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In Memoriam : Hans Teeuw: Ever a student of Indonesia

  • Karel Steenbrink


UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS | Wed, May 23 2012 | 09:10 am
In Memoriam : Hans Teeuw: Ever a student of Indonesia

Hans Teeuw was born on Aug. 12, 1921 in Gorinchem, in the Netherlands.
He died on May 18.

JPHans Teeuw was born on Aug. 12, 1921 in Gorinchem, in the Netherlands.

He died on May 18.

In 1938, Teeuw became a student of Indology at Leiden, the common educational path for future colonial officials. In 1941, the war made formal study impossible.

At that time, Teeuw, barely further than being a brilliant undergraduate, addressed Prof. Jan Gonda and, while in hiding in different places managed to write the draft of a Ph.D. dissertation that was accepted in 1946. It was the edition and translation of the story and death of the criminal Bhoma.

In 2005, an English edition of the work was published by Teeuw in cooperation with Stuart Robson. A more poetic Dutch rendering was finished by Teeuw in 2011.

It would be his last work; he then prepared himself for death, not the preliminary death, of “those who died but did not reach Death” (Bhomantaka, Canto 11:9) preceding a new and better life in the earthly regions, but the fulfillment of all duties and the act of becoming unchained. That is Death written with a capital D, also in Teeuw’s translation.

His wife Joosje had preceded him in late May 2009; Hans decided to opt for starvation and reached his goal in five days – in peace and harmony.

In the uncertain period of the aftermath of the Nazis and the Pacific War, Teeuw received a government position as a language researcher, especially among the Sasak people of Lombok.

This was a hard time for him: his wife (already his fiance in 1935), had to go to Switzerland for a cure for tuberculosis. He arrived in Jakarta on September 18, 1947, and stayed until October 1951, doing fieldwork in Lombok from September 1949 to October 1950.

In late 1951 Teeuw was nominated professor of comparative linguistics at Utrecht until he moved to Leiden in 1955, when he became professor of Malay and Indonesian language and literature. This was the start of a difficult period: colonialism had ended and there was no longer a secure position for students of “Indology” and there were few students.

Willem van der Molen tells an anecdote that at an information session he was looking for something absolutely different, but instead found Teeuw sitting alone in a room, started to talk with him and so Van der Molen became one of the few students of Indonesian languages and culture between 1955 and 1965.

Teeuw was active in many fields: he published his study of Lombok, more on Old Javanese, on classical Malay (in 1966 the publication of the lovely Syair Kem Tambuhan) and started his two-volume work on modern Indonesian literature.

In the late 1960s the political relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia improved, and Teeuw became a true post-colonial scholar. He had no direct links with colonialism, loved Indonesian culture and also experienced hard times in Europe during a terrible war. He wanted true cooperation between Dutch and Indonesian scholars for the best of the two countries, but first for the enrichment of both cultures. He was not only a scholar of manuscripts and linguistic research, but could handle the bureaucracy on both sides with respect and in an effective way.

He started BIS (Bureau Indonesische Studiën) for projects in anthropology, linguistics and religious studies. In this way, I was myself invited in 1978 to start a one-year training for nine IAIN (State Institute of Islamic Studies) staff who came to the Netherlands. He accompanied these projects from a distance but when necessary he intervened with the higher levels of bureaucracy to find practical solutions.

Indonesian students in the Netherlands were always surprised to see how Teeuw could also be interested in their practical problems, welcoming them into his home.

In speeches he liked to start by giving thanks to the cleaners, administrative staff, drivers and others who made academic life possible.

A special position in the last two decades was given to Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Teeuw wrote two books about this novelist of modern Indonesia and hoped Toer would receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

If we look back at the formidable list of publications, we can only be astonished by the quantity of his work: an Indonesian-Dutch dictionary with five editions and, until five years ago at the age of 87, Pak Teeuw was still reading TEMPO to see whether new words had found their way into modern Indonesian.

But, language was most of all communication for him: he set new standards for relations between the Dutch and Indonesians in the post-colonial period.

Terima kasih, thank you very much, Pak Teeuw!


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