The Gamelans of the Kraton Yogyakarta
by Roger Vetter


This document is a study of how, in a specific context that is animated by a particular understanding of the world, musical instruments become objects of reverence in addition to their practical utilization as tools of musical performance. The context of this study is the royal palace (kraton) of the former Sultanate of Ngyogyakarta Hadiningrat (hereafter shortened to "Yogyakarta," which is also the name of the city in which the palace is physically situated). Geographically speaking, Yogyakarta is located in the south-central part of Java, the most populous island of the Southeast Asian achipelago nation of Indonesia. Prior to the establishment of the nation of Indonesian in 1950, the Sultanate of Yogyakarta was a recognized, free-standing entity under the colonial umbrella of the Netherlands East Indies. Founded in 1755, the Kraton Yogyakarta has been, like other Javanese royal institutions, a bastion of the Javanese aristocracy and a place where the ideals of cultural refinement have been developed to a remarkable level of nuance and complexity. It has as its animating nucleus a central, charismatic, and spiritually-validated leader, the Sultan, who is a link in a hereditary lineage that bears the title Hamengku Buwana ("He Who Cradles the World"). Even in post-independence Indonesia, in an age when royalty and their kingdoms no longer have any economic or political power to speak of, there exists enough of a critical mass of Javanese who find meaning in the traditions perpetuated by the Kraton Yogyakarta to sustain it as a cultural institution. Both historically and presently, the performing arts play a central role in the ceremonial and everyday activities of the palace. The distinctive Javanese instrumental ensemble known as the gamelan is thoroughly orchestrated into these meaning-laden activities, and it is the numerous gamelan sets found in the Kraton Yogyakarta that will be the focus of this study.

The Kraton Yogyakarta possesses a truly extraordinary collection of gamelans, the impressive sets of indigenous Javanese instruments on which music is performed for ceremonies (upacara), listening pleasure (uyon-uyon), and to accompany dance (beksan or tarian) and puppet theatre (wayang kulit and wayang golek). Over the 250 year history of the Yogyakarta palace and its lineage of Sultans, dozens of gamelans have been utilized in the daily and ceremonial life of the institution. Although several of these sets have had fleeting association with the palace, many others have become more-or-less permanent fixtures of palace life. It is this latter group of gamelans, currently numbering twenty-three sets, that will be explored in this study.

Javanese gamelans are themselves fascinating and imposing cultural objects. They include a wide variety of instrument types with perhaps the most distinctive one being the gong, which comes in an array of sizes and shapes. But gamelans also include numerous varieties of keyed instruments with bars made from bronze or wood, as well as hand drums, stringed instruments, and bamboo flutes. Each set is visually unified by its wood casings and racks that are carved and painted with eye-catching motifs and colors. When arranged for performance in the traditional setting of an open-sided pavilion (bangsal or pendhapa) gamelans can be truly stunning objects to behold. This impression is further enhanced if one is aware of the difficult process involved in manufacturing the bronze sounding elements of these ensembles and of the symbolic, even mystical, associations Javanese read into their making. Add to this that some of these sets have been in existence for centuries and one can easily begin to perceive why these tools of musical performance have become revered, quasi-personified objects treated with great respect.

In the rarefied cultural context of the Kraton Yogyakarta there are yet other facets of these instruments that contribute to the esteem conferred upon them by those Javanese who dedicate their lives to this institution. It is these facets of the palace gamelans that will be revealed and explained on the pages to follow. For the convenience of the reader, an Appendix is provided in which the various types of instruments comprising a gamelan are listed, described, and illustrated.