There has been a long-standing practice in Yogyakarta of celebrating the birth of Mohammed with festivities of both a sacred and secular character. We have already elsewhere on this site explored the sacred-in-character celebrations of Sekatèn and Grebeg Mulud, but running concurrently with them is a secular fair, now called Pasar Malam (“Night Market”), situated in the Northern Alun-alun. Tirtakoesoema describes the Pasar Malem (what he refers to as the “Sekatèn fair”) scene in 1932 CE:
At the Sekatèn fair there are roundabouts, whirligigs, swings, film shows and Javanese entertainments such as wayang wong, and of course there is no lack of places to eat because there is a good chance that the gamelan enthusiasts may well feel in need of sustenance. Shopkeepers set up stalls there in the hope that there will be many eager buyers among the public. (2003, p. 109)
The atmosphere at the Alun-alun Lor contrasts markedly with that at the nearby Mesjid Ageng courtyard where the gamelan sekati are being sounded, although, even there, there is a low-key bustle created by food and trinket vendors (and, in recent years, motor scooters passing by). The situation I experienced during Sekatèn in 2016, eighty-four years after the fair described by Tirtakoesoema, seemed remarkably similar, except now modern carnival rides have been added, numerous PA systems blare out live and recorded music, fireworks are constantly being set off, and, instead of running for one week and being aligned with Sekatèn, Pasar Malam now begins a month earlier and closes down about a week after Sekatèn.
Back in 1932, a committee, consisting of officials from the districts of Yogyakarta and presided over by the “Regent kotta” (the Regent of the city proper, who most likely was an appointee of the Sultan), called by Tirtakoesoema “the Sekatèn committee,” organized the Sekatèn fair, including its opening ceremony the guest list of which included the Sultan, civil servants, and other invited guests (ibid). There still exists today a similar committee, called variously the Panitia Sekatèn and the Panitia Pasar Malam, charged with coordinating the various components, both civil/secular and Kraton/sacred, of the celebrations for and around the birth of Mohammed. Although I have been unable to find the exact make-up of this committee, it appears to be convened by the city or provincial government and to include representatives from district governments, the city of Yogyakarta proper, the private business community, the religious community, the military, and the two royal households, the Kraton Yogyakarata and the Pura Paku Alaman.
My first encounter with the Yogyanese celebration of Mohammed’s birth—both its sacred (Sekatèn) and secular (Pasar Malam) sides–was in December 1982. At that time, the secular festivities included a component that I had not previously encountered in the literature on Yogyakarta–the Pameran Karaton (The Palace Exhibition). Through a series of articles in the main newspaper of Yogyakarta, the Kadaulatan Rakyat, during November and December of 1982, I learned that the Panitia Sekatèn had officially requested the Panitia Pameran Koleksi Karaton to assemble, in conjunction with a similar committee from the Pura Paku Alaman (the second royal household in Yogyakarta), an exhibition of royal objects in the Pagelaran and Sitihinggil area of the Kraton during Pasar Malam. I wish I knew more about the genesis of Pameran Karaton–when it was first conceived, why, and by whom. Was it conceived by the Kraton or by the Panitia Sekatèn, and was it seen as a response to the ever-increasing debauchery of Pasar Malam or as an additional contribution to its joyful commotion (a desirable social condition captured in the word ramé [Jv.]/ramai [Indo.])? Be that as it may, one evaluative observation I can make with confidence is that the nature and content of Pameran Karaton stands in stark contrast to those of Pasar Malam. On display during the four Pameran Karaton exhibitions I have experienced over the years have been royal carriages, illuminated palace manuscripts, palace dance costumes, heirloom shadow puppets, palace gamelans, kris (the Javanese ceremonial dagger), a smith and his assistants demonstrating how gamelan gongs are made, and a variety of other displays assembled by the Kraton, the Pura Paku Alaman, and other cultural institutions (see images distributed throughout this page).
