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Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales

Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales

by Laurie J. Sears, Laurie J. Sears, Sears

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Shadows of Empire explores Javanese shadow theater as a staging area for negotiations between colonial power and indigenous traditions. Charting the shifting boundaries between myth and history in Javanese Mahabharata and Ramayana tales, Laurie J. Sears reveals what happens when these stories move from village performances and palace manuscripts into


Shadows of Empire explores Javanese shadow theater as a staging area for negotiations between colonial power and indigenous traditions. Charting the shifting boundaries between myth and history in Javanese Mahabharata and Ramayana tales, Laurie J. Sears reveals what happens when these stories move from village performances and palace manuscripts into colonial texts and nationalist journals and, most recently, comic books and novels. Historical, anthropological, and literary in its method and insight, this work offers a dramatic reassessment of both Javanese literary/theatrical production and Dutch scholarship on Southeast Asia.
Though Javanese shadow theater (wayang) has existed for hundreds of years, our knowledge of its history, performance practice, and role in Javanese society only begins with Dutch documentation and interpretation in the nineteenth century. Analyzing the Mahabharata and Ramayana tales in relation to court poetry, Islamic faith, Dutch scholarship, and nationalist journals, Sears shows how the shadow theater as we know it today must be understood as a hybrid of Javanese and Dutch ideas and interests, inseparable from a particular colonial moment. In doing so, she contributes to a re–envisioning of European histories that acknowledges the influence of Asian, African, and New World cultures on European thought—and to a rewriting of colonial and postcolonial Javanese histories that questions the boundaries and content of history and story, myth and allegory, colonialism and culture.
Shadows of Empire will appeal not only to specialists in Javanese culture and historians of Indonesia, but also to a wide range of scholars in the areas of performance and literature, anthropology, Southeast Asian studies, and postcolonial studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Shadows of Empire casts new light on the history of Java and analyzes historiographical method in the light of theoretical developments in the study of colonial history. Its emphasis on shadow theatre as text, as performance, and as oral tradition makes an important new contribution.”—Jean Gelman Taylor, University of New South Wales

“A challenging book. Laurie Sears provides a wide range of provocative insights into Javanese and colonial culture and a radical rethinking about the wayang as a major area for the negotiation of power relationships between the Javanese and the Dutch.”—Amin Sweeney, University of California, Berkeley

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Shadows of Empire

Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales

By Laurie J. Sears

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9804-2


Hearing Islamic Voices in "Hindu-Javanese" Tales

Ki Cabolek said: "I first embraced mystical knowledge in Yemen, when I studied / under a teacher, whose name was Ki Shaikh Zain, / the doctrine he taught was simialr to that of Dewa Ruci; / that was the mystical knowledge passed on [to me] / which was similar to Bhima Suci." —Yasadipura I

If myth is the form in which truth is miraculously revealed in the domain of Eastern spirituality, then it is myth that must be affirmed and the quibbles of a skeptical rationalism declared out of bounds.—Partha Chatterjee

To hear Islamic voices in Javanese Ramayana and Mahabharata tales, this chapter focuses on several discursive moments in the web and flow of wayang stories when particular densities of beliefs and symbols coalesce to reveal new textual authorities. The study of power within societal and historical narratives has been enriched over the past decades by Michel Foucault's interest in intellectual genealogies as points of analytical access to the discourses—what it was possible to think—in a certain age. Foucault was concerned with how different discourses came into being and who could appropriate such discourses for his or her own purposes. Foucault's description of the movements of power in society is especially useful.

Power's condition of possibility ... must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty from which secondary and descendent forms would emanate; it is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable.

These continually unfolding local and unstable relations of power constitute narrative traditions like wayang tales as sites of contestation and accommodation in the search to hear new voices of authority in specific story cycles. Exploring these local sites allows us to see the absorption and appropriation of imported religious, intellectual, or technological ideas as creative acts with unpredictable consequences. Rather than proposing that Javanese poets or performers were compelled by powerful patrons to incorporate new symbols and ideas into their stories, I suggest that they chose to adopt and adapt new concepts because these concepts allowed them to accrue cultural capital while introducing intellectual tensions that enhanced their art. In this chapter, I trace the emergence of Islamic ideas in Javanese Mahabharata and Ramayana stories by examining particular poetic and narrative texts from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later chapters continue the focus on the adoption and adaptation of new ideas and technologies as the shadow theatre and its stories became sites of interpretative struggles in colonial and postcolonial Javanese society.

