Java’s “First People’s Theater”: Thomas Karsten and Semarang’s Sobokartti
In exploring further Matthew Cohen’s concept of “the invention of performing arts” in the context of a modernizing colonial Java, this article traces the founding history of the iconic Sobokartti Theater building (which was recently restored to its original form and purpose) and its contribution to the development of theater arts in Java. The paper considers how this theater project negotiated the balance between “modernity and tradition” and succeeded in engaging its urban Javanese, Chinese, and European (Indisch) audience. In tracing the European and Javanese references embedded in the project’s rationale, design, and function, the article investigates how the envisioned theater consciously drew upon both contemporary metropolitan European “new arts” influences and then-current “experiments” in Javanese and Sundanese performing arts. As well, the essay considers the significance of the theater building itself, a traditional Javanese pendopo-derived design, which was central to the theater project. It was to create a new space within which a modernizing Javanese urban community could engage anew with its cultural roots. This reflected a crucial element of the architect’s vision for “modernizing” Javanese culture and society.
Volume & Issue:
Page range: 91-120
Cornell University Southeast Asia Program