economic gap has resulted in a flood of surplus Indonesian workers into Malaysia to do '3D' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs in sectors such as construction, plantations and household help. Against this backdrop, ordinary Indonesians rile against being treated as second-class by their kinsmen. Some insensitive Malaysians exacerbate matters when they assert their position in the superior-subordinate relationship. The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

“Both countries would do well to stress their common and shared cultural heritage, rather than allow their citizens to score nationalist points by declaring exclusive ownership of cultural symbols. As one Malaysian minister has noted, India did not make any noise about Hindi songs being sung in Malaysia and Indonesia. (To buttress the point, India has also never protested against the use of its great Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in Indonesia's wayang kulit.) [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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