In 1982 Pameran Karaton ran for twenty-five days (4-28 December 1982), opening on the 4th with a grand, invited-guests-only performance of music and dances presented by the Kridhamardawa office of the palace, and closing on the 28th, the day of Grebeg Mulud, with the Bedhol Songsong wayang kulit performance. Except for the opening and closing events, all other live dance and gamelan music performed during Pameran Karaton that year was provided by groups/clubs from Yogyakarta proper and its four surrounding districts and by groups from area performing arts and dance schools. This was, at the time, the only context in which non-palace gamelan performers could perform in the palace and on kagungan dalem gamelan sets. There must have been a sense of prestige associated with this opportunity because, before the Pameran Karaton even opened, forty-two gamelan groups from around the Special Region of Yogyakarta had applied to the palace’s Panitia Pameran for the privilege to perform during the exhibition (Kadaulatan Rakyat, 2 December 1982, p.2).
In 2016, Pameran Karaton lasted only eleven days—2-12 December and consisted of eleven performance events. Its opening event was rather subdued in comparison to what I had witnessed in 1982. Kridhamardawa presented a concert of palace-style gamelan music and a refined court dance, but there were no speeches, ceremonial ribbon cutting, or VIP guests in attendance. Instead, any person who had paid the rupiah 5,000 admission price to Pameran Karaton (less than US 40¢) could watch as little or as much of the performance as they wished before moving on to the other displays of palace culture in the exhibition. Except for the opening concert performed by palace abdidalem musicians and singers, all of the other ten events were presented by gamelan and dance organizations not affiliated with the palace. Two groups were typically scheduled each evening. For example, on 9 December the evening’s musical/dance offerings were presented by two ibu-ibu (mostly female) groups, one from Bantul and the other from the Kacamatan Kraton (the sub-district of Yogyakarta that coincides roughly with the outer-walls of the palace). I was there because one of the performers in the latter group was a friend, and it was clear from conversations with her what a big deal this performance opportunity was for her group and how special it was for them to be performing on palace gamelans in the palace.
Pameran Karaton and all eleven of the performance events that were part of it in December 2016 can best be understood, in my opinion, as a palace public relations project. For it, a space of encounter is constructed in the Pagelaran-Sitihinggil area in which the Kraton presents an image of itself to the contemporary population of the Yogyakarta region. It seems to me that there are two primary goals that the palace hopes to achieve through the mounting of this now yearly project: 1) to reinforce and perpetuate amongst the general population perceptions of itself as the premier traditional Yogyanese cultural institution with a long and proud history; and 2) to illustrate to the general public that it is no longer as exclusive and perhaps out-of-touch with the times as it once was.
Palace gamelans are employed in the encounter space of this project in two significant ways. To begin with, four palace gamelans are strategically displayed at transition points within the exhibition space. As visitors enter the exhibition through Pagelaran, one of the very first objects they see is a pair of fully-modernized and exquisitely decorated 19th century palace gamelans—K.K. Medharsih and K.K. Mikatsih—arranged for performance on a raised platform. Later, after visitors have ascended a flight of stairs to the Sitihinggil, they immediately encounter to their left and right the two oldest and most sacred palace pusaka gamelans, the gamelan monggang K.K. Gunturlaut and the gamelan kodhok ngorèk K.K. Maésaganggang. Collectively, the deployment by the Kraton of these four impressive sets suggests to me that the institution is demonstrating its cultural greatness and deep roots in Javanese history to exhibition visitors. Additionally, the palace not only allows visitors to hear the two modernized sets close-up during daily performance events, they allow—indeed invite—non-palace gamelan groups to perform on them. To have individuals who are neither nobility themselves nor court retainers (abdidalem) touch anything in the palace, much less important objects such as kagungan dalem gamelans, is unheard of. It therefore seems obvious to me that in this instance the palace has made a calculated decision to break with tradition, most likely in order to display to the public that it is not stuck in its feudal past, but rather that it can develop new ways to interface with the contemporary public. That they decided to do this through their gamelan holdings suggests that palace officials are fully cognizant of the power of music making to communicate a message that goes beyond the actual sounds being produced.