The Danarto I Knew

First published on Inside Indonesia.


Danarto, one of Indonesia’s great writers, died in April 2018, aged 76. His influence being felt across generations of writers and artists. His major works being Godlob – a collection of short stories (1975), Adam Ma’rifat (another collection of short stories, 1982) and more recently, Setangkai Melati di Sayap Jibril (A Bunch of Jasmine on Gabriel’s Wing, 2000). Harry Aveling was an early champion of his works, translating a collection of short stories Abracadabra (Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978) and Danarto’s reflections on making the pilgrimage to Mecca (A Javanese Pilgrim in Mecca; Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash, 1989). His short stories were infused with his sufist beliefs, who would see God in everyday forms. Danarto was also an accomplished artist and illustrator based on his training at Institut Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Arts Institute). Seno Gumira Ajidarma, incorporated Danarto’s illustrations in his epic novel, Kitab Omong Kosong (Book of Nonsense, Bentang 2004). Below, Seno tells of his encounters with Danarto. This article was first published in the Jawa Post, 15th April, 2018.


The Danarto I Knew


He was smiling over there: Danarto. It was 1978. He greeted me first as I had been looking at him since I came out of a class in the Cinematography Department at the Lembaga Pendidikan Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Arts Institute) at Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM). Danarto was a lecturer in the Fine Arts Department.

“What kind of drawing do you want?” He said.

I had asked him for a drawing for my book of poems.

“Some of those black, geometric drawings, please.”

I had in mind the cover of Goenawan Mohamad’s book, Interlude (1971). He must have had something else in mind because what he drew for me was indeed a ‘black oblong.’ To me, it looked like a gravestone; there was a black oblong inside of it; and more surrounding it.

I guessed it must have suited the title. The title after all was Bayi Mati, or, Dead Baby. I also thought, at the time, that maybe something like this was good. I wasn’t exactly sure. But, now I understand, that ancient black oblong, which was super-symmetrical, which looked random was also mathematical. I was embarrassed by the book, and I no longer own a copy. The cover though, I’m brave enough to say, was very strong.




That was my first meeting with Danarto. After that meeting, I was also like a student in search of a teacher. I would always be asking him questions. Many of his answers have stayed with me. His modesty and his refusal to take the position of an ‘elder’, ‘senior’ also left a strong impression. For example, he would ask for a piece of my writing to be included in Zaman, even though I was still learning how to write. If we hadn’t seen each other for a while, he would write a letter in his beautiful handwriting to me. His words were encouraging, leading me to continue to write my wayang story. One of the reasons I did so was I knew that the story would be illustrated by Danarto himself.

Danarto’s drawings, like his stories and he himself, we full of surprises. For example, if I was eating some tengkleng from the warung in front of the Cikini swimming pool, I would go to pay and the seller would say: ‘it’s already been paid for.’ Danarto, who was busy talking at the next table, had already paid for it.

His attitude to money was different from most people’s.

“Earlier, I saw a woman who was robbed on the bus, and I did nothing, when in fact I had Rp.10,000 in my pocket. I should have given it to her immediately. But, by the time I had realised this, she had already got off. I felt I had failed God’s test. I had failed. Failed.”

He told me this story during the 1980s, when Rp.10,000 was about the equivalent of Rp.100,000 in today’s money.

Danarto was being serious about what happened; just as he was serious while making the confession.

“If I’m about to pray, and unable to concentrate properly, I often hear in my ear, ‘Tengkleng, tengkleng, tengkleng … Tongseng, tongseng, tongseng … Goat sate, goat sate, goat sate…’ I’m not yet able to defeat these temptations.”


This doesn’t mean that Danarto interrupts his praying and goes off looking for goat sate, but rather shows the strength of Danarto’s belief in God. His conviction is so strong, he has never stopped his prayers and defends the beliefs of all religious minorities. I read his two-page column in Tempo magazine and the main point of his essay was: if someone has a belief, and that belief makes them happy, what is wrong with it?



Many people said that Danarto was a sufi. Danarto himself, however, never said so. But, if the most important attribute of a sufi is asceticism – that is, restraint in all maters – I don’t think it applies to Danarto, especially in regards to his pleasure in food. After having an interview with the comedian Asmuni, I told him how Asmuni had opened a warung which specialised in ikan belanak. The following day, Danarto commented upon their cooking. He was a kind of hunter.

Danarto, however, always wanted to share pleasure with others. When I was at Zaman, a meeting had just started when all of a sudden, plates of fried goat were brought in.

“There was a rather kind woman,” said Danarto.

We all knew that Danarto had eaten well, was impressed, and had brought some for all of us.

He did these things so often, that even though for Danarto money came without him asking (speaking, writing, drawing requests, literary prizes, appreciations, etc.), he was never particularly good with money. His costs were always more than his finances allowed. He wouldn’t just shout 30 people a meal, but he would promise scholarships, motorcycles, and who knows what else to the people closest to him: “if I have the money.”

I had once asked him, “because everything comes from God, doesn’t it?”

Danarto replied only with a smile.





Pondok Ranji,

Friday, 13 April 2018. 07:10.


Translated by Andy Fuller