Time, Narrative, Event

The seventeenth century was a turbulent period in Javanese history. Historical texts—both Javanese and Dutch—tell how early in the century Sultan Agung (r. 1613-46), a strong and ruthless ruler who had received the Islamic title of Sultan from Mecca, inherited the throne of Mataram. He was able to consolidate the power of the kingdom by crushing the thriving port cities of the north coast. Constant warfare marked the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as the descendants of Agung fought to keep volatile regional princes under the Mataram state's control. To complicate matters, a new political actor had appeared on the scene in the seventeenth century: the Dutch East India Company (VOC), headquartered on the far western tip of Java, vied for economic dominance and maritime control over the north coast of Java. At this point in Javanese history, the Dutch Company was just another regional power hoping to continue its economic activities despite the wars of succession that were ravaging Java. The VOC wanted peace so that trade could flourish; the Company had little intention of ruling Java.

It was Agung's son, Amangkurat I (r. 1646-77), and then his grandson Amangkurat II (r. 1677-1703), who first turned to the VOC in 1677 for help in restoring their authority over regional leaders and unruly peasants in Central Java. With Dutch aid, Amangkurat II was barely able to get his kingdom back from the rebellious Madurese prince Trunadjaja; in return for this aid, the ruler had to promise to deliver great quantities of rice to the VOC. When the VOC realized that the court treasury was bankrupt, they demanded that Amangkurat II temporarily surrender the lucrative seaports of the north coast of Java, the pasisir, to the Dutch until his debt could be paid. This loss of the pasisir seaports was to become permanent in 1744. More war and rebellion brought more debt and allowed for the continuing Dutch presence in the affairs of Central Java. Finally, on his deathbed in 1749, Susuhunan Pakubuwana II supposedly ceded his entire kingdom of Mataram to the Dutch.

Although the noted historian of this period M. C. Ricklefs finds little support for those who argue that Pakubuwana II may only have intended to give his kingdom to the Dutch temporarily, Javanese ideas of ruler and ruled suggested that he wished the Dutch to watch over the kingdom until it could be safely turned over to his heirs. Power in Java at that time was dependent upon "men and gunpowder," and the Dutch were in no better position to control Java through military means than the other contenders for the throne. In fact, the treaty of 1749 meant little and the VOC'S position as the eighteenth century drew to a close was exceedingly precarious. The VOC was financially weak and its armed forces understaffed and prone to illness. The Dutch Company could not have been more than an overseer of Javanese affairs, and perhaps that is just what the dying Pakubuwana II wanted.

Von Hohendorff, the Dutch Governor of Java's northeast coast (r. 1748-54), proceeded to install the late ruler's son, Pakubuwana III (r. 1749-88), as the new sovereign of Mataram with the understanding that the new ruler was ascending to power as a vassal of the Dutch East India Company and not through his own rights of inheritance. Meanwhile Mangkubumi, Pakubuwana II'S younger brother, had rebelled and was finally subdued and paid off by the Dutch with an allotment of land to the southwest in the area to be known as Yogyakarta. Mangkubumi had the backing of princes and court officials who had fled from the court of the dying Susuhunan to join Mangkubumi and proclaim him the new heir to the throne. Since elite consensus was one of the legitimizing forces that supported the rulers of Java, Mangkubumi had as much if not greater claim to the kingdom of Mataram than the Dutch-supported Pakubuwana III. The warfare continued, and finally, in 1755, with neither party able to claim victory on the battlefield, the Dutch oversaw the partition of Java between Susuhunan Pakubuwana in of Surakarta and his uncle Sultan Hamengkubuwana I (Mangkubumi, r. 1749-92) of Yogyakarta. Mas Said, or Mangkunagara I (r. 1757-95) as he came to be known, was a third contender for power in Central Java as a nephew of both the late Pakubuwana n and Mangkubumi; he was destined to become the first ruler of the house of Mangkunagara, the minor court of Surakarta. Two years later he laid down his arms, contented himself with a sizable portion of the kingdom of Surakarta, and submitted to the VOC, the Susuhunan of Surakarta, and the Sultan of Yogyakarta.

