Unlike previous days, the house of Saroyo, an empu or master craftsman of gamelan, saw no hammering of metal or burning fires one Saturday morning.
Workers in his gamelan workshop termed a besalen in Wirun village in Sukoharjo, Central Java, were busily preparing offerings in the form of chicken, cone-shaped rice, water steeped in flower petals and incense, among others.
Saroyo said a big undertaking would begin that Saturday Pahing (the second day of Java’s five-day week), seen as a “fortunate day”. That undertaking was the crafting of a full set of gamelan instruments, which in the tradition of Javanese society is marked by a ritual.
“The ritual is called Gongso Ageng, a ceremony to appeal for divine blessings so that the craftwork will progress safely and smoothly,” Saroyo said.
According to Saroyo, during the heyday of the Surakarta and Yogyakarta sultanates, this ritual was always held before beginning to craft the instruments. Apart from physical strength, spiritual power is required for the work, starting with fasting on the Monday and Thursday before the work proceeds.
“Gongso Ageng has for decades been absent here [in Wirun]. I remember the last such ritual in the 1970s, when a set of gamelan was ordered by the Yogyakarta Palace,” Saroyo said.
The modest ritual began with the besalen owner’s prayer in front of a prapen or fireplace, followed by prayers from royal servants of the Surakarta Palace and workshop craftsmen. The owner then plunged incense, brown sugar, coconuts and rice into a copper pan.
Before leaving the prapen, the owner tossed four bits of incense into the fire. The ritual participants later sat on a mat around the offerings laid on a large, short table. A modin or ritual leader from the Surakarta Palace led more prayers.
“Through this ritual, gamelan masters believe they gain supernatural power from the spirits of their forebears so that they can finish the large job properly. These predecessors’ spirits are called dhanyang [guardians] and said to be around their besalen,” said Aloysius Suwardi, a gamelan expert from the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI)
Workshop owners in Wirun — around 10 kilometers southeast of Surakarta (better known as Solo) — generally still carry out laku or ascetic practices before crafting gamelan instruments. They even apply mystical ingredients such as incense, palm sugar and offering petals to the metal alloys used in their craft.
Saroyo’s ritual peaked in a bancakan, with all participants savoring the offered food like chicken, sega gurih (coconut milk rice), relish and traditional snacks. Consuming the offerings is believed to produce magical powers that help a set of gamelan be forged to completion.
“Their belief in Gong Ageng is so deep that virtually no empu dares to violate it for fear of the dhanyang’s fury. The gamelan could come out defective or even damaged,” Suwardi said.
Suwardi, also a composer of gamelan melodies, said gong making starts off the crafting of an entire set of gamelan, which consists mostly of various percussion instruments.
“A gong is considered sacred with a mystical aura. In gamelan music it serves to regulate the rhythm played. The position of a gong is so respectable that it is accorded high status terms of address like Kyai and Nyai, for example Kyai Muncar, Kyai Gerah Kapat and Nyai Sepet Madu,” Suwardi said.
After the simple ceremony, the workers entered the dim and stuffy besalen and began weighing copper, tin and bronze. A gamelan set consists of 26 instruments other than the gong, the rest including kempul, kenong, bonang, saron, slenthem, gender, kethuk and kendhang.
A complete set normally needs about 13 quintals of copper and three quintals of bronze and tin. Especially for a gong, the materials are often combined with gold — symbolizing a bridal gift from the customer.
“This set of gamelan will be ready within four to five months. A gong takes the longest time because about five days are spent molding the shape alone. Besides the large size, the surface contours are also hard to form, requiring repeated burning and hammering,” said Saroyo, who has been doing this work for over 30 years.
The workshop was active as materials were melted, the room getting red hot due to flames from the prapen and ash from burning metal covering the workers’ sweaty bodies. From this room, amazing gamelan instruments would result, to be followed by a thanksgiving ceremony.
A complete set ranges in price from Rp 150 million (US$15,900) to Rp 500 million depending on the quality of the materials used — the cheapest usually mixed with iron. If an individual instrument is ordered, a gong with a diameter of 90 centimeters costs about Rp 11 million. The price of a gong 105 centimeters in diameter is Rp 20 million.
In Wirun, the golden period of the gamelan industry was 1999, when nearly all besalen owners in the village exported their products, with a turnover of billions of rupiah. Spain, Greece, Japan, Korea and the US had the most frequent orders.
“Today the situation has changed. Orders for gamelan sets have become scarce. Customers prefer to order individual instruments like a gong, kenong or bonang. Even those buyers don’t appear every month,” said Supoyo, another empu in the village.
Unsurprisingly, some gamelan craftsmen have closed their besalen and chosen to return to their paddy fields. While 10 years ago Wirun had 15 workshops, now only 10 are producing, including the besalen of Saroyo, Supoyo, Joko Darmono, Pardiyo, Saleh Sutomo and Suparno.
In spite of the declining business, Wirun has remained a gong-making center in Surakarta. The soul of gamelan has inspired local craftsmen to revive the industry once established by Reso Wiguno, a gamelan player of the Mangkunegaran Palace.
“I wish to see gamelan live on in this village. In fact, making gamelan is not merely meant for a living, but also for the preservation of traditional arts so that it continues with the new generations,” Saroyo said.
— Photos by Ganug Nugroho Adi