Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “For two millennia both Java and Bali have been in contact with India and neighbouring cultures, and this is clearly reflected in theatre and dance. Many of the remote islands, on the other hand, have lived in relative seclusion from outside influences, and have thus preserved traditions which, in some cases, stem from the Neolithic Stone Age or the Bronze Age. The island of Java was Islamised by the beginning of the 16th century, while the island of Bali has retained its old form of Hinduism to this day. Thus Bali has preserved its old culture, including several forms of theatre and dance. In Java the older Hindu-Buddhist traditions were adapted to the Islamic cultural atmosphere, resulting in the sophisticated court theatre and dance, discussed below. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Several early Indianised kingdoms typical of South-East Asia flourished on the islands of Indonesia. The first of these was the Srivijaya maritime empire on the east coast of Sumatra, which controlled trade in the Malacca Straits from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Srivijayan dominance was also felt on the island of Java, where in the 8tth and 9th centuries the Mahayana Buddhist Shailendra dynasty and its contemporary, the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty, ruled. Since both competing dynasties flourished in the central parts of the island, this epoch, generally regarded as the “classical age” of Indonesian art and architecture, is known as the Central Javanese Period. **

“At the beginning of the Central Javanese period, in the early 8th century AD, the region was ruled by the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty and the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty. Thus the area was divided into two cultural spheres. The Southern part was under Buddhist influence, while the Northern part was under Hindu control. From c. 830 onward the Hindu expansion was predominant, although there seems to have existed remarkable tolerance toward Buddhism. The Central Javanese period ended for reasons not exactly known, and the transfer of political power from Central Java to East Java took place from the 10th to the early 13th centuries. **

Mataram (Medang) Culture

The Medang or Mataram Kingdom was a Javanese Hindu–Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries. It was based in Central Java, and later in East Java. Since the beginning of its formation, the Medang Mataram kings seemed to favour Shivaist Hinduism, such as the construction of Gunung Wukir Hindu temple as mentioned in Canggal inscription by king Sanjaya. However during the reign of Panangkaran and the rise of Sailendras influence, Mahayana Buddhism began to blossomed and gain court favour. The Kalasan, Sari, Mendut, Pawon and the magnificent Borobudur and Sewu temples testify the Buddhist renaissance in Central Java. The court patronage on Buddhism spanned from the reign of Panangkaran to Samaratungga. During the reign of Pikatan, Shivaist Hinduism began to regain court's favour, signified by the construction of grand Shivagrha (Prambanan). [Source: metapedia.org ]

The monumental Hindu temple of Prambanan in the vicinity of Yogyakarta — initially built during the reign of King Pikatan (838—850), and expanded continuously through the reign of Lokapala (850—890) to Balitung (899–911) — is a fine example of ancient Medang Mataram art and architecture. (See Below). Other Hindu temples dated from Medang Mataram Kingdom era are: Sambisari, Gebang, Barong, Ijo, and Morangan. Although the Shivaist regain the favour, Buddhist remain under royal patronage. The Sewu temple dedicated for Manjusri according to Kelurak inscription was probably initially built by Panangkaran, but later expanded and completed during Rakai Pikatan's rule, whom married to a Buddhist princess Pramodhawardhani, daughter of Samaratungga. Most of their subjects retained their old religion; Shivaist and Buddhist seems to co-exist in harmony. The buddhist temple of Plaosan, Banyunibo and Sajiwan were built during the reign of King Pikatan and Queen Pramodhawardhani, probably in the spirit of religious reconciliation after the battle of succession between Pikatan-Pramodhawardhani against Balaputra.

“From the 9th to mid 10th centuries, the Medang Kingdom witnessed the blossoming of art, culture and literature, mainly through the translation of Hindu-Buddhist sacred texts and the transmission and adaptation of Hindu-Buddhist ideas. The bas-relief narration of the Hindu epic Ramayana was carved on the wall of Prambanan Temple. During this period, the Kakawin Ramayana, an old Javanese rendering was written. This Kakawin Ramayana, also called the Yogesvara Ramayana, is attributed to the scribe Yogesvara circa the 9th century CE, who was employed in the court of the Medang in Central Java. It has 2774 stanzas in the manipravala style, a mixture of Sanskrit and archaic Javanese prose. The most influential version of the Ramayana is the Ravanavadham of Bhatti, popularly known as Bhattikavya. The Javanese Ramayana differs markedly from the original Hindu.

