Sun, 20 Feb 2000

Orders from Bali keep gamelanmakers afloat

Text and photos by Ali Budiman

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): Thirty-five-year-old Harwanto does not care about the dust which makes his face and body black. His strong hands hold a long pair of pincers to pull out a red hot sheet of copper mixed with tin. Assisted by two partners, Harwanto lifts the hot object with a swift movement and moves it to a stone mold to be forged.

As the proverb goes, "strike while the iron is hot", three workers, without waiting for his instruction, rhythmically strike the red hot sheet, which is about 500 degrees centigrade, with a long hammer. The banging of the hammers does not stop until the bronze turns blackish again, a condition showing that it should be heated once more.

This is the beginning of the gong-making process in Mojolaban village, Sukoharjo, Surakarta. Harwanto, as a "senior", does not talk much. However, after the sheet was forged seven or eight times and assumed the shape of a gong, he began to give instructions amid the noisy sound made by the striking hammers. He told his co-workers which part had to be struck more and which less.

To make gongs, nine thin but brawny men forge a sheet weighing some 50 kilograms, with the ratio between copper and tin being 10 to 3, so that the sheet, originally the size of a frying pan, becomes a gong with a diameter of 77 cm.

They all work from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and use 360 kilograms of charcoal, the fuel in the simple pumping furnace system. The forging process ends when Harwanto thinks the shape of the gong has been perfectly formed. Then he holds the hot gong with steel wire to ensure that the spherical shape of it will not change when the it is put into a pool of water, the final stage of the forging and also the cooling phase.

These gongmakers, sweating all over and dusty, eat a simple lunch of rice plus cooked vegetables, egg and a condiment containing chili peppers. They drink tea and have one plastic bag of fried slices of tempe (soyabean cake) and cassava as a snack during a break.

That very afternoon, Harwanto was happy when he received his payment of Rp 20,000 as a reward for his hard work for the day. For the past 15 years he has taken up a job as a gongmaker.

"Dust will settle all over our bodies. Look at me. My body is all dark. By doing this, you will sweat and spend much of your energy," he said. "Besides, you must know the technique as otherwise it will be dangerous because we are dealing with hot objects."

Harwanto, who graduated from the Technical Vocational Secondary School in 1982, used to spend a short time in farming. Later, just like the other young men in his village, he switched to a job in a gamelan factory, which enjoyed its heyday from the 1970s up to the 1990s.

It is hard to imagine how gamelanmakers in Mojolaban village, a place known as the center for making bronze gamelans, would do at this time of economic difficulty if they did not receive regular orders from art troupes in Bali.

Harwanto was grateful that despite the present economic difficulty, orders for gongs from Bali continued to come to Werdhi Sedono, a factory which he depended on for his living.

He said he could have a decent life with his wife and two children, a 12-year son and three-month-old daughter.

Harwanto's boss, Jumadi Hadiwiyono, a kind and hospitable middled-aged man with six children, agreed with Harwanto, his chief employee. He said that prior to the onset of the economic crisis, a kilogram of copper was Rp 6,000 and a kilogram of tin was Rp 25,000. When supplies became low, the prices would rise by 300 percent, he said. Today, the prices for the material are not so high. Tin, for example, is available at Rp 52,000 per kilogram. As for copper, he said, he can always place an order for leftover sheets from factories using copper, at prices lower than usual.


Due to the economic crisis, Jumadi, has rarely received an order for the Javanese gongs, bende or kempul. Jumadi's buyers were the government agency for art, the Javanese gamelan music and singing school, the Yogyakarta and Surakarta palaces and certain government agencies where money could be easily obtained.

However, in the past two years such orders have virtually ceased to come. But the Balinese do not seem to be affected by the economic crisis. Every month, Jumadi said, he receives up to 30 orders for Balinese gongs. Balinese gongs are usually without decoration, he said, adding that they are usually collected by art collectors from abroad, particularly from the Netherlands, Suriname and the United States. Jumadi, however, has never sold his gongs directly abroad. The gongs must first go through his agent in Bali. In fact, according to the marketing manager of the factory, in a foreign currency, the price can be four times higher than Rp 1,350,000, the amount received from Bali for one standard gong.

There is a very important phase that all gongs have to go through: tuning. This job is handled by Jumadi. He uses a piece of rope to hang the gong with and then beats several parts of it so he can listen to the echoing sound made. If some part needs improving, it is marked with wet earth. This part will be forged again until it becomes perfect. The tuning-up skill is a determining factor to show whether or not the sound of the gong is exactly what the buyer has asked. Bali, Yogyakarta, Surakarta and the Northern coast of Java have their own uniqueness.

Jumadi claimed to have inherited the art of gong-making from his late father, Resowiguno, who in 1958 began as a gamelan or gong master in the modest village, which is located not far from the Surakarta palace.

Jumadi's feeling of pride does not come from owning a new model of Honda Accord or a Suzuki Carry, but because his business can run well, all his children have gone to university and there is always a job and Idul Fitri bonuses for about a dozen of his employees. In addition, he feels a sort of spiritual satisfaction when he realizes that he has helped conserve the legacies of his ancestors with the sets of traditional musical instruments of his own making.