Sana Budaya Dance Company in Leicester

Wonderful show of Sana Budaya Dance Company (22-23 May Embrace Arts, Leicester, UK). Global in dance backgrounds and themes, with main inspirations from Java in music, themes and dress in innovative ways.

Sana Budaya Dance Company, Paramaribo, Suriname. Performance  24 May 2014, Embrace Art, Leicester, UK.

Sana Budaya performing in Leicester (May 2014). Source:

Impressive was for instance the use of sarongs as sails, tight to the middle and hold above the head to indicate the Indian and Atlantic Ocean crossing of Javanese contract workers to Suriname, especially after the emigration of Indian indentured labourers to Suriname stopped in 1916.

This Surinamese dance ensemble seamlessness blend Ballet, Jazz, Javanese dance, Kathak and Pencak Silat and exams themes such cultural heritage and facets of the human condition. “Guloh” (Sugar) considers cultural heritage with a reverent homage to Suriname’s Javanese plantation workers, and “Satriya” (Knight), “Drang” (Urge) and “Wedhi” (Scared) explore loyalty, betrayal and the struggle for survival.

Only when we understand a little bit of world history and the specific constallations in which migration movements, histories, colonial and post-colonial pasts, current politics, and contemporary culture in different societies come together, can we fully appreciate the depth and global-local outlook of this dance ensemble.

As Suriname is not well known in Britain – just watching the shows some members in the public were wondering if Suriname was one of the Indonesian Islands – I will give some background (see also links). Suriname history is strongly influenced by British and Dutch historical links.

Suriname, once known as Dutch Guiana, is a small country in South America. It has one of the most diverse populations in the Americas. Most people descent from African slaves and Indian and Indonesian indentured labourers. It has one city, Paramaribo. There is little assimilation between different ethnic groups, even in Paramaribo, and most political parties are ethnically based. Dutch colonial history (both Suriname and Indonesia, including Java, were Dutch colonies), post-colonial developments and the diverse religious, geographical and social background of people all account for this.

Suriname’s original inhabitants, which include the Carib, Arawak and Warrau, encountered Dutch and English the 17th Century. The coast of Suriname, where still 90% of the population lives, became firmly under Dutch control after The Treaty of Breda, in which Britain gave-up Suriname in return for New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1667. The Dutch developed an agricultural plantation economy based on African slaves imported mainly from Central Africa, Ghana and the Bight of Benin. Conditions for slaves were very harsh; some managed to escape to the rainforest interior of Suriname, forming maroon communities. Slavery was only abolished in 1863, and slaves were not released until 1873. In the meantime, many workers were imported from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), mainly people of Chinese descent.

After 1873, Indian labours from from mainly Uttar Pradesh and West-Bihar in North-India were signed up for five years, over 30,000 between 1873 and 1816. The Dutch had made an agreement with the British for the rights to recruit labour in return for some old forts (remnants of slave strafe) in West Africa. However, the Dutch government was worried on the source of this contract labour, as the British Indian immigrants remained foreign nationals and could appeal against Dutch law. Furthermore, in 1916, the British stopped the system of indentured labour to all parts of the world due to great pressure of the Indian independence movement of Mahatma Gandhi.

Surinamese immigrants from Java (1890-1900)

Surinamese immigrants from Java (1890-1900). Source: Collection Tropical Institute, Amsterdam.

The Dutch therefore turned to Java to recruit labour. Indian and Javanese labourers replaced the work of former slaves on the plantations in still harsh conditions. They could get either a return-ticket or a piece of land in Suriname after the end of their contract. Javanese labourers often came from poor backgrounds and were often treated worse than Indians as they did not fall under the protection of a British consul. Later, in the 1930s, specific policies came in place to preserve Javanese and Indian traditions but fell in disarray during the WWII. Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. Many Surinamese decided to move to the Netherlands, including approximately 20,000 people of Javanese descent.

The Surinamese-Javanese maintained strong cultural links with Java up to today. Before WWII, typical Javanese entertainment such as wayong wong puppetry and slametans were common on plantations.

After WWII, Surinamese-Javanese started to leave the country-side and the youth wanted to be associated rather as Surinamese than Javanese. Indonesian representatives, and later the Indonesian Embassy tried to maintain and stimulate Javanese cultural links, including contemporary Javanese culture. Wayang puppetry is hardly performed anymore, but any other visual, dance, and music forms are still popular. Gamelan and terbangan music, batik clothes – an art form for which Java is world renown and that influenced other regions cloth traditions, including West Africa, since the end of the 19th century – and the martial art form Pencak Silat all have Javanese roots and developed in Surinamese art forms enjoyed not only by those with Javanese heritage, but also by others.

It is therefore interesting and telling that Sana Budaya mixes Indian and Javanese historical and contemporary dance traditions with mainly contemporary European dance forms, that they use Javanese batik to dance in and to dance with, and that they have themes that refer to specific Javanese and generic Surinamese histories for many groups on the mainly sugar plantations, while they use music from all over the world, but with an emphasis on contemporary European and historical and contemporary Indonesian sounds.

See also:

Ockhorst, A. (2014). ‘Multicultural Encounters on Stage: The Use of Javanese Cultural Elements by Surinamese Doe-Theatre Company’. In: Barendregt, B & Bogaerts, E. Recollecting Resonances: Dutch-Indonesian Music Encounters. Leiden: Brill Publishers.