The name of the Medang Kingdom was written in the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, dated 822 saka (900 CE), discovered in Manila, Philippines. The discovery of the inscriptions, written in the Kawi script in a variety of Old Malay containing numerous loanwords from Sanskrit and a few non-Malay vocabulary elements whose origin is ambiguous between Old Javanese and Old Tagalog, suggests that the people or officials of the Medang Kingdom had embarked on inter-insular trade and foreign relations in regions as far away as the Philippines, and that connections between ancient kingdoms in Indonesia and the Philippines existed.

Prambanan and Borobodur

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: ““Central Javanese architecture shows a clear Indian influence. It is believed that Javanese temples or candies (ancient temples) were designed by learned Brahman priests and Buddhist monks, who acted as the scholars and scientists of their age and who either possessed the Indian architectural manuals or at least were familiar with them. The largest of all Central Javanese Hindu temples, and indeed of all Javanese Hindu temples, is the Loro Jonggaran group, also known as Prambanan. It was constructed in c. 835–856 and it comprises altogether 227 temple towers. The three main towers are dedicated to the Hindu trimurti of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. The central tower, dedicated to Shiva, rises to a height of 47 metres. The towers are decorated with narrative series of reliefs, which, in the temples dedicated to Shiva and Brahma, tell the story of the Ramayana. The exceptionally early Ramayana panels show few actual dance poses. However, they include many fixed positions related to martial arts and archery. These poses and positions found their way into the later Javanese dance techniques. ** [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The largest Buddhist building is Borobodur, which, in fact, forms a huge three-dimensional mandala with a plan of 113 by 113 metres. Started in c. 775 its construction was intended to be a Hindu temple but later the plans were, however, changed and the Buddhist Borobudur got its final form in c. 835. The eight terraces of Bororobudur, with the crowning main stupa at the top surrounded by minor stupas, form an artificial stone mountain. The symbolism of Mount Meru, as well as other Buddhist cosmological features, is apparent. The lower terraces are built on a square plan symbolising the earth, whereas the upper terraces with stupas are circular and represent the heavens. The lower terraces were meant for circumambulation and were decorated with some 1300 relief panels of altogether 2.5 kilometres in length. As a whole, the structure forms a huge cosmological symbol and circumambulation through the terraces were intended to show the devotee, with the aid of the reliefs, the path to enlightenment. **

Wayang Style of the East Javanese Period

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “From the early 10th century onward the Central Javanese kings focused their attention on East Java and in 929 they seem to have almost abandoned Central Java. There has been much speculation about the reason for this drastic change. A volcanic eruption could have been the reason, which was interpreted as a warning sign from the gods. The East Javanese period can be divided into four sub-periods. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

The religion of the East Javanese period was syncretistic in character, while the cults of Shiva and the Buddha merged together. The free-standing cult images of the period do, in fact, follow the Central Javanese, Indian-influenced tradition. A more drastic change occurred, however, in the style of the narrative reliefs, which were carved on the bases and the balustrades of the outer walls of the temples. From the beginning of the 13th century they no longer echoed the Indian-influenced, round and sensual and even realistic “classical” style but were carved in a completely new style, known as the “wayang style”. **

“Wayang is a generic term, which has several meanings. It means a “puppet”; it can refer to a shadow and it also refers to a performance. Generally, the shadow play, wayang kulit, is seen as the origin of the whole “wayang family”. It includes several theatrical genres from the storyteller’s scroll performances, wayang beber, to the three-dimensional wooden rod puppet theatre, wayang golek, and finally to the court dance drama wayang wong, in which living actors take the place of the wayang puppets. **

“All these theatre forms have much in common. Their principles of dramatic action, stylisation of movement, characterisation, costuming, basic role types etc. clearly stem from the same tradition and conventions. The earliest record confirming the existence of shadow theatre in Java dates back to 907. The present-day Balinese puppets represent an archaic style, and bear a clear resemblance to the East Javanese wayang style reliefs. The Javanese puppets are, in turn, believed to have evolved into their extremely elongated and almost non-figurative style during the period of Muslim rule, which put an end to the East Javanese period by the end of the 15th century. It is generally believed that the extreme stylisation of Javanese puppets reflects Islam’s ban on making a human figure. **

