Douglas Miles on WS Rendra


: An Essay On W.S. Rendra





W.S. Rendra who enjoyed several visits to Australia, died in Jakarta on the 6 August, 2009 at the age of 74.  I valued a joking relationship with the “Burong

Merak” (= peacock).  He delighted in this soubriquet and successfully nurtured his own media image as a youthful cosmopolitan and energetically flamboyant maverick despite the fact that like Javanese farmers, he always went barefooted and usually dressed entirely in their faded black cotton garments anywhere “off- stage” and as a rule when on it. Indonesian thespians who were younger than he assumed that he was my junior. They called him “mas” (= “gold” as well as “big brother”) but categorised me with the dross of “oom” (=“Dutch uncle”).  Even so, among Indonesian sponsors of my graduate students, it was he who proved to be the most venerably avuncular and persuasively represented the interests of these sometimes difficult expatriates during his occasional formal visits to the Academy of Sciences (LIPI) with a charmingly elegant (alus) but sartorially flawless (rapi) professionalism. Should I now share the secret that he persuaded me 30 years ago (when Suharto’s junta refused him an exit permit) to smuggle his way an urgent consignment of not-so-flamboyant-black hair-dye? Never!

My disconnection from the internet in recent months because of travel spared me the sad news of the death until his Teater Bengkel (Workshop Theatre) unexpectedly contacted me during mid-October with some of the distressing details.  And I certainly was not insensitive in retrospect to the poignancy of my efforts in Europe during the interim to have striven to emulate the characteristic vivacity of Rendra’s own readings of his poetry with my own incomparably ersatz declamations but of course with no mention of his recent passing to any of my audiences. An even greater regret has become my inability to tell him how his work has recently helped me to recruit Western students to the study of his language. But it would be more important to him that teachers who have that responsibility should receive that message in which any doubt they may have that this is so will cease once they have tested the tried and proven pedagogical procedure I exemplify below.

Even so it will be interesting to see whether any of the cognoscenti will gainsay my certainty that Rendra was the most brilliant of the few Indonesian poets and playwrights who managed to emerge from and survive the suffocation of literary creativity for three decades under Suharto’s New Order (late 1960s- mid 1990s). The Smiling General’s regime banned any printing or performance of The Struggle of the Naga Tribe which through the structure of classical Javanese/Balinese shadow puppetry, satirised the royal court in the pseudonymous Astinam (read Indonesia) and hilariously pilloried the Queen (read Mrs Tien -“Ten Percent”- Suharto) as well as her ministers for their vanity, venality and vene …(read the American itches which his dalang, played by Rendra’s wife had all these puppets forever scratching).

His security guard of military police arrested him rather than his assailant when targeted by a bomber while reciting the even more satirical Snapshots of Development in Poetry to the thousands of roisterously applauding aficionados who packed Ismael Mazuki’s roofless Garden Theatre (TIM).  His prosecutors had to invoke a special Emergency Law that he had “provoked the attacker to violence” so that it was the terrorist in mufti who walked free while the poet went to gaol … And not for his longest stint … But what gets under my skin even years later, for nine eternally vermin-infecting months.

The former love lyricist’s originality in eliding the idioms with the sophistries of several languagesultimately defied Wordsworth’s (1800) narrowly effete definition that “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility (sic) and calls for recognition of the genius Rendra evinced through anything- but- tranquil articulation of authentic and indeed uniquely Indonesian cultural and political priorities in Western literary forms.  The poems he scripted as critiques of the New Order in his own handwriting for his lively readings from the stage became somewhat more than even the finest examples of that art by his most talented contemporaries (e.g. consider his protégé Emha, the theologically muscular Muslim bard).  It was indeed Rendra more than any other of these Indonesian scribblers who transformed the “ho-hum” convention ofCatholic schoolboy elocution at Dutch eisteddfods throughout the colonial Indies into modern Indonesia’s robustly intellectual and iconically political dramatic genre of deklamasi whose magnetism has packed the theatres of Asian capitals and of foreign universities whenever they have delivered to publics and whether domestically or overseas.

Top dissident musicians of the time who were no strangers to the limelights were glad to sit somewhere out there in the darkness before him at home in awe-stricken envy of his command over that ambience. They included glitterati of pop and folk such as Ebiet of country-and-western fame, Mogi Daroessman whom they called the “Neil Diamond of Indonesia” and Gombloh of Lemon Trees. The singers persuaded the declaimers to compose lyrics for them whenever possible as they imbibed the lesson that the thousands of typically illiterate but articulate Jakartans in the surrounding blackness would loudly relish a politically barbed stanza whenever Rendra fired it just as surely as these ghetto-dwellers would flinch at the sharp whiff of a real Betawi curry when a back-alley cook  stirred it : just a slight breath of salty blacan serrated the bite which hallmarked its own  perfection;  no need for these acolytes of Rendra to read some bit of paper like a recipe  to savour either; and no need for them to wear footwear to a  his recital if the price of cheapest thongs challenged their purchase of a ticket.

