Saturday, March 2, 2024 | 13:00 WIB

The house in Tugu and its literary circle. Part IV: The Indonesian Writers

IO – One of the things that my father, the late Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana used the house in Tugu for was to create a literary salon – although that is perhaps too fancy a word for it. Nearly all the important Indonesians writers of that period from 1948 till 1958 had been to the Tugu house up in the mountains with its mist and rain and cool weather and its gardens where passion fruit vines climbed up the giant bamboos as broad as a man’s thigh.

Many people have climbed up the Pangrango-Gede mountains that form a national park behind the Tugu house. Not far from the top there is a plain covered in bushes that have flowers which look like small edelweiss. According to legend this was said to be the royal green of Prabu Siliwangi, the most famous king of the Pajajaran period. In the past anyone who reached the top of the volcanoes was required to bring back a bunch of edelweiss as proof that they had truly reached the top. Now, they are protected flowers.

Edelweiss of the Pangango Gede National Park behind the Tugu house. Photo credit: Eonk e, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The literary and cultural circle at the Tugu house had its antecedents in Jakarta where my father had a fruit orchard in Pasar Minggu. He always referred to it as his citrus garden although the writer Achdiat Karta Mihardja said he also had rambutan trees growing there. In Pisangan, Pasar Minggu, Takdir had a small wooden house which he had built from the teak remnants of some buildings destroyed during the Second World War. Later, Takdir tore down the house in Pasar Minggu to build a small printing house with the good socialist name Pustaka Rakyat or ‘The People’s Library” in the Paseban area of Jakarta, close to the house of his second wife’s mother and also not far from the Faculty of Medicine of what is now the University of Indonesia. In the 1950s, as sentiments turned against the Dutch and many Dutch businesses left Indonesia, he bought the building and machines of the N.V. Koninklijke Drukkerij De Unie or ‘Royal Printing Office De Unie’ on the Molenvliet Oost 8 (now Jl Ketapang), and moved Pustaka Rakyat there.

Chairil Anwar. Photo Credit: Uncredited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Pasar Minggu, Takdir held literary and cultural discussions, gathering writers, artists and thinkers to the orchard in Pasar Minggu. Amongst them was almost certainly, Indonesia’s most renown poet, Chairil Anwar who was a frequent visitor and who often brought his friends along. He was filled with enthusiasm to try to to build a circle of young people for discussions to  form a plan to create a new Indonesian culture however, his nervous disposition, constantly changing moods and inability to keep promises, made it impossible for him to carry this out. Chairil, was still distantly related to my father and Sutan Sjahrir and was in a sense part of the circle of PSI members and sympathizers that frequently came to his discussions. At one point, Pustaka Rakyat which was also a publishing house was set to publish a literary journal to be headed by Chairil Anwar called ‘Arena’ however Chairil, the eternal enfant terrible quarreled passionately with the other two collaborators and the project came to naught. Pustaka Rakyat did however, have the honour of publishing Chairil’s book of poetry, Kerikil Tajam or ‘Sharp Pebbles’ where his poem Aku ends with his immortal line “And… I want to live a Thousand Years More’ – a sentiment with which Takdir would have been entirely in accord.

Perhaps Indonesia’s most famous poetry book, Chairil Anwar’s Kerikil Tajam or Sharp Pebbles. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The venue for the discussion groups and literary and cultural circle changed in 1952, when Takdir began to invite people up for discussions to the house in Tugu instead of Pasar Minggu. Perhaps, it was because Tugu was a change of scenery which helped him to forget for a moment his deep grief at the death of his second wife, Soegiarti who had died of a heart attack while on a trip with him to San Francisco. I believe the garden, the mountains and tea plantations provided him with a certain solace. Nature always played a strongly healing role for him.

Twilight in Jakarta by Mochtar Lubis. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Takdir’s literary circle in Tugu included the newspaper man and writer Mochtar Lubis, whose centenary it is this year. On the literary side, Mochtar is remembered for such books as Senja di Jakarta or ‘Twilight in Jakarta’ and Harimau! Harimau! or ‘Tiger! Tiger!’. He was an idealist who spent many years in prison for defending democracy and eventually had to give up his newspaper, Indonesia Raya which was first shut down by Soekarno, later reopened and then permanently shut down by Suharto. Mochtar was very close to my father in his thinking. Many years later, they were both members of the Jakarta Academy of the Taman Ismail Marzuki which is Jakarta’s centre for the arts, where they tried to foster an atmosphere of democracy both in and through culture and the arts.