“Like the shadow puppets, especially those from Bali, the figures in the narrative panels of the East Javanese temples also follow the conventions of the wayang tradition. The torso is shown frontally, whereas the head, legs and feet are depicted in profile. The thin arms and small hands hang down stiffly alongside the torso if they are not lifted and shown in any of the wayang theatre’s limited mudra-like gestures. **

“The whole treatment of the reliefs is flat, while the large, decorative headdresses of the figures, the Chinese-style cloud motifs and the stylised elements of the landscape often fill the backgrounds. Besides the stylisation of the human figures, the dwarfish servant clowns, the punakawan, and the use of the tree-of-life motif as a dividing agent between the scenes also seem to connect the reliefs with the wayang kulit shadow theatre. **

“The stories depicted in the East Javanese series of narrative reliefs are based on the localised versions of the Ramayana and other Indian mythological themes found in the Old Javanese texts. The stories that originated in India were, by this time, merged to a great extent with local stories and embedded in the local cultural climate. One can recognise a localisation process of the same kind both in the style of the reliefs as well as in the literary themes they depict. **

“The mythological stories were retold and elaborated by local storytellers and court poets, while the sculptural portrayals of these stories were also localised. Thus the reliefs lost the style and iconography derived from India during the Central Javanese period, and a new completely indigenous wayang style emerged, indicating a cross-fertilisation of local theatrical conventions and the visual arts. **

Majapahit Culture

During the Majapahit period, in the 13th–15th centuries, the East Javanese culture reached its zenith. The second half of the 14th century in particular saw the flourishing of both literature and architecture. The Nagarakertagama, written in 1365, depict a sophisticated court with refined taste in art and literature, and a complex system of religious rituals. The poet describes Majapahit as the centre of a huge mandala extending from New Guinea and Maluku to Sumatra and Malay Peninsula. Local traditions in many parts of Indonesia retain accounts in more or less legendary from 14th century Majapahit's power. Majapahit's direct administration did not extend beyond east Java and Bali, but challenges to Majapahit's claim to overlordship in outer islands drew forceful responses. +

Majapahit’s writers continued the developments in literature and “wayang”(shadow puppetry) begun in the Kediri period. The best-known work today, Mpu Prapañca’s “Desawarnaña”, often referred to as “Nāgarakertāgama”, composed in 1365, which provides us with an unusually detailed view of daily life in the kingdom’s central provinces. Many other classic works also date from this period, including the famous Panji tales, popular romances based on the history of eastern Java that were loved and borrowed by storytellers as far away as Thailand and Cambodia. Many of Majapahit’s administrative practices and laws governing trade were admired and later imitated elsewhere, even by fledgling powers seeking independence from Javanese imperial control. [Source: Library of Congress]

"Negara Kertagama," by the famous Javanese author Prapancha (1335-1380) was written during this golden period of Majapahit, when many literary works were produced. Parts of the book described the diplomatic and economic ties between Majapahit and numerous Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Thailand, Tonkin, Annam, Kampuchea and even India and China. Other works in Kawi, the old Javanese language, were "Pararaton," "Arjuna Wiwaha," "Ramayana," and "Sarasa Muschaya." In modern times, these works were later translated into modern European languages for educational purposes. [Source: ancientworlds.net]

The main event of the administrative calendar took place on the first day of the month of Caitra (March-April) when representatives from all territories paying tax or tribute to Majapahit came to the capital to pay court. Majapahit's territories were roughly divided into three types: the palace and its vicinity; the areas of east Java and Bali which were directly administered by officials appointed by the king; and the outer dependencies which enjoyed substantial internal autonomy.

The capital (Trowulan) was grand and known for its great annual festivities. Buddhism, Shaivism, and Vaishnavism were all practiced, and the king was regarded as the incarnation of the three. The Nagarakertagama does not mention Islam, but there were certainly Muslim courtiers by this time. Although brick had been used in the candi of Indonesia's classical age, it was Majapahit architects of the 14th and 15th centuries who mastered it. Making use of a vine sap and palm sugar mortar, their temples had a strong geometric quality.

A description of the Majapahit capital from the Old Javanese epic poem Nagarakertagama goes: "Of all the buildings, none lack pillars, bearing fine carvings and coloured" [Within the wall compounds] "there were elegant pavilions roofed with aren fibre, like the scene in a painting... The petals of the katangga were sprinkled over the roofs for they had fallen in the wind. The roofs were like maidens with flowers arranged in their hair, delighting those who saw them".

