The Gamelan Digul and the Prison Camp Musician Who Built It:
An Australian Link with the Indonesian Revolution

Margaret J. Kartomi

University of Rochester Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
When the prison camp at Tanah Merah, on the Digul river in West Papua, was evacuated by the Dutch in 1943, the prisoners brought with them to Australia a gamelan they had constructed. In this slim volume Margaret Kartomi tells the stories of that gamelan and of its maker, Javanese musician Pontjopangrawit.

Pontjopangrawit was born in Central Java in 1893. He came from a relatively poor family, but became a Surakarta court musician. He was politically active and involved in the new nationalist and communist organisations. As a result he was arrested in the purge that followed anti-Dutch risings in 1926, and was in the first batch of prisoners sent to Boven Digul.

Not much is known about Pontjopangrawit's time in prison or about the construction of the gamelan, but Kartomi provides a general account of the Boven Digul prison camps. The conditions were primitive — the area was so isolated that (as with some of the Russian gulags) no fences were needed — and the gamelan was made from food containers, scrap wood and metal, and whatever else was available. There was a divide between the werkwillige, who were paid a salary by the Dutch for their work, and the naturalisten, who had to fend for themselves; the Dutch also exploited ethnic divisions and encouraged cultural activities.

Pontjopangrawit was freed in 1932 and returned to Central Java. As an ex-prisoner he faced prejudice — as a result of which his son disowned him — but he eschewed politics and achieved a successful career as a professional musician, renowned for his performance and teaching. He disappeared towards the end of 1965 and the overwhelming likelihood is that he was murdered because of his left-wing history during the mass killings of 1965/66, possibly even on Heroes Day (10th November).

The gamelan remained at Tanah Merah until it was brought to Australia in 1943. The prisoners, known as "Digulists", were interned in the Cowra POW camp, until it was realised that they were political prisoners and not criminals. Along with Indonesian merchant seamen and Australian supporters, the Digulists played a key role after 1945 in swinging Australian public opinion to support the Indonesian Republic. The gamelan went with some of them to Melbourne, where it was used in performances during the war; on the repatriation of the Digulists, it was given to the Museum of Victoria and ended up at Monash University.

Kartomi concludes with an organological study of the gamelan, describing the instruments (with some b&w photographs) and the conservation measures taken to preserve them. An accompanying audio CD provides scales from the instruments, and some examples of Pontjopangrawit's rebab playing.

Not enough is known about Pontjopangrawit to flesh out a full biography, and Kartomi's slender book doesn't really do justice to any of its broader subjects, whether life as a gamelan musician in Central Java, the Boven Digul prison camps, the role of Indonesian exiles in mobilising Australian public opinion and helping achieve Indonesian independence, or gamelan organology. It makes a decent "link" work, however, which may lead readers to explore new subjects. (It provides a contrast to current controversies over Australian treatment of refugees from West Papua, this time fleeing the Indonesian state.)

A prologue explains some gamelan basics, but readers without any background may not find it an ideal introduction; a basic knowledge of the history of the Indonesian Revolution would also be helpful.

May 2006

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%T The Gamelan Digul and the Prison Camp Musician Who Built It
%S An Australian Link with the Indonesian Revolution
%A Kartomi, Margaret J.
%I University of Rochester Press
%D 2002
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1580460887
%P 123pp