Salfia Rahmawati and Verena Meyer at SOAS Special Collections masterclass. Photo: Zacky Umam.

"Colonialism and manuscript libraries of island South East Asia" Workshop at SOAS

by Mulaika Hijjas

Sixteen academics and ten masterclass participants came to SOAS on 24-26 May 2023 for Mapping Sumatra’s Manuscript Culture’s first workshop, “Colonialism and manuscript libraries of island South East Asia.” To make the most of this rare gathering of researchers of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts, there was a busy and diverse schedule of events, including an evening of specially commissioned performances, hands-on codicological classes, and flash presentations by doctoral researchers, as well as of course the core panels of the workshop.

Serendipitously, the first day of the workshop coincided with an event hosted by the British Library to mark the conclusion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project. Workshop participants were invited to attend and to witness the presentation to Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, the Director General of the National Library of Indonesia, of a database containing digital images of 120 Javanese manuscripts in the British Library collection.  This project follows on an earlier project which digitised manuscripts seized from the Yogyakarta royal palace in 1812 and now kept in the British Library, images of which were also presented to the National Library of Indonesia as well as to the Palace of Yogyakarta in 2019. Digital repatriation, and questions of restitution and return more broadly, are key themes of the research project, and it was a privilege to be present at this milestone in the entangled history of South East Asian manuscripts in the UK.

As with the role of colonial collecting, another significant aspect of manuscript studies in South East Asia that is widely known but often under-appreciated is that these texts were not for silent reading. Rather, they found their fullest expression in performance. Funded by a Research Impact Award from SOAS, project postdoctoral researcher Dr Alan Darmawan curated “Resonated Pages”: three new performances by Sumatran artists (for a full description of each piece, click here.) All three pieces drew on and reimagined manuscript sources—the devotional text Dalā’il al-Khayrāt in the case of Jamboe-UK’s dance work “Riwang,” choreographed by Syera Fauzya Lestari, Syair Mambang Jauhari from the Palembang palace for Leva Khudri Balti’s performance art piece “Zamnidur Alam”, and Tambo Alam Minangkabau for Rani Jambak and M. Hario Efenur’s soundscape music “Baca Aso Curah Raso.” The performance was attended by an appreciative audience from the SOAS community and beyond. We were honoured to have the presence of Professor Khairul Munadi, Education and Culture Attaché, and other representatives of the Indonesian Embassy in London. The project is most grateful to the Embassy for its support in realising the performance.

Panel presentations, SOAS. From left: Roberta Zollo, Mulaika Hijjas, Dewa Ayu Carma Citrawati and Salfia Rahmawati. Photo: Zacky Umam.

In the six panels that formed the core of the workshop, colonial intervention in South East Asian manuscript libraries was considered across a variety of spaces, actors, and aspects. The definition of the library itself was debated (Mulaika Hijjas, Henri Chambert-Loir), as was what forms repatriation or restitution might take, with specific reference to the Yogyakarta kraton manuscripts (Verena Meyer). Colonial intervention in a more positive guise was also considered, with Dewa Ayu Carma Citrawati’s presentation on establishment of the Gedong Kirtya, the first public library of Balinese lontar, and Salfia Rahmawati’s on the commissioning of new forms of illuminated manuscripts by a colonial officer in Java. Manuscript collecting by colonial agents John Crawfurd and William Maxwell was discussed (Annabel Teh Gallop, Farouk Yahya), as well as the effect of European documentation of pusaka material on local attitudes in south Sumatra (Hafiful Hadi Sunliensyar). Significant texts from within local libraries were also a focus, with Peter Riddell uncovering a new letter possibly attributable to ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Singkili, and Ervan Nurtawab considering the Qur’an and tafsir manuscripts within the Banten royal library. Ronit Ricci reflected upon her experience documenting personal libraries of Malay and other South East Asian-language material in Sri Lanka, while Zacky Khairul Umam outlined the private collections of Acehnese manuscripts found in EAP 329. In the final session, new light was shed on three palace libraries: Kotawaringin, Kalimantan (Abdullah Maulani), Siak (Iik Idayanti) and Palembang (Alan Darmawan). The rich presentations stimulated plenty of discussion during the question-and-answer sessions, as well as in later conversations. Publication of the proceedings is planned.

As well as the ten PhD researchers attending in person for the masterclass, five others joined online, presenting a range of promising new research topics across disciplines ranging from literature, material culture, history, library science, Islamic studies, and even conservation biology Their flash presentations—seven minute talks on their work in progress, followed by Q&A—were facilitated by Jessica Rahardjo, who will take up the final postdoctoral position on the project in 2024. Among the presenters were project PhD researcher Fauzan Roslee, who spoke about the Minangkabau surau manuscripts of EAP 144.

Dr Mulaika Hijjas (right), Dr Farouk Yahya (second from right) and other participants at SOAS Special Collections masterclass. Photo: Zacky Umam.

Given the theme and location of the workshop, it was only fitting that participants were able to view and handle material from two of the most important colonial-era collections of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the United Kingdom, SOAS Special Collections and the British Library. Facilitated by Dr Farouk Yahya, Dr Zacky Umam and Dr Mulaika Hijjas at SOAS, and by Dr Annabel Teh Gallop at the British Library, participants examined a range of items, such as a Batak pustaha, a south Sumatran bark book, letters and genealogies, as well as Islamic codexes. Among the latter were the three books taken from the Palembang palace library in 1812, key sources of the project’s Palembang case study.

While work is underway on the publication of the proceedings, equally important outcomes of the workshop are the new relationships and connections forged, and the confirmation that the study of South East Asian manuscript cultures is a vibrant and vital field.

Special thanks go to Dr Adrienne Johnson, who joined as project administrator only a few weeks before the workshop and yet kept everything running smoothly. Ellie Sprinthall, education co-creator intern, provided welcome practical assistance.

We look forward to the next workshop—Sumatra, 2025!

Mariluz Beltran de Guevara, Conservation Leader, SOAS Special Collections (far right) and participants. Photo: Zacky Umam.