Impact of Islam on Indonesian Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “ Majapahit power gradually declined in the fifteenth century with the spread of Islam, and Malacca, the first of the South-East Asian sultanates, rose to power in the Malay Peninsula. Islam spread gradually from North Sumatra to Java, where Demak, the first Islamic centre, began to break away from Majapahit rule. In 1527, together with its neighbouring towns, it succeeded in crushing the Majapahit dynasty, bringing to an end the Hindu-Buddhist East Javanese period. According to legend, Islam was introduced into Java by nine holy men (wali). The most famous of these was Sunan Kali Jogo, who is believed to have spread the teachings of Islam by means of shadow-theatre performances of the Hindu Mahabharata. This legend clearly demonstrates the specific features of Islam in Java. Instead of wiping out earlier beliefs, it assimilated them. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“This led to a syncretistic belief system typical of Java, which combines animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and has had a clear effect on the arts, including theatre and dance. As before, the ruler was regarded as divine, and the cult of the god-king and court culture retained many Hindu-Buddhist features of earlier times. Islam has not produced many forms of dance and theatre. The tradition of Islam (not Quran itself) takes a negative attitude towards portraying a human form in the visual arts. The only art form referred to in the Islamic tradition is the recitation of the holy Quran. **

“When Islam started to spread across the islands of Indonesia in the 12th century, it was also bringing new kinds of cultural influences from the Islamic world, from Arab culture, Persia and Islamic West India. They included literature, types of instruments, forms of music, styles of recitation of holy texts, and also some forms of dance. In many cases these new elements were quickly localised and they intermingled with earlier animistic and Hindu-Buddhist elements. A good example is wayang golek rod puppet theatre, which has its roots firmly in the older wayang kulit shadow theatre that mainly deals with Hindu mythology. Wayang golek, however, takes its main plot material from the Islamic Menak stories. A similar kind of fusion of cultural layers can be recognised in numerous Indonesian traditions. **

Malay-Islamic culture developed in Malacca (Melaka)—a trading kingdom based on the Malay peninsula and the predominate power in Indonesia in the 15th century. Malacca's reign lasted little more than a century, but during this time it became the established centre of Malay culture. Malacca became a cultural centre, creating the matrix of the modern Malay culture: a blend of indigenous Malay and imported Indian, Chinese and Islamic elements. Malacca's fashions in literature, art, music, dance and dress, and the ornate titles of its royal court, came to be seen as the standard for all ethnic Malays. The court of Malacca also gave great prestige to the Malay language, which had originally evolved in Sumatra and been brought to Malacca at the time of its foundation. In time Malay came to be the official language of all the Malaysian states, although local languages survived in many places. After the fall of Malacca, the Sultanate of Brunei became the major centre of Islam.

“More purely Islamic traditions can be found on the island of Sumatra, particularly on its northernmost tip, Aceh, from where Islam started to spread to other parts of Indonesia. These traditions include, for example, certain musical styles, as well as dances, which are based on the local martial arts technique, silek. Forms of group dancing and singing (seudati and remplis mude) in which the formerly all-male cast use their own bodies to create music by singing, snapping their fingers and slapping their chests and legs are also popular. The lines sung are often religious texts, and it is believed that the tradition was inspired by the ecstatic rituals of the Muslim sufi mystics. **

“After a period of dynastic warfare, the Mataram dynasty came to power, and Central Java again rose in political influence. One of the most important sultans of this dynasty was Agung (1613–1645), whose court in Yogyakarta ruled over the whole of East Java and other regions. Still existing dance forms as well as many mask and martial dances are known to have been performed at the court of Mataram.”

