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Friday March 31st 2017

Illustrated Sundanese Childhood

An Essay on Roesdi djeung Misnem

Hawé Setiawan

Sunda Lands | Thursday, 23 February 2012 | sundanesecorner.org

Part 1: Introduction

The four volumes of 'Roesdi djeung Misnem' (Photograph: Hawe Setiawan)

Sundanese children of the common people in West Java that attended elementary schools before World War II were well acquainted with Roesdi djeung Misnem: Boekoe Batjaan pikeun Moerid2 di Sakola Soenda ‘Rusdi and Misnem: Reading Book for Sundanese School Children’ (RdM). These leesboeken ‘reading books’ were written by Dutch author A. C. Deenik in collaboration with his Sundanese counterpart R. Djajadiredja, and were published in four volumes in The Hague, Netherlands, in around the first quarter of twentieth century. Every chapter of the books was illustrated with drawings by Dutch illustrator W. K. de Bruin (1871-1945). RdMs were to be read by children at Sakola Ra’jat ‘Folks School’ (SR) in West Java, which was then used Sundanese as its language of instruction.

RdM tells a series of story about the daily life of a boy named Rusdi and his younger sister, Misnem, around their homes in a West Javanese village. The stories are told in common Sundanese of the time. Composed in a humble, and sometimes humorous, style that seems to be in harmony with children life world, it might be one of the first books that describe Sundanese family life. Moreover, as a work that also helps mark the early days of the introduction of basic formal education to the common people in West Java, RdM appears to have provided a sort of writing model for reading books for school children in subsequent periods, such as Gandasari, Soember Aroem, and Soengkeman.

Collective memory of the books, which presumably arise from an enjoyment of reading, seems to be strong. The memory is even shared to one or two generations that were born following the end of Dutch colonialism in Netherlands East Indies. Even at the beginning of 21st century, among Sundanese book lovers, RdM is actually still well known and is circulated in copied volumes. At least, until 1970s or 1980s, the elders in Tatar Sunda ‘Sunda Lands’, especially those that have lived in colonial period, often refer to the so called buku Rusdi ‘book of Rusdi’ in daily conversations. The phrase euweuh dina buku Rusdina ‘not mentioned in the book of Rusdi’ have often been told whenever they disagree with something others said. For many people who read the books in their school years, the ‘book of Rusdi’ would have become an important part of their childhood. In the words of an artist that was born in 1939, RdM is a ‘legendary Sundanese reading book’ (Suadi, 2005: 76). Even a prominent Indonesian writer, who was born in 1938, wrote an essay about his personal memory of the books in 1957. He, among other things, says, “If someone asked me: ‘What is my favorite and the most children book (read) at Folks (Elementary) School?’; no doubt I would reply: ‘The book of Roesdi djeung Misnem.’” (Rosidi, 1966: 42)

Not surprisingly, account of the books can be read in Ensiklopedi Sunda: Alam, Manusia, dan Budaya; termasuk Budaya Cirebon dan Betawi ‘Encyclopedia of Sunda: Nature, Man, and Culture; including Cirebonese and Betawi Cultures’ (2000) edited by Ajip Rosidi et al. It is even said in the encyclopedia that RdM provides “materials for social studies” for its contents are believed to be in accordance with the life of Sundanese (village) people at the time. In other words, for readers who like it, RdM is not merely an interesting reading material, but also a reflection of social reality of the time.

Just like the illustrated book Ot en Sien ‘Ot and Sien’ lives in Dutch memory of pre-war era, so do RdM in Sundanese memory of the time. Such a deep impact of the books on collective memory has been made possible not only by their verbal aspects, but also by their visual ones. Words and pictures intertwine to shape readers’ mind.

Popular accounts of the books, however, tend to emphasize their narrative, and not quite aware of their illustrations. Therefore, a sort of visual analysis is needed to realize the significance of the book illustrations in pre-war cultural life. In this sense, pre-war children’s imagination of the character of Rusdi and Misnem within their cultural settings needs to be seen as something that was shaped not only by the narrative, but also by the pictures. It is probably fair enough to say that the pictorial narratives of the books have become illustrations of collective thought and memory.

Perhaps few people realize that the book illustrations have actually become a cultural artifact that marks a period of Sundanese, and Indonesian, cultural history. At the very least, the pictures that have influenced collective thought and memory are part of the history of book illustrations in Indonesia. This makes the study of the history of Sundanese book illustrations significant.

Note

The precise year of publication of these books is unknown. In each volume of Roesdi djeung Misnem, the publisher of these books, namely Blankwaardt en Schoonhoven in The Hague, Netherlands, did not mention its year of publication. According to some sources, it is likely that these books were first published in 1911. In the book itself, there are several clues, including the story of a celebration of Dutch Queen’s birthday, well-known as Pésta Radja ‘Feast of the Queen’ on August 31, which of course refers to the reign of Queen Wilhelmina, and stories that mention ‘puppet master Soewanda,’ i.e. a leading puppet master in the first quarter of the 20th century. Artist and lecturer Haryadi Suadi, in a private conversation with me, once said that his mother, Emmah Tarsimah (b. 1910), who attended a folk school in Cirebon, West Java, in 1917, read the books at her school.

References

Deenik, A.C. and Djajadiredja, R. (ca. 1930), Roesdi djeung Misnem: Boekoe Batjaan pikeun Moerid2 di Sakola Soenda, 2nd ed., vol. 1-4, Rijswijk (Z.H.), ‘s-Gravenhage: Blankwaardt en Schoonhoven.

Rosidi, Ajip (1966), Dur Panjak!, Bandung: Pusaka Sunda.

Suadi, Haryadi, ‘Buku dan Nostalgia’ in Hawe Setiawan & Setiawan Sabana (ed.) (2005), Legenda Kertas: Menelusuri Jalan Sebuah Peradaban, Bandung: Kiblat Buku Utama.

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