At one point, Mochtar built himself a small bungalow not far from the Tugu house. Like my father, Mochtar loved plants especially orchids and he remained close to my father till his death in 1994. Takdir did not share Mochtar’s interest in orchids but years later after he built a centre for art and the future on Lake Batur in Bali, he brought a specimen of the vanda tricolor orchid to Tugu, where the wind spread its dust like seeds to the highest tree tops, and they flourished. In the Tugu garden there are two flaming orange African tulip trees at least 75 years old and their upper branches are brimming with vanda tricolor. At the time the vanda tricolor grew wild on the black lava rocks around Lake Batur but it is also native to the mountainous jungles around the Tugu house.

Vanda tricolor var suavis. Photo credit: CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Belenggu or Shackles by Armijn Pane. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

A writer who visited the house was Armijn Pane whose book Belenggu or ‘Shackles’ was Indonesia’s first psychological novel. According to his niece Marulina Pane, Armijn later struggled with depression and thereafter ceased socializing very much  and so was not a frequent visitor to Tugu. In 1940, Belenggu was published in three instalments of Pudjangga Baru or ‘The New Writers’, an avant- garde literary journal created by my father and Armijn Pane together with Amir Hamzah, in 1932. This journal played an important role not only in the development of a new literary style but perhaps more importantly, it also became a cultural magazine when my father triggered the Cultural Polemics of the 1930s by publishing not only his own ideas but the views of all those who had participated including those whose views opposed his own. In simple terms, the polemic in fact centered around the questions: what is Indonesian culture? What do we want it to be? What does it mean to be Indonesian? What do we want it to mean? By publishing all the opinions and not merely his own, Takdir was in effect stressing that democracy is one of the most important elements of Indonesian culture. Previously, below the title ‘Pudjangga Baru’ there was always a line stating that Pudajngga Baru was a literary journal. He now changed the words to ‘a literary and cultural journal’.

Later during the Second World War, in line with the Youth Pledge of 1928 his efforts centered on modernizing the Malay language and adapting it to Indonesian needs. This resulted in the creation of a modern Indonesian language ready to unite the nation and communicate the 20th century to its citizens when Indonesia declared independence. He then changed again the line below the title of Pudjangga Baru as was advertised on its front page, to include ‘literature, culture and linguistics’.

View of the elephant’s head, the Pangrango Mountain: My heart embraces the mountain. To what avail? The hand cannot reach it. Photo credit; Siti.lasmini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One cannot really speak about Pudjangga Baru without mentioning Amir Hamzah, the third part of the clover leaf. He of course, never came to Tugu as Amir Hamzah, a nobleman in the best sense of the word, had already been killed in 1946 by the Communists during the social revolution in North Sumatra. Nevertheless, there is something of the spirit of Amir Hamzah my father’s favourite poet, in the Tugu house for one cannot look at the mountains without remembering his  moving lines, Hatiku memeluk gunung. Apa daya? Tangan tak sampai or ‘My heart embraces the mountain. To what avail? The hand cannot reach it’. In 1981 my older sister Mirta Kartohadiprodjo persuaded the novelist Nh Dini to write the hauntingly sad story of Amir Hamzah’s life, and then Mirta published it under the title Amir Hamzah, Pangeran dari Seberang or ‘Amir Hamzah, the Prince from Across the Sea’. (See: )

By 1948, Pudjangga Baru had been laid to rest and replaced by a new journal called Konfrontasi and the Konfrontasi Study Group met regularly at the house in Tugu for discussions. This group of intellectuals very much believed in social engineering. They believed that as a young, new, free country, Indonesia’s citizens could plan what sort of a society they wanted to be and what sort of a culture they wanted to have. The same applied to language engineering for Indonesia is one of the few countries in the world that has successfully engineered its own national language and culture. (For more on this topic see:

Achdiate Karta Mihardja in 1955. Photo credit: Ministry of Education (Kempen), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Amongst those who came were the novelist and dramatist Achdiat Karta Mihardja famous for his book Atheis, published in 1949. Achdiat was an editor for both Pudjangga Baru and later, Konfrontasi. He also worked at Mochtar Lubises newspaper Indonesia Raya. Another was Muhammad Balfas who edited several literary magazines and wrote short stories and was later known for his book Retak or ‘Fractured’. Idrus whom H.B. Jassin, the literary critic and documentarian referred to as the pioneer of prose from the generation of Indonesian writers of 1945, also visited the house in Tugu. Later, Achdiat, Balfas and Idrus were for a time with my father in Malaysia. My father went into exile after rebelling against the Sukarno regime, only returning after Sukarno’s fall. He was in Malaysia during Konfrontasi, refusing to return and thereby having his Indonesian passport revoked. Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to speak out against the Indonesian government on radio broadcasts. That was a step too far for him. In Malaysia he bought a small wooden Malay house on stilts at a place called Morib from where he could gaze across the Straits of Malacca and on a clear day look upon the shoreline of Sumatra. He thought at the time that that was as close as he would ever be to Indonesia again.

