Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Gong-making tradition still alive in Tihingan

I Made Sujata, Contributor, Tihingan, Bali

For centuries, the people of Tihingan, Klungkung regency, managed to sustain the ancestral legacy of gong-making at their small village, some 40 kilometers northeast of Denpasar. Unfortunately, the combined threat of decreasing demand and lack of skilled workers has placed the future of its gong industry in grave danger.

The gong, the generic term for traditional Balinese musical instruments, was a permanent feature in Balinese cultural life. Since ancient times, it evolved into various forms and served numerous functions -- from the simple and sacred Selonding of primitive Bali to the intricate and profane Gong Kebyar of contemporary times.

It was the primary musical element at Balinese Hindu rituals, social events and traditional entertainments.

Nowadays, only a few gong-making villages survive in Bali, and Tihingan is the most famous. During its productive years, when the majority of its 238 households were involved in the industry, Tihingan not only marketed its gongs in Bali but also shipped them to Japan, Germany and the United States, where numerous sekeha gamelan (gong ensembles) were established by arts students and Balinese communities.

"Unfortunately, local market demand has decreased by 20 percent, while the demand from the foreign market plunged by 60 percent," gong-maker I Wayan Widnya said.

Widnya blamed various crises that have befallen the island in the last five years as the primary culprit behind shrinking demand. However, another factor--- the durability of the gong -- also contributed significantly. If properly maintained, a set of gongs can last for decades, or longer.

The decrease in demand was further aggravated by the dwindling productivity of the industry. A large number of Tihingan youths were lured away by more "prestigious and modern" jobs in the cities, thus robbing the industry of the skilled workers it desperately needed.

The fact that being a gong-maker was a lowly paid job -- a worker received around Rp 150,000 to Rp 300,000 (US$ 18.8 to 37.50) per month -- certainly did not increase the job's stature in their eyes.

"In the old days, I could deliver four gong sets to my customers in Gianyar. Nowadays, I simply don't have enough workers to do that," Widnya said.

Currently, it took Widya two to three months to finish one gong set. A complete set, comprising around 40 instruments, carries a price tag of up to Rp 70 million, while a 20-piece gong is sold for about Rp 15 million.

It was no wonder then that several gong-makers compensated for the diminishing productivity by buying gongs from Surakarta, Central Java, and reselling them in Tihingan.

The disenchantment of youths with gong-making might also have been caused by the difficult nature of the work itself. Gong- making required a combination of intensive manual labor and sensitive aural abilities.

Widnya motioned toward his spacious workshop, where around 15 heavily-perspiring workers were toiling at various stages of gong-making. Before the burning perapen (hearth), two workers were manipulating and forging the kerawang (a mixture of copper and lead) liquid into the various gong instrument shapes. Next to them, several workers were carefully fine tuning the gongs to their designated tones, while the rest of the workers were carving intricate designs on wooden gong holders.

Extreme heat, a lot of sweat and a dirty working environment have surely scared away many youths, who dream of working in a sharp suit in a cool office.

The origins of the gong industry in Tihingan can be traced back to the 19th century, when the King of Klungkung, anticipating a war against the neighboring kingdom of Gianyar, ordered several dozen of his best men to build and man a fortification at the kingdom's western border.

The area was thickly colonized by bamboo groves, known in Balinese language as tihing; hence the origin of its current name, Tihingan.

"Those men were of the Pande clan in Pangi village. No sharp weapons could penetrate their bodies; that's the reason why the king chose them to guard the area that bordered Gianyar," village elder Ida Bagus Ngurah Parwata said.

Under the ancient Balinese method of task distribution, the Pande clan's main responsibility was supplying and maintaining weapons to the royal armory. It also served as the public's sole source of iron tools and instruments. Since they were working under the divine guidance and blessing of Brahma, the lord of creation and fire, these ironsmiths were eventually bestowed a supernatural power of invincibility against any man-made metal weapon.

Fortunately, the Pande of Pangi did not have to prove their invincibility against Gianyar troop weaponry. Both kingdoms backed off from the imminent, violent showdown.

"However, the Pandes, probably out of their love for the scenic beauty of the area, chose to stay in Tihingan, instead of returning to Pangi," Parwata said.

In the ensuing peaceful era, these ironsmiths turned their attention to the abundance of bamboo plants in their new village.

"The King asked them to make one set of traditional bamboo musical instruments, known as rindik. Gradually, they became more immersed in the art of producing musical instruments than in producing weapons," he said.