Text and Photos by P.J. Leo
At 89, Sukarna still has an ear for gong tones. He also still lends a hand at his workshop on Jl. Pancasan in Bogor, West Java. No one else can tune a gong like he can, it is said.For six generations, his family has made gongs by hand at the factory, which has been in the same place for two centuries. Sukarna has more than 50 years’ experience at the factory, the oldest — and now the only one left — in West Java.
Located around 2 kilometers from the Bogor Botanical Gardens, the Gong Factory is squeezed into a series of houses.
The pounding of hammers by factory workers striking tin and copper cannot be heard outside because of heavy traffic along Jl. Pancasan.
“For the last 10 years the Gong Factory has only produced large gongs with a 73-centimeter diameter and a weight of 16 kilograms, besides smaller ones. Previously, we made larger gongs of 83 centimeters and 23 kilograms,” said Sukarna.
“We discontinued the larger gong production 10 years ago because a worker had died each year for six consecutive years. They couldn’t stand the extreme heat of the furnaces in forging the bigger ones,” noted Sukarna, who is present at the factory from 6 a.m. every day.With two furnaces and blowers to keep charcoal burning, the workshop is hot and stuffy and lacks decent lighting and air circulation — which makes it tough to cope with the dust from the flames used to burn bronze out of tin and copper. A first group makes large gongs by turning bronze in the furnace. Three workers forge the bronze and another controls a blower to maintain the charcoal flames. A second group nearby makes small gongs and gamelan.
In a building behind the factory, others craft wooden frames to position gongs and gamelan. The factory is where traditional musical instruments have been forged for about two centuries. Sukarna says he knows that the time will come when he has to leave management of the Gong Factory to another. Krisna Hidayat, Sukarna’s third child, is determined to take over the factory leadership and is striving to keep the business alive despite the threat to traditional culture from contemporary capitalism.
An absence of competitors doesn’t mean the family can rest on their laurels.
Given changing musical tastes, Krisna said that he has to find ways of increasing public interest in gongs as well as gamelan, because unless the instruments are played, demand will decline and gong production will be threatened. “Although we receive orders, it’s tough for the Gong Factory to survive by waiting for orders. We have to be proactive. Therefore, I’ve purchased a domain on the internet to create a Gong Factory website and now it’s in the process of completion,” Krisna said .
“At present many foreign tourists are in fact visiting us to watch the process of gong crafting, but they don’t buy. That will be my next target,” he adds.
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