Asrul Sani. Photo credit: Sjamsuddin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

H.B. Jassin had been to the discussions in the orchard in Pasar Minggu but did not come to Tugu as he found his views deviating from those of my father and the Konfrontasi Study Group. A very frequent visitor to Tugu was Asrul Sani and his wife the poet Nuraini Sani who were good friends of my parents.  Other guests included Ajip Rosidi, Soedjatmoko, and very many more too numerous to all mention.

Many of those who came edited and wrote for literary journals such as Konfrontasi, Siasat with its cultural section Gelanggan, Kisah for short stories, Horison etc. Although many were  members of Sutan Sjahrir’s Partai Sosialis Indonesia (PSI) or sympathizers of it – certainly not all were. As Achdiat said, “People of all types of affiliations and schools of thought would come to Tugu for the discussions as long as they had an interest in literature and culture.”

Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Photo credit: Ministry of Education (Kempen), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were people even from the Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat or ‘People’s Cultural Institute’ popularly referred to as Lekra which was an institution of the Indonesian Communist Party. Like most Socialists, my father did not agree with the Communist ideology nevertheless, he still wanted to speak to them, find out their views and hold discussions with them. He truly believed that in a democracy all views need to be heard so that eventually a better view may emerge. As we now know extreme polarization is the death knell of democracy.  Pramoedya Ananta Toer and also, other Lekra people such as Nyoto, A.S. Dharta and Rivai Apin all visited the house in Tugu. Sitor Situmorang was another visitor to the Tugu house. Many years later, after Sitor Situmorang’s imprisonment had ended, he came again to the Tugu house and also visited Toyabungkah, my father’s centre for art and the future in Bali. He remained friends with my parents till my father’s death in 1994.

I think to understand my father one needs to understand that he believed heart and soul in democracy and for him this meant speaking to, listening to and debating with people of all sorts of persuasions. This is why during the Cultural Polemics of the 1930s he published all the many differing views in Pudjangga Baru. Not only his own views. One interesting aspect of my father’s personality was that as a true democrat he very rarely took anything that was said during the discussions and debates personally, and was never angry with people for having opposing views to his, once a debate or discussion was over. He was always ready to discuss again with them.

Muhamad Balfas in 1962. Photo credit: Uncredited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Visitors were also not limited to literary and cultural figures. Newspapermen such as Rosihan Anwar of Pedoman and in much later years, Aristides Katoppo from Sinar Harapan and Bambang Harymurti of Tempo were visitors to the house in Tugu.  The Konfrontasi Studi Klub also regularly met there. Literature, art and culture were not the only topics discussed. The painter Arie Smit who later settled in Bali, for a time worked with my father and even stored his paintings in a room in the side house. One of Indonesia’s most famous composers and musician, Amir Pasaribu was a guest in Tugu. There were historians like Louis Damais and academicians such as the jurist Han Resink who also wrote poetry and his fascinating book, ‘Indonesia’s History between the Myths’. The Dutch philosopher, Prof Reinier Franciscus Beerling who taught at the Emergency College in Jakarta, visited Tugu, as did the specialist in Indonesian arts, especially dance and music, Prof Bernard Suryabrata. I do not know for certain but I suspect that the botanist who saved the Indonesian herbarium in Bogor from destruction, Prof Kosterman probably visited the house in Tugu too. My father knew him well and later they died in the same hospital just a few days and a few rooms apart from each other – although they did not realize it at the time. I was very fond of Prof Kosterman for he was a special man who educated more than a 100 Indonesian children of whom twenty achieved PhDs. I try to place flowers on his grave whenever I visit the Bogor Botanical Gardens.

The Picasso print of a pot, jug and candle. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

Religion also interested my father and I remember the Dutch mother superior of a convent in Sindanglaya, a small town not far from Tugu, coming to discuss religion. I remember my father telling me that once a Papuan tribesman came to stay at the house in Tugu. I do not know his name or how it came about that he visited Tugu but my father was of course, interested in his thinking. Takdir had the prints of three well-known paintings framed and hung up in the house. One was a painting by Henri Matisse of a surrealistic looking room with a table and flowers and a chair, another was by Van Gogh of a side walk café table under a street light at night and the last one was a Picasso of a pot, a jug and a candle on a table, in his cubist style.  My father asked the Papuan gentleman which of the three he preferred and as was to be expected he pointed at the Picasso. Takdir was a Renaissance man interested in everything so discussions covered a wide range of topics with all sorts of people holding all types of views.

Now, it is quiet. There are no passionate literary or cultural discussions held in Tugu anymore. There is only the sound of the wind in the bamboo trees whispering secrets and stories of that time to the Gede-Pangrango mountains. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The bamboo orchid or Arundina graminifolia grows wild near the Tugu house. Photo credit: KimonBerlin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about the house in Tugu by the same writer in:
Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part V:

Part VI:

Part VII:


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