R. A. Kartini’s brilliant brother: R.M.P. Sosrokartono

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Raden Mas Panji Sosrokartono. Photo credit: unknown, public domain.

IO – In understanding Raden Ajeng Kartini, Indonesia’s womens emancipator, it is interesting to look at one of the strongest male influences in her life, namely her older brother Raden Mas Panji Sosrokartono. He was an extremely unusual, highly intelligent figure with a very strongly independent mind who was descended from a long line of extraordinarily intelligent and capable men. Sosrokartono was a very sensitive person talented not only in languages but also known as a gifted healer.

Often looking at their background and family helps us to understand a person somewhat better. Sosrokartono was born into an aristocratic family on the 10th of April 1877 in the Mayong district of the Jepara Regency in Central Java. For Indonesians mountains are important and can have an almost mystical significance but so can the magical and powerful sea. The area where Sosrokartono was born had both. Close to Jepara is Mount Muria which was once separate from Java but slowly through a process of silt building up from rivers to the sea became a part of the island of Java. Mount Muria is a place of pilgrimage and known as the place of a thousand sacred graves. The grave of Sunan Muria is located at its peak. He was one of the Nine Guardians who propagated Islam in Java and helped spread it along Java’s north coast among rural people whom he taught agriculture and fisheries.

He is also remembered for using traditional arts such as tembang macapat for his evangelical work. This was in line with the evangelical philosophy of his father Sunan Kalijaga who used culture and arts such as wayang, batik, sculpture and poetry which were very popular in Java, for spreading the new Islamic beliefs. This is very much in line with Sufism which was the form of Islam that first spread to Indonesia.

Sunan Muria came from an impeccable Muslim background from the time of Islam’s early advent into Java. Just as he was himself, his father Sunan Kalijaga, was also one of the Nine Guardians of Islam; whereas his mother was the sister of another of the nine guardians namely, Sunan Giri. Sunan Muria’s grandfather was Maulana Ishak, the celebrated Islamic scholar from Pasai whose brother (Sunan Muria’s great-uncle) was the pioneer of Islam in Java, Sunan Ampel. Two of Sunan Ampel’s children were also amongst the Nine Guardians or Wali Songo who spread Islam in Java.

Pilgrimages to the Muria cemetery complex known as nyekar are to this day carried out to obtain blessings, safety, help in one’s life, knowledge, healing for sickness and the blessings of the ancestors. Sekar means literally flower or bloom and the word probably derives from pilgrims bringing flowers to the graves of the dead and most likely has its roots in ancient Indonesian traditions of animism and ancestor worship.

This was the background and atmosphere in which Sosrokartono was born and raised as a child. An environment of religious belief and spirituality where Islamic beliefs were strong but the ancient beliefs and practices of Java were also strong. It no doubt influenced the later development of his powers of healing through prayers.

Pangeran Aryo Adipati Tjondronegoro IV. Photo credit: University of Leiden. Public Domain.

Sosrokartono’s grandfather, Pangeran Aryo Tjondronegoro IV was another extraordinary figure who was appointed Bupati of Kudus replacing his father in 1836. He is said to have been descended in a straight line from Brawijaya V who was the last ruler of Hindu Mataram before it fell to Demak. The Prince was a highly intelligent man who was extraordinarily good at solving problems in the kabupaten during the very difficult and ruthless period of the cultuurstelsel or forced cultivation system. In the 1850s as a result of his outstanding abilities when Demak experienced famine he was made Bupati of Demak in the hope that he would be able to help solve the problems in Demak including problems related to flooding which he solved by building the Kali Tuntang Canal.

Pangeran Aryo Tjondronegoro IV was a very progressive-minded figure who knew the value of education in order to obtain access to the science and technology of the West. The first schools opened by the Dutch for native Indonesians were only open to native aristocrats in 1848. The Prince managed to place his sons in the Dutch Primary School known as ELS or Europese Lagere School. In fact these schools were only supposed to be open for European children. However, an exception was made for very high ranking native aristocrats. Once his sons had graduated from the ELS Tjondronegoro IV was at a loss as to how to continue their education. So, in 1861 he was the Indonesian regent to procure a governess whom he brought in from Holland to teach his sons further so that they would be Western educated and fluent in Dutch. Consequently, of his five sons, four of them became bupatis or regents namely, Rahadian Prawoto (later Tjondronegoro V) became the Bupati of Brebes, Rahecaadian Purboningrat became the Bupati of Semarang, Rahadian Samingun became the Bupati of Jepara and Rahadian Hadiningrat who was later the Bupati of Demak. Raden Mas Aryo Adipati Sosrodiningrat, his son who became the bupati of Jepara was Kartini and Sosrokartono’s father who was fluent in Dutch and the first aristocrat to allow his daughters some Dutch schooling. Their father married their mother, Mas Ajeng Ngasirah in 1872. Although their father married her first she was not his foremost wife for she was not of the same rank. She was not an aristocrat but the daughter of a religious teacher Kyai Modirono with Nyai Siti Aminah. So, Kartini and Sosrokartono’s mother was not their father’s main wife.

From all this we can conclude that Sosrokartono was descended from a long line of highly intelligent and capable rulers used to adjusting to and dealing with the challenges and changes brought about by globalisation. His family which could still trace its lineage back to the rulers of Hindu Mataram had had to face the transformation to Islam and still later to Dutch rule. Furthermore, we also know that Sosrokartono was brought up in a very Islamic environment, with Sufi traditions where healing was long a part of the belief system and practise.

