Facts about Indonesia

Surface area: 1 919 440 km2

Capital: Jakarta

Population: 253 million

Ethnic structure: Malays 58%, Chinese 26%, and many smaller ethnic groups

Languages: altogether some 600, of which the dominant is Bahasa Indonesia, also the Javanese, Sundanese, Maduranese, Balinese, Dayak and Batak languages, and some 200 Papuan languages

Religions: Islam 88%, Christianity, Hinduism and plenty of different folk religions

The Republic of Indonesia comprises 17 500 islands. With its estimated population of around 250 million people it is the world’s fourth most populous country, and has the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesia is a republic (since 1950 the Republic of Indonesia), with an elected legislature and a president. The nation’s capital, Jakarta, is in Java, Indonesia’s central island. The transcontinental country shares land borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Malaysia.

There are hundreds of theatrical traditions in Indonesia. Many of them belong to the smaller ethnic groups of remote islands while some of them form what could be classified as “classical traditions”. These latter consist of the traditions of Indonesia’s central island, Java, and the neighbouring, smaller island of Bali.

For two millennia both Java and Bali have been in contact with India and neighbouring cultures, and this is clearly reflected in theatre and dance. Many of the remote islands, on the other hand, have lived in relative seclusion from outside influences, and have thus preserved traditions which, in some cases, stem from the Neolithic Stone Age or the Bronze Age.

Here the focus will be on the traditions of Java and Bali, although a small section is dedicated to the Islamic influence, which started to spread from Northern Sumatra to other parts of the archipelago in the 13th century AD.

The island of Java was Islamised by the beginning of the 16th century, while the island of Bali has retained its old form of Hinduism to this day. Thus Bali has preserved its old culture, including several forms of theatre and dance. In Java the older Hindu-Buddhist traditions were adapted to the Islamic cultural atmosphere, resulting in the sophisticated court theatre and dance, discussed below.