The majority of the population earn their living by farming. In the coastal area there are a lot of them who live as fishermen. And some of them carry on trade, become labourers and officials especially cities and plantation areas.
Since a long time ago North Sumatera has been open for the outer world. This is not only caused by the existing communication facilities such as the ocean harbours Belawan and Sibolga and the airport of Polonia Medan but, also Indonesian ethnic groups especially many of those from Java have lived in this province since the opening of the plantation in Dutch Colonial time.
Even later they have assimilated with the native people. Also many foreign citizens live here; especially in big cities. Plantations form the most important economical potential of north Sumatera. A big plantation area is especially found in plains in the Eastern part.
Like the other areas in Indonesia, North Sumatera is characterized with all kinds of art. And caused by the regional condition, the existence of a particular style of art is of nothing incredible in every region. Also various kinds of ethnic groups found in North Sumatra, have created sorts of art showing where the ethnic groups come from.
As a really open area for comers it is obvious that the influence of outer culture will easily enter this area. This influence is seen obviously on the nature of art inherited up to the present. This doesn’t mean that the original form of their art has disappeared. The inheritance shows that some tribes, especially in the inlands still practice the art. Like art life in other areas, the birth and creation of art in North Sumatra contains magic/religious and aesthetic aspects. These two values appear in all kinds of arts.
According to the myth of the tribes, there were all kinds of antecedents of the people of North Sumatera.
Batak tribe for example believes that their ancestors came down from heaven to the top of mouth Busuk Buhit, and lived in Sianjur area. It first around Samosir island and later its generation developed and spread everywhere in its surroundings. Nias tribe believes that their ancestors came from them most beautiful heaven called Tetoholi Ana’a, and went down to the Gomo area in the middle part of Nias and later spread to all part of the island. Some of the Malayan tribe believes they were originated from the descendants of Iskandar Zulkarnaen who came down on the hill of Siguntang in Palembang.
Nothing could fix the antecedents of the people of North Sumatera, however, according to the historical of the spreading of the tribes like the other Indonesian people the ancestors were supposed to come from further India coming to this area in groups. Therefore people consisting of all kinds of tribes developed by themselves in their own areas.
As the result of the pluralistic condition art as moral expression of the tribes, they have their own various style and kinds. Like the various kinds of its tribes in North Sumatra there are all kinds of traditional art, namely Malayan art, Batak Toba art, Simalungan art, Karo art, Pakpak Dairi art, Angkola mandailing art, coastal and Nias art. These traditional arts have their own kinds, style and local characteristics.
The style and characteristics of ethnic art, are later influenced by outer culture. The influence of the older megalithic art is found in the cultural environment of the population of Nias archipelago. The Hindu influence is felt especially in the Batak ethnic environment whereas Islam influence in the coastal populated area. Megalithic art for example has left its remnants in Nias in the form of stone monuments and sacrificial ceremony by scarifying a pig. Also in several places around Samosir there are statues and cemeteries of the ancestors. The Hindu influence is around in all kinds of aspects of life in this area. In all kinds of spoken language and medical books of Batak called Pustaha there are Sanskrit words. Even the form of the original Batak characters are very much influenced by Hindu, so are the textile handicraft.
The temples found in South Tapanuli are proofs of Hindu remainder in architectural field. The temple complex spread in a large area.
Some names of “marga” in Dairi and Karo, are considered to have originated from the influence of social structure in Hindu culture, such as “marga-marga” Brahmana, Padia, and Colia. So are the influences of religion and Islam cultures. Especially in the art of this area, there are all kinds and sorts of typical Islamic items. Gambus, rebana, adrah, bordah and qasidah are Islamic art of music. Whereas in field of art dancing for example there is one called “tari zapin” which is liked by people of the coastal area.
Mosque and palace are the products of Islamic architecture. The Grand Mosque in Medan and Azizi Mosque in Tanjungpura, with their beautiful ornaments have a high Islamic architecture, so are the Maimun on palace in Medan and the Datuk Lime Laras Palace in Asahan.
The Dutch Colonial rule later built some buildings in European style such as City Hall and Post office. Since this era, the new art had developed as individualistic among the middle class people who was living in the city. Whereas the traditional art was still supported by the ethnic group although it was not developed by the colonial government.
In general the new art forms activities on literature and play which develop in Medan. The well known play groups at that time were Keris (creese) Opera, Blue White, Miss Alang etc. The period of the Japanese occupation formed a paralyzing period for art. The people potential supporting traditional art grew weaker and weaker. Some kinds of art had disappeared and the appreciation of the people toward art was decreasing. The daily stress of life which was so burdensome influences the attention and attitude of people toward their traditional art.
After the fight for freedom especially after 1960s’ traditional activity being neglected for a long time and as the result of change in attitude and progress of the era gradually could attract the interest of the people. Probably caused by the strength of the Batak people in holding and applying their tradition, the spreading of art from one area/tribe to the other became difficult. Consequently, particular style of art of each area/tribe was created.