Indonesian Culture During the Colonial Period

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “In the sixteenth century the island of Java had begun to interest Westerners who were seeking spices. In 1602 the Dutch established their trading company, the Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie, which led to a long period of Dutch hegemony on the islands of Indonesia. In 1619 the town of Batavia was founded at the site of the former village of Jayakarta. This miniature Amsterdam became a major port of trade and the centre of Dutch rule. The British were the main competitors in these areas, and they succeeded in acquiring dominance over Java from 1811 to 1816. After Dutch rule had been re-established, the actual colonial period began in 1830, when the Dutch gained control of the whole of Java.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The Mataram dynasty expended its energies in the Javanese Wars of Succession. In 1755 the dynasty split into two, and two capitals, Yogyakarta (Yogya) and Surakarta (Solo), were founded only a few dozen kilometres from each other near the ancient Central Javanese temples. In both cities the most important part is the kraton (also known as keraton), the sultan’s palace enclosed by walls and forming a city within a city. **

“The symbolic features of the plan of the kraton clearly reflect ancient Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The outermost parts of the kraton were reserved for the army and the court officials and their families. The interior consisted of several open administrative buildings serving various ceremonial functions. The sultan resided in the most protected central part, and, in accordance with old Hindu-Buddhist custom, he was regarded as divine. **

“In the early nineteenth century the royal families of Yogyakarta and Surakarta again divided, leading to a politically precarious situation where the two capitals were simultaneously ruled by two sultans in each. When full political power was taken over by the Dutch, the ruling families of Java concentrated their energies on refining court etiquette and on developing the arts, especially theatre, dance, and music. This led to a unique renaissance of the arts, in which the classical genres of Central Javanese theatre and dance found their present forms.” **

In the early twentieth century, Europeans increasingly married across racial categories. In 1905 about 15 percent were in interracial marriages, rising to 27.5 percent by 1925. And, although by the mid-1920s the older mix of dress and sensibilities known as “Indies” (“Indische”) culture was rapidly giving way to more modern, urbanized, European- and American-influenced forms, numerous memoirs of Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, and Indonesians make it clear that, despite obvious racial tensions and divisions, a new sort of Dutch-speaking, racially mixed, and culturally modern society was coming into being, mostly in the largest cities and mostly among the upper and upper-middle economic classes. *

In smaller Indonesian cities, the heart of urban culture before the mid-twentieth century was a commercial sector surrounding a central square. The Dutch left a legacy of a basic civil architecture and street plans for large cities and towns in Java, Sumatra, and Bali, but after World War II most failed to experience a level of improved urban design and services commensurate with their tremendous population growth. Many cities, as a result, had minimal or makeshift services, with very simple sanitation, transportation facilities, and fire protection. Indonesian cities are internally segmented in complex, overlapping ways that differentiate ethnic groups, income levels, and professional specializations. Some older neighborhoods tend to house well-to-do business owners and high-level government officials, whereas other newer areas tend to be home to migrant communities from the rural areas. Some of these areas retain their system of close-knit social networks and are distinguished by the label kampung (village). However, the boundaries between one area and another are often unclear. *

Indonesian Culture Under Sukarno anf Suharto

During the first 15 years of Indonesia’s independent history there was remarkable flourishing of literature and painting that drew on the sense of personal and cultural liberation produced by the National Revolution. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The rise of nationalism among Javanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century anticipated a period of political turmoil, which was later inflamed by World War II. After the end of the Japanese Occupation, Indonesia declared its independence. Yogyakarta was for a short time the temporary capital, and the seat of government was later moved to the Dutch-built city of Batavia, now renamed Jakarta. The Republic of Indonesia was established in 1950 with Dr A. Sukarno as its first elected president. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

Worried about the invasion of foreign culture and Western music in particular, Sukarno introduced repressive legislation that encouraged artists and musicians to shun foreign influences and energize indigenous forms. These laws were repealed when Suharto came to power but did plant roots that allowed Indonesian culture to remain vital. In the Suharto years, the arts and culture was controlled to a large degree by the New Order government. The Information Ministry regulated all forms of media and banned more than 2,000 books.

Aubrey Belford of AFP wrote: “Suharto's personal quirks have also had an influence on Indonesian life. A Javanese man from the country's largest ethnic group, his error-laden and heavily accented version of the national language was imitated by sychophantic officials during his reign and leaked into wider usage, to the horror of purists. Although a Muslim, Suharto's devotion to traditional pre-Islamic mysticism also influenced the national culture. His Javanese brand of synchretic Islam, popularly known as Kejawen, later was added to the list of five major religions then recognised by the state, but under a different name:Belief in God Almighty...The supernatural still looms large — especially when it comes to talk of the ex-dictator himself. While many would see Suharto's team of doctors as the main reason” he survived for so long while in poor health “theories popular among millions of Indonesians include possession by black magic and his ownership of a Javanese royal family's sacred dagger.” [Source: Aubrey Belford, AFP, January 14, 2008 /]

