Indonesian performing arts attracts three generations of researchers

Professor Margaret Kartomi, Jesse Kartomi Thomas, and Dr Karen Kartomi Thomas (far right) with performers and musical instruments in Daik-Lingga.
Professor Margaret Kartomi, Jesse Kartomi Thomas, and Dr Karen Kartomi Thomas (far right) with performers and musical instruments in Daik-Lingga.


Researching Indonesian music and theatre has become a family concern for three Monash researchers.

Dr Karen Kartomi Thomas, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow of the Performance Research Unit in the Centre for Theatre and Performance, her mother Professor Margaret Kartomi from the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, and her daughter Jesse Thomas, a second- year arts student, have recently returned from conducting ethnographic theatre-based research in the Indonesian islands of Riau.

“It is not unusual to have three generations of researchers in the one family, but to have three all with interest in the same field and region is very unusual,” Dr Thomas said.

“We have all grown to love the culture of Indonesia. We are able to combine this interest into collaborative research projects.” 

The work of this trio of Monash researchers is building on Dr Thomas’ original fieldwork on the little-known theatre art form of mendu in the Riau Islands, which she began in 1984 as a Monash honours undergraduate student. Professor Kartomi was studying the music, while Jesse made video and sound recordings of all performances and rehearsals attended. 

Mendu is a traditional theatre form combining dialogue, comedy, dance, and music that tells the adventures of the god Dewa Mendu and his brother Angkaran Dewa on earth. The theatre originally developed as part of healing ceremonies in the villages of Bunguran Island in the Natuna archipelago located in the South China Sea in the northern most tip of the Riau Islands in Indonesia. It is considered unique to this area.

Dr Thomas was visiting the Riau Islands in response to an invitation by the Governor of the islands to present a research paper at the First International Seminar on Malay Culture and Arts in the province’s capital of Tanjungpinang.

She spoke about the mendu performed in the northern Natuna archipelago of the Riau Islands before engaging in further fieldwork in another relatively isolated part of the province, the Lingga islands in the province’s southeast. 

Dr Thomas has also been invited to collaborate with a well-known local scholar and a team of Indonesian fieldworkers to conduct a comprehensive research survey on the performance aspects and social function of mendu in villages in the coming year.