My tape-recordings vouch for Rendra’s remarkable propensity to draw volcanically creative spiritual energy from his largely barefooted audiences when he composed some of his most inflammatory verses. He would even create new stanzas spontaneously from behind the lectern amid his fire-and-brimstone barrages at the regime’s catechism of national commitment which prioritised ‘Development’ (Pembangunan) over ‘Freedom’ (Kemerdekaan); and the security of censorship over the public’s hunger to know (see below). During intervals in TIM’s dressing room he was genuinely inquisitive when he asked for someone to play back still-smoking lines he had just uttered but never yet read even to himself so that he could scribble them down notably for the first time and ask: “Did I say that or did you just make it up?”  (How I wished I had.)

The specific qualities which constitute Rendra’s artistic greatness also include the many ways with which he transcended cultural differences; for example, with the translingual pun which I understand is an anathema for literary purists.  The device helped him (deliberately?) to induce Western novices into an appreciation of Bahasa Indonesia and uncannily to speak that language sometimes before they even knew they were doing so.  As a mere taste of this magic, I invite the readers to reflect on at least their own whisper of a few lines which the paragraph after next will borrow from “Sajak Mata-mata”.  This “Ode to Spies” enlivens both Snapshots of Development in Poetry (Potret Pembangunan dalam Puisi, Balai Pusaka, 1978) and SOB (State of War and Siege, University of Queensland Press 1979).

Mourners at mortuary gatherings in Australia conventionally request one another to be upstanding and close their eyes to observe a collective silence in memory of the deceased.  I propose that we honour Rendra’s memory equally respectfully by the very opposite of silence and with pupils wide open on the world in rousing declamations of what he wrote even when those who are with us are not all Indonesian speakers. Teachers can do no better than follow his example in providing prospective students of Bahasa Indonesia with such tempting introductions as the following to the creative possibilities of lovingly moulding the clay of the language he mined as the basic material for his wordcrafting.

Consider for instance the duplication which is so well exemplified by a word whose root “mata” means “eye” and which in the internationally now familiar “Mata Hari “translates as “eye of the sky” (= “sun”).  As “mata2”, the root becomes an expression for “spy” or “spies”.  In recent months I have introduced my tributes for Rendra in Europe by drawing attention to that simple feature of Indonesian and then inviting my listeners to participate in an articulation of this poem by quietly voicing  the words “mutter, mutter” as a chorus to contextualize my own declamation from a faulty memory of the following  excerpts from “Sajak Mata2”.

I recalled that the opening stanza of his handwritten notes of which I had kept a few photocopies somewhere back in Australia, began with an allusion to Indonesian newspaper readers urinating provocative gossip on one another to substitute for the facts which the controlled press denied those in the political hierarchy’s lower echelons:

Ada suara gaduh di atas tanah. (aduh2)

Ada suara pi(s)sing kebawah tanah

Ada ucapan-ucapan kacau di antara rumah-rumah.

Ada tangis tak menentu di tengah sawah.

Dan, lho, ini di belakang saya

Ada tentara marah-marah.


 I encourage the continuation of the chant of “mutter, mutter” especially to accompany this fifth stanza about censorship and the expression of outrage that:

“……. Aku  tak tahu. Kamu tak tahu.

Tak ada yang tahu..Betapa kita akan tahu,

Kalau koran-koran ditekan sensor,

Dan mimbar-mimbar yang bebas telah dikontrol?

Koran-koran adalah penerusan mata kita.

Kini sudah diganti mata yang resmi.

Kita tidak lagi melihat kenyataan yang beragam.

Kita hanya diberi gambara model keadaan

yang sudah dijahit oleh penjahit resmi.



Mata rakyat sudah dicabut.”!!…oleh… ?


This italicized and highlighted initial line of the sixth stanza translates as

The eyes of the people have been “ripped out ” (like teeth) …by … ?

And the chorus answers with mutter, mutter “ which harmonises with the



So be it if Auden mused that “Poetry doesn’t (sic) make things happen….”(MascaraEditorial, November, 2009) when decades later on the other side of the globe Rendra’s  talents with ball-point and microphone panicked even the most menacing of the New Order’s managers into seriously self-damaging, political miscalculation under the relentless barrage not only of Rendra’s drama but also of his declamations. Peerless artistic qualities proofed them against competitive cover-up of malpractice by the junta throughout the social system. Remarkably, the contribution of this Indonesian scribbler to the cultural heritage of the oppressed in his country has probably become the best evidence which pundits may ever need to marshal that poetry really does matter (c.f. Parini, 2008).

Even if only a few critics (and Auden) never understood that truth as certainly as Rendra did, he has bequeathed future scholars with an obligation to analyse the chemistry of the breathtaking literary and thespian dynamite he used to achieve its realisation during his own lifetime.  Ma’afkan kenang2an saya yang begini syukurlah, mas; semoga berpulang dengan selamat!



Doug Miles (Centro In Contri Umani, Ascona Switzerland)





Mascara, (2009) Editorial, November,

Parini, J., (2008) Why Poetry Matters, New Haven, Yale UP

Rendra, W., (1978) The Struggle of The Naga Tribe (translated by Max Lane) Brisbane, University of Queensland Press

Rendra, W., (1978) Potret Pembangunan dalam Puisi, Jakarta, Balai Pusaka

Rendra W., (1979) SOB, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press

Wordsworth, W., (1800) “Observations Prefaced to Lyrical Ballads” in Harmon’s Classic Writings (pp. 279-296)