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From victims to survivors: The healing journey of the Dialita choir

Dyah Pitaloka and Mohan J. Dutta
Dyah Pitaloka and Mohan J. Dutta

Lecturer at the University of Sydney and founding director at CARE

Jakarta  /  Tue, September 27, 2016  /  01:48 pm
From victims to survivors: The healing journey of the Dialita choir

Album cover of Dunia Milik Kita (Facebook/Paduan Suara Dialita)

Waiting can be the most boring thing to do in the world, especially if you have been waiting for more than 50 years. You can choose to do nothing and give up, or you can choose to disrupt the silence by telling your story.

Dialita (an abbreviation of "Di Atas Lima Puluh Tahun" or Above 50 Years Old) choir members choose to tell their stories by singing, and together, co-initiate social change, co-constructing new meanings of health and resilience. In working with the women who bear the mark of the 1965/1966 communist purge in Indonesia, we have been humbled by their resolve in telling their stories.

When Uchi started to talk about her painful past, tears dropped from her eyes. At that moment, one of us interviewing her thought that Uchi was a fragile woman, whose life was destroyed by the unbearable trauma and indescribable stigma she had suffered. This was incorrect. With a voice full of hope, Uchi said that singing healed her trauma. Together with the other members of the Dialita choir, Uchi challenged the stigma that had torn her life apart for more than 50 years.

Dialita is a choir that is made up of women whose parents, relatives and friends were captured, tortured and exiled during the 1965/1966 communist purge in Indonesia. In their late sixties, the members of Dialita co-initiate social change through singing performances. Their performances challenge the dominant style of communicating about 1965 and co-create alternative narratives filled with melodious dialogues and joyful hope for the future. This communicative approach is in contrast to the sufferings they have experienced since the purge that wiped out their family members and took away their freedom and dignity. Through their voices, singing has improved their health.

(Read also: Q&A: 1965 and national reconciliation)

“We have to be brave and must not stay silent. Look at us! We’re old now. Young people must know the truth, and it is important for them to know the truth, to listen to different stories and make sense of what happened in the past. They need to learn about ‘65 from different sources,” one of them said. For these women, singing is an act of bravery. Brave in a way that they have to battle their own fear – to share the truth with the public; to battle their fear of rejection and sense of hatred that could easily erupt due to an anti-communist phobia that remains strong even after more than 50 years.

The ability to battle the fear, as expressed by one of the choir members, is an entry point for crafting meanings of health and resilience. Singing the songs that had been erased from the nation’s memory for so long, the members of the choir embark on their trauma-healing journey not as victims, but as survivors.

“If you still look at yourself as a victim, it means you allow the past to control your life. You will live in constant fear, feel isolated, and miss a chance to have your stories heard. Being a victim means you are haunted by the past, always feeling scared and depressed. My life changed, singing makes me feel healthier. I make friends and I stop crying,” one of the members said.

These songs and performances shared by survivors of 1965 draw audiences’ attention to the material bases of oppression, discrimination and injustice, carried out by false claims manufactured through propaganda. Performances become sites of change for both the survivors and the audience. For the survivors, the performative sites mark a transition from being victims to being survivors – individuals who have lived through the struggle and are able to talk about their trauma without fear; envision a healthier life. For the audience members, the performative sites mark a structural transformation that allows them to expose, to experience, to appreciate and to engage bodily with different voices about 1965.

During our many conversations and collaborations with Dialita, we observed that the younger generation of Indonesians, such as college students, musicians and artists demonstrated their enthusiasm to learn the stories of Dialita. In each of their performances, the Dialita choir invites the audience to experience the beauty of their voices and sincerity in their songs. Therefore, although the younger audience members had never heard about the songs and the choir, Dialita performances became an open field for interaction and communication. The boundary between the performers and the audience disappeared as audience members turned into performers of stories based on their lived experiences, engagement, dreams, aspirations and imaginations.

(Read also: Art therapy lends a hand in clinical psychology)

Performances, such as those by Dialita, open up spaces and possibilities for reconstructing histories, challenging false propaganda and countering the stigmas that have originated from the false propaganda. The gradual building of trust, acceptance and recognition between performers and the audience members during this process offers a healing space for the survivors. The collaborative works between Dialita and Indonesia’s talented young musicians and artists have resulted in Dialita’s first album, "Dunia Milik Kita" (The World is Ours). This album is free to download, and since its release on Aug. 17 it has been downloaded by more than 2,000 people. For Dialita, this album is a ‘historical monument’ that marks their healing journey as well as issuing a call for social change and justice.


Dyah Pitaloka is a lecturer at the department of Indonesian studies at the University of Sydney. She was a former postdoctoral fellow and researcher at Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Mohan J. Dutta is a professor and head of the department of communications and new media at NUS. He is the founding director of CARE.

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