A portrait of Mastoer

Exhibition Reveals Unseen Life of Indonesia's Greatest Writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer

APRIL 19, 2018

Jakarta. One of Indonesia's greatest and most prolific authors, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, better known as Pram, spent a significant period of his adult life in jail. He survived imprisonment under three different regimes in Indonesia — the Dutch colonial government, Soekarno's Old Order and Suharto's New Order — and kept on writing even while he was in jail. Pram also survived 10 years of forced labor in the remote island of Buru in the Moluccas – Indonesia's own gulag where suspected communists were sent into exile after the 1965 anti-communist pogrom – where he nevertheless managed to write his most famous work, the Buru Quartet, a masterpiece of four serial novels portraying Indonesia's political awakening in the early 20th century.

"Namaku Pram: Catatan dan Arsip" (My Name Is Pram: Notes and Archives), a new exhibition that opened at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Tuesday (17/04), unveils the lesser known side of the author. In faded photographs, handwritten manuscripts and unpublished letters, visitors get a rare glimpse into Pram's private thoughts and his warm relationship with his family – despite long periods of separation.

There are records of Pram's childhood, the hard work he put into his writing and his interaction with the closest people in his life.

A portrait of Mastoer Imam Badjoeri and Oemi Saidah at the 'Namaku Pram: Catatan dan Arsip' exhibition. (JG Photo/Lisa Siregar)

Born as Pramoedya Ananta Mastoer on Feb. 6, 1925, in Blora, a poor district in Central Java, Pram was the eldest of nine children. The exhibition showed Pram had a close relationship with his mother, Oemi Saidah, who was a bookworm and actively involved in Indonesia's nascent women's movement.

His father, Mastoer Imam Badjoeri, was a liberal and an art performer who also wrote books, poems, essays and song lyrics in Javanese.

Pram had a difficult childhood, failing to make the grades three times at Boedi Oetomo elementary school, bringing shame to his father who was a teacher there.

Pram's chainsmoking began one afternoon after his father yelled at him in class. Pram, who became very upset, ran away and met a friend who gave him a cigarette, and he never stopped smoking since.

Organized by Titimangsa Foundation, Dia.Lo.Gue and Bakti Budaya Djarum Foundation, "Namaku Pram" is able to reveal these tidbits from Pram's private life thanks to his family's involvement.

Pram's daughters, Astuti Ananta Toer and Tatyana Ananta Toer, shared photographs and unpublished letters from their private collection.

A video interview in the corner of the exhibition space shows clips of Astuti describing her father when he was still alive.

Time in prison kept Pram away from his wife and children for many years, and his longing to be reunited with them was palpable in his letters.

Astuti wrote desperately in one of her own letters that it took almost a year for the family to receive Pram's letters from Buru.

There is a special table at the exhibition showing an old photograph of Pram and his only son, Yudistira Ananta Toer, and a postcard he sent to him from Buru, with these words written on the back:

"Sudah gagahkah kau sekarang? Jangan lupa membantu ibumu." ("Have you grown some muscles? Don't forget to help your mother, always.") 

A deep purple handbag and an old white t-shirt, sized XXL, that Pram wore on his departure to Buru were also on display in this strictly no-photos exhibition.

In the beginning of his 10 years in Buru, Pram was not allowed a typewriter so he would write on anything, including cement sacks, which the exhibition also puts on display.

Later on, due to international pressure, Pram was given a broken typewriter. He fixed it himself, and wrote most of the Buru Quartet on it.

From the notes displayed in the exhibition, we can see that Pram liked to jot down his letters, novel drafts and essays in handwriting before finally copying them on a typewriter.

The handwritten drafts make up a good part of the exhibition, complete with Pram's own notes and corrections that show how he used to work on his sprawling historical novels.

"Namaku Pram: Catatan dan Arsip" exhibition at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in South Jakarta. (JG Photo/Lisa Siregar)

The exhibition offers Pram's family's version of his life. For example, a footnote in a timeline claims that Pram  had joined the People's Cultural Institute (Lekra) almost accidentally. It says that Pram was "unaware of how the organization worked, and he was invited to a meeting in which he was honored as an extraordinary member of the institute."

Pram passed away in 2006, at age 81, widely recognized as Indonesia's greatest ever writer. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature several times and is survived by his second wife, Maemunah, with whom he had five children.

He also had three children from his first marriage with Arfah Iljas, which lasted four years.

Actress and writer Happy Salma from Titimangsa Foundation, who came up with the idea for the exhibition, said it had been in the works for a couple of years.

In 2016, Happy brought an adaptation of Pram's "Bumi Manusia" (This Earth of Mankind) and "Anak Semua Bangsa" (Child of All Nations) to the stage in a play titled "Bunga Separuh Abad (Flower of the Last Half of the Century)."

It was during the play's preparation that Happy met with Engel Tanzil, the owner of Dia.Lo.Gue, who welcomed her idea to hold a Pram exhibition.

Engel said Pramoedya was not only a great fiction writer but also a passionate historian who wanted to document Indonesia's progress into modernism.

The exhibition shows newspaper clippings that Pram kept for himself for a future project on Indonesian history.

"When we prepared this exhibition, I found so many things about Pram and his life beyond his writing that to me made him not only a great writer, but also a great man," Engel said.

The exhibition at Dia.Lo.Gue runs until May 20. The art space opens on weekdays from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.

A mini version of "Namaku Pram" is also shown at the Djarum Foundation-owned Galeri Indonesia Kaya at Grand Indonesia mall until May 2.