In His Own Words: Sardono Reflects on Diponegoro

Diponegoro is a performance that reconstructs Prince Diponegoro’s journey that sparked off what became known as the War of Diponegoro (1825-1830). The wide support of the people, the large number of victims, the huge costs, and the charismatic leadership of Diponegoro make this war one of Indonesia’s most popular symbols of resistance. The War of Diponegoro resulted in great changes to the pattern and structure of the Dutch colonial system, and brought about a new dimension to the fighting spirit of the people.

Although this performance is centred around the personal life of Prince Diponegoro, the social and cultural context of the era is the main focus of the work. The interpretation, division of scenes, and dialogue attempt to adhere as closely as possible to the documentation available on this subject, as found in various chronicles, diaries, and iconographies.

The primary source for the story was the Ngayogyakarta version of the Diponegoro Chronicle. This manuscript, written in Pegon script (Javanese rendered in Arabic characters), comprises 4804 strophes amounting to no fewer than 800 pages. It is an autobiography of Prince Diponegoro himself. The Chronicle was partly dictated to a colleague and partly written by Diponegoro’s own hand, at his place of exile in Menado, Sulawesi as the prince approached his fiftieth birthday.

One third of this manuscript is about the history of Java prior to the birth of Prince Diponegoro, describing vividly the social and cultural background of Javanese society at that time. The remaining two thirds address Diponegoro’s personal life and the situation of his era, including the war, his arrest, and subsequently his exile to Menado. As an autobiography, this manuscript is filled with a variety of nuances concerning a search for self-identity, cultural conflict, theological contemplations, and an attempt to develop social awareness.

Diponegoro creatively places myth along with his expectations and convictions in a symbolic form, later formulated as his self-identity and fighting spirit. In turn, Ratu Kidul (the Queen of the South Sea) and Walisongo (nine religious leaders), Arjuna and Mahdi, De Kock and Surobrojo, colonial rule and the holy war all appear as symbolic figures with each representing their own cultural circles. Social events and natural phenomena are portrayed poetically and often with double meaning. The main storyline of this manuscript uses a style akin to that of Javanese shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit).

The legendary painting by Raden Saleh entitled The Arrest of Diponegoro provides an important iconographic reference from which the visual ideas of this performance took form. This painting, completed in 1857, is a replication of the incident of Diponegoro’s arrest at the home of the Resident of Magelang on the morning of the 28 March 1830. This same event had previously been painted by the Dutch artist, Nicolaas Fieneman, but it appears that Raden Saleh provided a deconstruction of Dutch accounts of this historical event. With his technical skills, Raden Saleh created a distortion of the anatomy of the figures in the painting, reminding us of Indonesia’s flattened wooden puppet figures (wayang golek). He states his own political position clearly by painting his own face as one of Prince Diponegoro’s followers and vividly capturing the sorrow and drama of the arrest.

It can be said that the Diponegoro Chronicle and the painting of Diponegoro’s arrest are both authentic historical and visual representations, and a form of cultural resistance dating from the time when Dutch colonialism was at its peak.

The performance of my work Diponegoro is an attempt to portray the journey of Prince Diponegoro – his personal journey and his struggle, reinterpreted choreographically.

Sardono W. Kusumo