W.S. Rendra (1935-2009): Dissident in the wind

By Max Lane

On August 6, Wahyu Sulaiman Rendra, Indonesia’s greatest dramatist and most influential poet, died in Jakarta, aged 74. More than a thousand people, mostly villagers but also intellectuals, attended his funeral on August 7 at his home and theatre group centre, Bengkel Teater, outside Jakarta. There would have been few people in Indonesia who had not heard of or seen Rendra on stage or in one of the movies in which he appeared.

Rendra began his career as a poet in the 1950s writing romantic, erotic and semi-sacrilegious religious poetry. He soon found himself aligned with the writers opposed to the rapidly growing organised left. His own poems, especially those with erotic content, were criticised by the left in a period where mainstream socialist politics was still influenced by Stalinist puritanism.

Rendra’s own experience, however, eventually separated him from the spectrum of anti-left writers with which he was initially aligned. In 1964, when the left–right conflict in the Indonesian arts was starting to sharpen, he left to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ New York campus. While his peers became more deeply involved in the campaign against the Indonesian left and either participated in or supported the violent suppression and massacres of the left in 1965, Rendra was becoming immersed in the bohemian culture of New York City in the 1960s.

When he returned to Indonesia in 1967, he still associated with his anti-left artistic friends, but his own poems and his new dramas, rapidly diverged from the dominant right-wing discourse. By the 1970s, he was at the forefront of providing a political critique with a distinct left-wing character of General Suharto’s dictatorship, emphasising class polarisation and exploitation, anti-capitalist ideas and opposition to foreign economic exploitation and domination of Indonesia. In addition to his brilliant and oratorical use of metaphor, his plays were renowned for their comic genius and satire. His landmark play of 1975, Perjuangan Suku Naga (The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, published in English in 1979), was criticised by some of his colleagues for echoing the “propagandistic style” of the Communist pamphleteers of the pre-1965 period. He responded by writing a brilliant collection of political poetry, which he reproduced and distributed in handwritten form, entitled Pamflet Penyair (A Poet’s Pamphlets).

He worked closely with the anti-dictatorship student movements that surged in 1973-74 and again in 1978. He was arrested and detained for almost a year after a rousing poetry reading before thousands of supporters in 1978. Solidarity protests demanding his release took place around the world, including in Australia, where they were organised by the Campaign Against Repression in the Pacific and Asia (CARPA).

While being the primary articulator of anti-dictatorship and anti-injustice ideas in the 1970s, Rendra remained deeply suspicious of attempts to build permanent or structured institutions for protest and always attempted to stand outside them. He held strongly to the view that a poet must be a “voice from the wind”, untied to any organised force of practical politics. He remained very prolific and produced some wonderful poems and dramatic performances in the 1980s and ‘90s, but his role in the protest movement was not as central to its leadership as it had been in the 1970s. Sometimes his supporters and admirers on the left would be disappointed when he seized the opportunity to use the platform of a right-wing politician, polemicised against writers on the left or worked with wealthy impresarios. His basic political stance against injustice, foreign capitalist exploitation and dictatorship never waned however. In assessing where he stood, perhaps his poetry speaks best of all:

Yes !
There are those triumphant, those who are humiliated
Those with weapons, those with wounds
There are those who sit, and those who are sat upon
Those with abundance, those from whom so much has been taken
And we ask here:
“for whom are your good intentions?
On whose side do you stand?”

(from “Poem of the Students Meeting”, 1977)

Indonesia will not be the same without his confident and full-of-life personality, without both his political and other poetry, his massive impact on theatre — he trained many of the country’s actors and theatre workers — and without his political courage and consistency.