Indonesian Culture and People

Traditional Sunda Dance


Some art forms in Indonesia have been influenced by several cultures. The famous Javanese and Balinese dances, for example, contain aspects of Hindu culture and mythology. But as a matter of fact, the diversity of Indonesian cultures has come as a result of a long process of acculturation between the original customs and myriads of foreign influences.
Performing arts


Indonesia is culturally diverse and is home to hundreds of forms of music, with those from the islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali being the most frequently recorded. The best-known traditional or classical music from Central/East Java and Bali is the Gamelan.

A very popular modern style of music is Dangdut, with an accompanying free dance style. It is so popular that many political rallies have Dangdut performances to attract a larger audience. Dangdut first surfaced during the 1970s. It is now extremely popular throughout the archipelago among both young and old. On first impression Dangdut has a distinct Indian sound.

Keroncong is said to have its roots in Portugal, brought to Indonesia by Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Most popular in the 20th century, keroncong is now often considered “old people’s” music. The most revered keroncong composer is Gesang. A more modern form of keroncong is called Pop Keroncong with Hetty Koes Endang as one of the most versatile singers. In addition, there are regional variations such as Langgam Jawa, which is most popular in Central Java and Yogyakarta.

Completely different is the soft Sasando music from West Timor in the province of East Nusa Tenggara. Sasando is an instrument made from a leaf of the lontar palm. It bears some resemblance to a harp.

In West Java popular musical styles include Angklung, played with bamboo instruments and Degung.


It is not difficult to see a continuum in the traditional dances depicting episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata from India, through Thailand all the way to Bali. There is a marked difference, though between the highly stylized dances of the courts of Jogjakarta and Surakarta (Solo) and their popular variations. While the court dances are promoted and even performed internationally, the popular forms of dance art and drama must largely be discovered locally.

During the last few years Saman from Aceh in North Sumatra has become rather popular and is often performed on TV.

Drama and theater

The Javanese and Balinese wayang kulit Shadow puppet theatre shows display several mythological events.

Randai is a folk theatre tradition of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, usually performed for traditional ceremonies and festivals. It incorporates music, singing, dance, drama and the silat martial art, with performances often based on semi-historical Minangkabau stories and legends.

Visual arts


Indonesia is not generally known as a treasure trove for paintings, but the fact is that the connoisseur will be able to find unique works of art. Primarily there are the often intricate and expressive traditional and modern Balinese paintings. They often express natural scenes and themes from the traditional dances. Furthermore there are several internationally known painters either Indonesians or Europeans who settled in Indonesia whose works now fetch very high prices. Modern Indonesian painters use a wide variety of styles and themes. Calligraphy, mostly based on the Qur’An is decorative in its special way.


Indonesia has a long-standing tradition of sculpture and carving. Examples of Indonesian sculpture have been found dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages, but the artform particularly flourished in the 8th to 10th centuries, both as standalone works of art, and also incorporated into temple structures.

Most notable are the 100’s of meters of relief sculpture at the temple of Borobodur in Central Java. Here, approximately 2 miles of exquisite relief sculpture tell the story of the life of Buddha and illustrate his teachings. Furthermore, the temple was originally home to 504 statues of the seated Buddha. This site, as with others in Central Java show a clear Indian influence.

In the 20th century, Bali saw a flourishing of its artistic communities, and many artforms, especially painting, batik and sculpture developed in new directions, combining traditional methods with contemporary themes and techniques. Although many of the Balinese sculpture workshops now produce ‘en masse’ for the tourist trade, there is still a vibrant scuptural tradition in Bali, especially around Ubud.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, sculpture remains important in the culture life of the islanders. Long houses in Sulawesi and Sumatra are adorned with carved relief, and the structures of the buildings themselves are often carved. ‘Primitive’ animistic carvings are still made in Sulawesi and elsewhere, although much of this is now made for sale to tourists. In Tana Toraja, effigies of the dead are carved in some areas. In New Guinea, Bisj Poles of up to 25 meters are carved from a single piece of mangrove tree, adorned with human figures, animals and other totems.


A common traditional architectural form for several ethnic groups in Indonesia is a house built on stilts, combined with a saddle roof. The most famous stilt houses of Indonesia are those of the Dayak people in Borneo, the Rumah Gadang of the Minangkabau people in western Sumatra, the Batak people in northern Sumatra, and the Tongkonan of the Toraja people in Sulawesi. The fronts of Torajan houses are frequently decorated with buffalo horns, stacked one above another, as an indication of status. The outside walls also frequently feature decorative reliefs.

The 8th century Borobodur temple near Yogyakarta, Central Java is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and is notable for incorporating c.160 relief panels into its structure, telling the story of the life of the Buddha. As the visitor ascends through the 8 levels of the temple, the story unfolds, the final three levels simply containing stupas and statues of the buddha. The building is said to incorporate a map of the Buddhist cosmos and is a masterful fusion of the didactic, the monumental and the serene.

The nearby temple complex at Prambanan is amongst the best preserved examples of Hindu temple architecture in Java. Built in the (th century, the temple complex comprises 8 main shrines, surrounded by 250 smaller shrines. The indian influence on the site is clear, not only in the style of the monument, but also in the reliefs featuring scenes from the Ramayana which adorn the outer walls of the main temples, and in the votive statuary found within.


Several Islands are famous for their batik, ikat and songket cloth. Once on the brink of disappearing batik and later ikat found a new lease of life when former President Soeharto promoted wearing batik shirts on official occasions. In addition to the traditional patterns with their special meanings, used for particular occasions, batik designs have become creative and diverse over the last few years.


Pramoedya Ananta Toer was Indonesia’s most internationally celebrated author, having won the Magsaysay Award as well as being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other important figures include the late Chairil Anwar, a poet and member of the Generation 45 group of authors who were active in the Indonesian independence movement. Tight information controls during Suharto’s presidency suppressed new writing. Other things included are also its immense social reforms.

In the book Max Havelaar, Dutch author Multatuli criticised the Dutch treatment of the Indonesians, which gained him international attention.


There is a long tradition in Indonesia, and particularly among ethnically Malay populations, of extemporary, interactive, verbal composition of poetry. These poems are referred to as pantun.

Recreation and sports

At a crossroads between art and sports is Silat, one of the unique martial arts originating from the archipelago.

Popular media


Television in Indonesia began on the August 17, 1962 in Jakarta with the state-run station, TVRI, which began broadcasting on the 17th anniversary of Indonesian Independance. It held a television monopoly in Indonesia until 1989 when the first commercial station, RCTI began as a local station and was subsequently granted a national license a year later. Several other stations have started up since then and there are now 11 national networks available including, TVRI, RCTI, TPI, SCTV, antv, Indosiar, Metro TV, TV7, Trans TV, Lativi, and Global TV. Each of the national commercial networks have a relatively similar range of programs, with traditional influences (such as the wayang performances on Indosiar) as well as Western influences (for example, Indonesian Idol). A feature of almost every network is “sinetron” (literally electronic cinema), which are usually drama series roughly following the soap opera format, but can also just be used to refer to any fictional series.

In recent years there has also been a surge in local television stations popping up all over the country, even remote and poor areas. Often run by the local government, these stations are seen as a fantastic opportunity for locals as they often require several dozen staff.

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