The VOC was certainly pleased with the cessation of warfare in Central Java. They saw division of the kingdom, which their presence made possible, as the only way to keep the Javanese states from draining the Company's economic energy and military capabilities. None of the four recognized contenders for power in Central Java—the Susuhunan, the Sultan, the Mangkunagara, or the VOC—could militarily prevail over the others, making warfare an impractical means for attaining political goals. Although the Dutch saw the division of Java as the permanent solution to the Javanese governmental situation, the Javanese rulers saw the division as a temporary solution and assumed that in the future Java would again be reunited under one ruler.

As peace returned to Java in 1757 after centuries of warfare, the Sultan and the Susuhunan were able to devote their energies to acquiring the necessary accoutrements of power: collecting royal heirlooms (pusaka), writing court chronicles and poetry, and erecting their royal palaces. When one of the Susuhunan's wives finally gave birth to a legitimate heir in 1768, both Hamengkubuwana I (Mangkubumi) and Mangkunagara I (Mas Said) were forced to accept the possibility that neither of them would inherit the throne of their nephew, the Susuhunan of Solo. Over the next thirty years, the political situation in Central Java was filled with intrigue and suspicion as the VOC drew nearer to bankruptcy. In their role as mediators between the Sultan and the Susuhunan, the Dutch oversaw the succession of the Crown Prince in Surakarta in 1788. Although the Dutch could not claim power in Central Java for themselves, they could, by their presence, insure that the Javanese kingdoms could not reunite under one ruler. It is at this tense moment of Javanese-Dutch interaction that one begins to see, albeit through imperial eyes, the ways in which stories of rival kingdoms and foreign ogre kings fitted into the histories and myths of Central Java.

Narratives of War and Empire

In what some Indian and European scholars have considered the master narrative of the innumerable waves in the Mahabharata ocean of stories, two sides of the same family spend many years fighting over the rights to the kingdom of Ngastina. Although the father of the ninety-nine Korawa brothers, and one sister, was the eldest son of the last legitimate ruler, he was born blind and thus the succession passed to his younger brother Pandu. Pandu had five sons through divine intervention and then died, leaving the kingdom back in the hands of his blind older brother, who was supposed to act as regent until Pandu's sons came of age. When the virtuous sons of Pandu reached maturity, they were deprived of their rights to the kingdom of Ngastina by their Korawa cousins, who believed that the kingdom was rightfully theirs.

After repeated treachery at the hands of their cousins, the Pandhawa are finally given a portion of the kingdom—a tract of land that must be reclaimed from the tropical forest by burning. The Pandhawa clear the land and build their new kingdom of Ngamarta. Although animosity remains between the cousins, for a time they each rule their individual kingdoms in a precarious accommodation marked by intrigue and suspicion.

One of the most popular tales to be situated within this moment of accommodation before the fratricidal Bratayuda War between the Pandhawa and Korawa is the shadow play story known as Kilat Buwana (Lightning of the World). The story tells of the strange priest named Kilat Buwana, who appears at the court of Ngastina. The mysterious priest has a plan to reunite the Pandhawa and Korawa so that the Bratayuda War, which will decide the future fate of the kingdom, will not have to take place. Kilat Buwana convinces the Korawa court of his mystical powers and converts them to his new plan. The Pandhawa appear at the court of Ngastina to collaborate with the Korawa and their new advisor Kilat Buwana. Kresna is then summoned to the court of Ngastina as the Pandhawa tell Kilat Buwana that they cannot agree to anything until their loyal ally and god incarnate Kresna gives his approval. When Kresna arrives, he debates with Kilat Buwana. Kresna demands to know on what basis Kilat Buwana thinks he can put off the Bratayuda; the Bratayuda has been preordained by the gods. After his brilliant defense of the need for the Bratayuda War to be fought, Kresna storms out of the court of Ngastina.