The government of Indonesia saw itself as having a responsibility to advance a national culture throughout most of the New Order period, a project that was linked to requirements of national development and political integration. Government mandates aside, however, as more and more of the Indonesian population sought employment in large, poorly integrated cities consisting of diverse ethnic groups, the concept of a national culture had great appeal as a way of regulating these changing urban environments. Although the central government attempted to guide the formation of this culture through educational curricula, celebrations of national holidays, and careful control of the national media (popular art, television, and print media), this emerging culture came about only partly through central planning. Evidence of an emerging national culture also appeared in the far less controlled layout and social organization of cities; routines of social interaction using the official national language, Bahasa Indonesia; patterns of eating and preparing food; the viewing of team sports, such as soccer, badminton, and volleyball; movies and television programming; and material displays of wealth. [Source: William H. Frederick, Library of Congress, 2009 *]

Culture Changes in Post-Suharto Indonesia

After Suharto was ousted the Information Ministry was abolished, books that were banned became available at bookstores and the “refomasi” movement took hold and brought new blood, and fresh irreverent ideas to the arts. A nation censorship board continued to exist but it was placed under the Culture Ministry and it operates with relatively little pressure from the government.

Abdurrahman Wahid, president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, was greatly revered as a brilliant scholar and cultured man. He advocated a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam and was known for his sense of humor, one-liners and pranks. He told dirty jokes to Clinton and posed beside a bust of Beethoven with a traditional Indonesian hat. Tom Fawthrop wrote in The Guardian, Wahid “ Few countries have enjoyed a more cultured man at the helm of state – a journalist, scholar and enlightened cleric, he took great delight in jazz and classical music and had a special passion for Beethoven. His wit was almost equal to his erudition. Upon losing the presidency in 2001, he quipped: "You don't realise that losing the presidency for me is nothing. I regret more the fact that I lost 27 recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony." [Source: Tom Fawthrop, The Guardian, January 3, 2010]

Contemporary Indonesian public culture also provides some useful illustrations of how Indonesia has changed since Suharto was ousted. By mid-2009, after a comparatively short period of growth beginning around 2006, by far the most popular television genre in the nation was the reality show—dating shows, talent contests, extreme home makeovers, and the like—which are widely seen as being Amer ican in origin (although in fact British and Dutch producers were the true pioneers); nearly 80 different shows of this type were being produced by local companies. To both outsiders and many Indonesians, this seemed to be a sign of an abrupt change. [Source: William H. Frederick, Library of Congress, 2009 *]

The Indonesian scholar and public intellectual Ariel Heryanto, for example, suggested that the pendulum had swung away from a post- 1998 interest in Islamic popular culture, and he talked about American culture being suddenly “in” among Indonesians at all economic and social levels. One reality-show producer even suggested that what viewers consider American values are in fact universal ones, and that Indonesians are now part of a world in which everyone shares “the same dream, no matter who you are and what nationality you are.” Not surprisingly, some Western commentators took this as another confirmation that Indonesia had moved definitively into the liberal democratic camp. *

There is an important “continuity” side to this story as well. For one thing, as New York Times reporter Norimitsu Onishi pointed out, the reality show is not the first American genre to attract attention. American sitcoms ranging from “I Love Lucy” to “The Golden Girls,” as well as series such as “McGyver,” filled Indonesian television schedules beginning in the mid-1970s but then lost ground to shows with Islamic themes and to telenovelas from Latin America and soap operas from Asia; the current fascination with televised reality shows is thus part of a longer evolution and should be interpreted in that light.*

The careful foreign viewer might also notice that a number of the most popular Indonesian reality shows focus on themes markedly “not” found in America—for example, transplanting wealthy or upper-middleclass Indonesians into poor, rural settings, and vice versa, focusing on the tribulations each group faces in making adjustments and attempting to understand an altogether different way of life. These productions tend to validate the values of modern, urban middle-class Indonesians at the same time as they highlight the importance of empathy for others, reflecting in part a longstanding mainstream nationalist populism and in part a Muslim morality and sensitivity to the plight of the poor. The analysis that the popularity of such reality shows is evidence of a recent and dramatic social change—“Americanization,” even—is neither as accurate nor, truth be told, as interesting as the more complicated view that notices a more complex story of adaptation. *

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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