Cultural Meaning of Gamelans

Anthropologist Barbara Babcock has pointed out that scholars from a range of disciplines have begun

. . . to demonstrate that [objects of material culture] are “interpretations,” “objectifications,” or “materializations” of experience; that artifacts are indeed repositories of significance, both embodying and collecting cultural meanings; and that “objects speak” and are vehicles as well as vestiges of human communication and interaction.[1]

Gamelans are undeniably objects and as such have a physical presence and a utility–they are, at the very least, tools of musical production. But place these objects in a cultural geography such as the Kraton Yogyakarta, in proximity to other objects and amidst people and the understandings of the world that they hold and the behaviors they display in the time-space of that geography, and other significant facets of these gamelans become evident. Gamelans become part of a network of communication and interaction “between objects and humans, between humans and humans, and between objects and other objects”[2] that might be identified as agency.

It is the work of this section to reveal some basic ways in which palace gamelans embody cultural meaning in the context of the Kraton Yogyakarta. Through becoming aware of the honorifics and names conferred upon palace gamelans, the associations these sets have with past and present sultans, the decorative and color symbolism displayed on their casings, and the reverential gestures directed to them by members of the palace community, a sense of how these objects can be thought of as possessing agency in the context of the Kraton Yogyakarta should come into focus. This sense will be further developed in the latter half of this project where the object-human, human-human, and object-object interactions of palace musical life will be examined.