Oleh: Julia Suryakusuma
The Jakarta Post
Last week I went to see Opera Tan Malaka, which its author, Goenawan Mohamad, calls an "essay opera". I watched my first opera at the Budapest State Opera House, aged 8, and I still love it, so I was curious to know what an "essay opera" was, and to learn something about the man who inspired the whole thing.
Why Tan Malaka? He is usually considered a revolutionary hero, but I'm not sure why. A 20-year stint in exile left him a political outsider in Indonesia, and his life was fraught with failure. He was head of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) for three months (December 1921-February 1922), but they later came to hate him. In any case, he was soon arrested by the Dutch colonial government and exiled to Holland.
He went on to Germany, the USSR, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and only returned to Indonesia in 1942. There he formed the Murba Party in 1948, but that was somewhat of a flop as well, and he was shot dead in 1949 by Indonesian soldiers under mysterious circumstances.
Despite all these, Tan Malaka was officially declared a national hero by the People's Consultative Assembly in 1963.
Again, this is a bit weird, as he'd been imprisoned by president Sukarno from 1946 to 1948. Perhaps Sukarno, then increasingly cozying-up to the Left, needed a hero to support his "Nasakom" (nationalism-religion-communism) doctrine?
There weren't a lot of Communist heroes floating around, and Tan Malaka had conveniently been dead for 14 years, so maybe that's all there was to it.
In any case, Amir Sjarifuddin might have been a better choice for an opera romanticizing Indonesian revolutionary heroes. Sjarifuddin was a Marxist, like Tan Malaka, but unlike him, he was one of the first leaders of the republic, holding positions as Cabinet minister and even prime minister, but never declared a hero (heavens, he was executed as a communist rebel!) His life was no less controversial, and at least he lived in Indonesia!
Despite somehow remaining a national hero through the Soeharto era (1966-1998) when most other communists were dead or demonized, Tan Malaka was largely erased from history books.
Now he's made a Reformasi "comeback" as a revolutionary cult figure. Like Che Guevara, he's become "sexy"!
Another national hero who has long been hot political stuff is Raden Ayu Kartini (1879-1904) who recently just turned 136! She was declared a national heroine for pioneering women's emancipation. People unquestioningly celebrate her birthday on April 21 every year, despite her achieving virtually none of her noble aspirations.
In fact, some historians see her as a Dutch creation. She lived at a time when the colonial government was implementing its "Ethical Policy" in the East Indies.
As a Javanese aristocrat aspiring to a Dutch education, she was a convenient icon for them - much more so than a real rebel.
What about Tjoet Nyak Dien (1848-1908), for example? She was a feisty Acehnese noblewoman, who led armies against the Dutch for decades. She was made a national heroine in 1964, so why wasn't her birthday chosen to commemorate women's emancipation?
Simple: She wasn't Javanese, and she didn't compromise, whereas Kartini, for all the great ideas in her widely read letters, is the perfect icon for Indonesian women, who are expected always to compromise. After all, that is what Kartini did when she became the fourth wife of Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, the regent of Rembang, despite her vehement opposition to polygamy.
These two case studies are good reminders that our heroes are usually heavily constructed with politics in mind.
And that's true for holy figures too. There's a whole website devoted to debunking Gandhi (Mohandas Gandhi Truth) and a new book by Joseph Lelyveld entitled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, which portrays him as a bigoted racist, a sex maniac and pervert.
Another author, G.B. Singh, says in Gandhi: Behind the Myth of Divinity, that his image as a great leader was "the work of the Hindu propaganda machine" and Christian clergy with ulterior motives".
Pretty controversial stuff, and you may not accept it all, but it does suggest the movie Gandhi may have been gilding the lily a bit!
Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama have also been subjected to the same treatment. Some of the stuff you find on the Internet is gob-smacking if it is true.
Again, this may not be what you want, but we shouldn't just accept our heroes and saints as they are served up by the powers-that-be.
The point is that there are two kinds of history: academic and ideological. Academic historians are fussy and annoying. They try to dig up facts, to get to the multi-layered, complex, sometimes contradictory "truth". Most of us prefer the much simpler and more satisfying myths propagated by the people who rule us.
Trouble is, this means we miss chances to learn from the realities and human foibles of our (usually deeply flawed) heroes.
That leaves us trusting in the next "superman" or "superwoman" who comes along promising to save us all and fix everything, and we end up paying for it for years after every election!
When next someone makes another opera about a revolutionary hero, why don't they just make it an imaginary one? That way, we can focus on assessing the art form, and not worry about political controversies!