Kilat Buwana is not put off; he demands an offering in order for his new plan to work—the blood of the royal Pandhawa servant Semar and, in some tellings, Kresna. Arjuna, the third and most popular of the five Pandhawa brothers—or occasionally his son Abimanyu—is chosen to kill the loyal and wise Semar, who is really a powerful god and older brother of the god Siwa. Semar submits but asks to be burned. Arjuna reappears at the court of Ngastina with Semar's ashes. Kilat Buwana receives a challenge from an unknown prince. Kilat Buwana fights with the prince, who turns out to be the recently cremated Semar in his godly (bagus) form. Semar chastises Kilat Buwana, who turns out to be his younger brother—and the high god—Siwa. Siwa says that the whole episode was ordained by the gods to test the purity and strength of the Pandhawa. The Pandhawa and Korawa realize that there is no way to reconcile their differences; the necessity for the Bratayuda to be fought in the future is strengthened.

In this story, Kilat Buwana, the disguised god-priest, demands the death of Kresna and Semar as the requirement for canceling the Bratayuda War. In Javanese mythology, the gods have given King Kresna, incarnation of the god Wisnu, the responsibility of insuring that the Bratayuda War takes place. The gods have given Semar, the clown-servant cum powerful god, the duty of maintaining peace and protecting the Javanese kings. Semar and Kresna serve as the special protectors of the Pandhawa, leading them to the moment when they will defeat their ignoble cousins in the Bratayuda War.

By opposing the reunification of Ngastina and Ngamarta and reinforcing the necessity for the Bratayuda to be fought, Kresna's actions in these stories might reflect in an uncanny way the political division of the Kingdoms of Solo and Yogyakarta and the increasing Dutch hegemony. By the late eighteenth century, most Central Javanese rulers and nobles had come to accept as permanent the division of Mataram into the rival courts of Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta (Yogya). The young Solonese ruler Pakubuwana IV in 1790 and, thirty-five years later, Dipanagara, the Yogyanese grandson of Hamengkubuwana II, destined to lead the Javanese against the Dutch in the Java War of 1825-30, were the last two Javanese rulers to have attempted a reunification of the Javanese realm.

In the Kilat Buwana story, whose various tellings and retellings are today still performed all over Central Java, the ways in which the division of Java under Dutch control entered into Javanese myth and history become perceptible. In the Mahabharata tales of Central Java, poets and puppeteers may have believed that the Bratayuda War had to take place, but lakon (plays) that enacted the horrible events of the war were approached very cautiously by performers, if they were performed at all. The historical narratives had their reflections in the repertoire of the Central Javanese shadow theatre. Since the division of the historical realm into the rival kingdoms of Surakarta and Yogyakarta seemed increasingly permanent, these shadow tales of rival kingdoms—related through strong blood lines—seemed an apt metaphor for the tensions between Yogya and Solo. Each wayang lakon also introduced in almost every performance an ogre kingdom where demonic foreign kings attempted to attack Ngamarta or Ngastina and carry off their beautiful princesses. As the stories mirrored the very tangible tensions between Solo and Yogya—or alternatively between the Kraton and the Mangkunagaran in Solo itself—and the Dutch, the Bratayuda War of the narrative tradition became the logical conclusion in both mythological and historical futures. New stories that took place in the period when the Pandhawa lived in their kingdom of Ngamarta and the Korawa resided in Ngastina expanded the time period between the division of the mythological kingdom of Ngastina and the bloody, fratricidal war that would eventually reunify the kingdom. In the historical realm—and chapter 3 will show the intricate weavings of wayang stories and Javanese histories—the war that was needed to reunite the real Javanese kingdom of Mataram receded into a distant future. This offers one explanation for why it is considered so dangerous to perform the stories of the Bratayuda War in Central Java; if verbal art recorded or mirrored reality, the portrayal of these events might cause them to happen.

But this innocent accounting of Javanese stories as a way to harmonize historical and mythical narratives leaves out the important way in which these popular myths gave the Dutch a legitimate role in Java. Although chronicles that relate histories of late seventeenth and eighteenth century Java suggest that Javanese rulers used VOC support to enhance their power, the Dutch benefitted most from the division of the kingdom. The Dutch were also the ones who wished to insure that this division was maintained. By keeping the Javanese divided, through a variety of means, the Dutch strengthened their position as the rulers of Java despite the small number of Dutch soldiers and administrators in Java. The Dutch, in fact, presented themselves as the only ones able to keep the Javanese from falling back into the constant state of warfare that filled the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries.


Excerpted from Shadows of Empire by Laurie J. Sears. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Laurie J. Sears is Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington. She is editor of Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, also published by Duke University Press.

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