Kartini and Sosorokartono’s father, Raden Mas Aryo Adipati Sosrodiningrat by an unknown photographer. Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Sosrokartono’s father Raden Mas Aryo Adipati Sosrodiningrat was the Bupati of Jepara and also a modern progressive. Like his father, Sosrokartono was sent to the ELS and from there to the HBS (Hoogere Burgerschool) or secondary school. There were only three HBS schools in Indonesia namely in Semarang, Batavia and Surabaya. Sosrokartono was sent to the one in Semarang so he only saw his sister Kartini during holidays. He had a very warm and supportive relationship with his sister and he was the one who kept her supplied with books and magazines choosing material that he felt would help develop her mind and spirit. He introduced her to both feminism as well as the French Revolution with its legacy from the Age of Enlightenment of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

Sosrokartono was sent first to the Polytechnische School Delft or Delft Polytechnic (in 1905 it became the Delft Institute of Technology and later the University of Technology of Delft) in 1897. This made him the first Indonesian to be sent to study to the Netherlands (if we do not count Raden Saleh who was sent to study painting). In Delft he studied water irrigation, a very important subject in Java but after two years he realized that he was simply not suited to technology and moved to the Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte or Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the University of Leiden.

However, in order to pass the entrance exams for Leiden he had to pass the exams for Latin and Greek, two subjects that were not taught at the HBS in Netherlands Indies. For most people it would have taken at least two years to study Latin and Greek sufficiently to pass the exams but Sosrokartono with his incredible skill at languages was able to do so within 6 months – and passed very well at that. While he was at Leiden he was also made a member of the prestigious KITLV or Koninlijke Instituut voor Taal-land en Vokenkunde or Royal Institute for Linguistics, Geography and Anthropology. There he assisted two important researchers. The first was the explorer and researcher Gerret Pieter Rouffaer who was also the deputy secretary of the KITLV and wrote the seminal work on batik. The second was H.H. Juynboll who was the director of the Ethnographical Museum in Leiden. His research was mainly about the language and literature of ancient Java.

Raden Ajeng Kartini. Sosrokartono was her blood brother from the same mother and father. Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Sosrokartono passed his doctoral exams in languages at Leiden although he did not finish his thesis. He proved himself to be a polyglot who could speak an extraordinary number of languages and after graduating became a journalist. He was the war correspondent for the New York Herald during the First World War and had a great scoop when he was the first to obtain news of the contents of the Treaty of Versailles. Afterwards he became a lead translator for the League of Nations from 1919 till 1921.

He spent 29 years in Europe before deciding to return to Indonesia. One of the reasons he returned was because beside his many talents Sosrokartono found that he was able to heal people. One day the son of a friend became ill and the doctors were unable to heal him. Sosrokartono sat with the boy and was able to heal him through prayers and meditation. After that he tried to enrol in the Department of Psychometri and Psychotechnic at the University of Sorbonne however, only medical doctors were allowed to enrol in the courses and he was not a medical doctor. Nevertheless, with the right letters of recommendation he was allowed to sit in and listen to the lectures and take notes. He was merely not allowed to sit the exams and obtain a degree.

After returning to Indonesia he settled in Bandung. He understood very well how important education was and in Bandung he became involved in establishing the Taman Siswa with Ki Hadjar Dewantoro. The educated elite of Indonesia very quickly realized that education was the magic key that opened the doors not only to better work and a more prestigious position in society but that it was the way for Indonesians to unite and to take back their islands. They also understood that many, many more schools were needed in order for this to happen. In Java a movement was begun known as Taman Siswa  with the aim of opening schools by native Indonesians which would be an alternative to and on a par with Dutch government schools. Sosrokartono agreed with this program whole heartedly. In fact, in 1899 he was able to meet with the candidate for next governor general and he pleaded with him for more education for Indonesians. Ki Hadjar Dewantoro began the Taman Siswa movement in 1922 and when Sosrokartono returned in 1925 he helped pioneer it. He was also involved in political activities and consequently, came under the watchful eye of the Dutch authorities.

The first meeting for the establishment of the Mulo and secondary school of the Taman Siswa in Bandung. The figure in white wearing Javanese headdress appears to be R.M.P. Sosrokartono. Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides his educational activities Sosrokartono also established a practice to help those with problems or who were unwell either physically or psychologically. His practice was called Daroesalam which means abode of peace and is one of the spheres of heaven in the Muslim religion. Mirta Kartohadiprodjo, president director of Femina magazine still remembers as a small girl of six or seven years of age being taken by her mother to visit Sosrokartono in the early 1950s. “I was frightened as a little girl when my mother took me to visit him because he lived in a big old house made of wood and bilik (bamboo matting). It rested on wooden stilts and we had to climb up. As its walls were of bilik as was also the floor it therefore shook and there was a great creaking sound whenever we entered. It was very unstable and that worried me. By that time Sosrokartono was also very old and had had what I suspect was a stroke for he spoke in a very slurred manner. I could not understand him as he spoke to my mother in Javanese.

On the table in front of him – which seemed enormous to a little girl, there were all sorts of stones. I was told by my mother that the stones originated from volcanoes all over Indonesia such as for example Mount Semeru and Mount Merapi… My mother told me that they appeared of their own accord. She said that it was as if they were simply thrown into his garden or house – I don’t quite remember which. They were mystical stones.

Sosrokartono helped people who were not well. Some were physically ill while others had psychological or spiritual problems. Sosrokartono helped them through the medium of prayers and water. It was called air alif or alif water. Alif is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. I do not know whether he drew that letter alif on a paper himself or whether he had small papers with the letter alif already printed on it. He would place these either in or over the water and then prayed over it. Later the water was given to his patients to drink. It would sooth and heal you.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part II of the article by the same writer:
https://observerid.com/raden-mas-panji-sosrokartono-in-defeat-and-victory/