By Sumarsam


This paper was presented as the keynote address to the Performing Indonesia conference held on October 31 through November 3, 2013, at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. It examines the formative and transformational processes of Javanese performing arts (gamelan andwayang) within Java and Indonesia more generally, and the ways in which these processes impacted the arts as they were exposed by and introduced to the West. These phenomena are examined through a range of dualisms inherent in the traditions: stasis/motion, sacred/secular, day/night, lord/servant, good/evil, male/female, left/right, traditional/contemporary, and ethnicity/nationality. Such dualism is not seen as a diametrical polar opposite but as each dynamically relates to another. The paper culminates in a discussion of the presence of Javanese performing arts in the West, for example, at world’s fairs in the late nineteenth century. Such manifestations present an intriguing mixture of various interests, from trade and national image to ethnographic shows, colonialism, and ideas aboutrepresents an additional array of dualisms, such as mystification/demystification, de-contextualization/re-contextualization, colonial/colonialized, modern/primitive, national/international, and so forth.


I am honored and humbled to deliver the keynote address of this festival and conference on Indonesian music, dance, and drama. I have wondered why I should be the one to do it. Perhaps it is because, for most of my life, I have been faithful to only one vocation and profession. I have been a gamelan player and teacher for twenty-three years in Indonesia and for forty years in the United States. With gamelan, I have been through a very long journey, dengan suka dukanya (with its ups and downs). I remember how happy I was as an eight-year-old boy to play gamelan with the senior musicians in my village in East Java, performing gamelan sometimes far away, often day and night. My sisters, however, were always worried, and they scolded me with the question: What kind of life will I have if playing gamelan becomes my profession?

I also remember my excitement, right after graduating from junior high school, to perform gamelan nearly every night in a professional kethoprak dance drama. Again, my sisters worried I would become a permanent musician of the kethoprak company, moving from one place to another and being drawn into the intrigues and love affairs that were prevalent among its dancer/actors and musicians. In retrospect, I didn’t see anything wrong with this, as it was part of the dynamic of life. I remember how exciting it was for me to move from my village to Surakarta—a court city known as one of the centers of Javanese “high culture”—to continue my formal training of gamelan. Living far away from my family with limited funding was not easy, although it was quite an adventure. Since I am the son of a farmer, I sometimes brought a bag of rice from my village out of economic necessity. I am grateful to my teacher and mentor, the late Raden Ngabehi Bambang Soemodarmoko, who provided me and my friends with affordable rooms. We were his cantrik(disciples). When an opportunity to go abroad arose to teach gamelan in Australia and then in the United States, I had to choose whether to take a leave from my position as a government employee or to resign from it completely. I chose the latter, hoping I would obtain longer employment abroad, which I did—thanks to Wesleyan University.

In 1983 I decided to enroll in a doctoral program at Cornell University during a sabbatical and subsequent leave from Wesleyan. This was a difficult decision for me; I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I was excited to embark on a study that would lead me to obtain the highest academic degree possible. I would be the first one in my family to do that. On the other hand, I was very nervous, unsure whether I would do a good job writing papers, completing reading assignments for my classes, and passing my comprehensive exams. It was difficult for me to read and write in English and to study the Dutch language. Here I thank my advisors, Professor Martin Hatch, Professor Benedict Anderson, and the late Professor William Austin, who patiently shepherded me through my years of study at Cornell.

Regarding my scholarly work, I have appreciated receiving the positive feedback of my American colleagues, who have acknowledged my ability to present an insider perspective. Sometimes, however, I have felt that this position—as an insider looking inside—has come along with too much baggage. This baggage has often slowed me down in my attempt to learn the perspectives of outsiders looking inside. The notion of insider/outsider is not black and white. We have to acknowledge the rich variability of human life and thought processes (containing both insider and outsider perspectives) as individuals, cultures, and societies in constant interaction with each other.

I must apologize for telling you this long story of my life. I feel it is important for you to understand where I am coming from and my limitations. More importantly, I have noticed something very useful through my life story. I have learned that dualisms are a natural process in life. In my case, there have been many: village/city life, formal/non-formal gamelan training, government/private employment, roles as scholar/practitioner, and insider/outsider status. This duality forms the philosophical underpinning of my discussion on Indonesian traditional performing arts in our changing world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines dualism as “the condition or state of being dual or consisting of two parts; twofold divisions” and alternatively, “a theory or system of thought which recognizes two independent principles.” As I have pondered this definition, I have come to realize that within a dualistic polarity, a dynamic is always at work. In other words, I see dualism, not as two elements that diametrically oppose each other, but as a set of relationships between a range of dynamically interacting, tensional, and complementary aspects. Thus, the various dualisms that occur within Indonesian performing arts—stasis/motion, sacred/secular, day/night, universal/particular, abstract/concrete, mind/matter, lord/servant, good/evil, left/right, ethnicity/nationality, and traditional/modern—should be seen through these dynamic relationships.

Dualism in Wayang Kulit Performance

Within the meanings and practices of wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), several of these dualisms are present, such as the dhalang (puppeteer)/puppet relationship, left/right character, sacred/secular performance, and lord/servant philosophical expression. Here I discuss the dynamic interactions between a few of these polarities, starting with left/right character. This dualism is conveyed in the division of puppet characters according to their left or right position on the screen—left is associated with evil, right with good. These complex human relations, however, cannot be reduced to a simple or rigid interpretation. Benedict Anderson aptly explains that the left/right character reveals “the deeper complementarities and ambiguous interconnections of human existence, since this interconnection is cunningly exposed by the irony that Left and Right are not absolute. Depending whether, at a wayang performance, one watches the puppets or their shadows, right becomes left and left right. Both are merely in the eye of the beholder” (Anderson 1965:6). For example, one of the most beloved characters in wayang is the clown/servant Semar. He represents a contradictory character and paradoxical iconography (an interpretation of the meaning of the content of images). The Semar puppet looks like he is sitting down, yet he is standing up. When standing up, he looks like he is sitting down. As Anderson describes: “He is ornamented like a woman, his clothes are those of man, yet his face is that of neither man nor woman. About his character, Semar ‘though a humble and comical retainer,’ is yet the most powerful of Gods. . . . He is the repository of the highest wisdom, yet this flashes from in between his gentle jokes, his clowning, and even his persistent uncontrollable farting” (Anderson 1965:22–23).1

Wayang Aesthetics

It is not uncommon in Javanese contexts to discuss the performance practice of wayang from a number of dual perspectives, such as: (a) its old and new performance ceremonies (e.g., rite of passage events vs. radio/television broadcasting and political campaigns), (b) the absence and presence of amplification sound systems, and (c) the use of blencong (oil lamps) and electric bulbs as light sources. This last example is of particular interest. Before discussing it further, however, I will briefly examine a few key elements of wayang aesthetics.

Wayang performance is a form of artistic expression that radically departs from life as we know it (Keeler 1992:1). Presented in a symmetrical, two-dimensional pictorial space, there is virtually no scenery in wayang (Mrazek 2005:89–100). Wayang puppets are radically stylized human figures: a puppet’s shape extremely distorts human features (Keeler 1992). The impossibly long arms of a puppet are its only moveable parts, and the range of gestures that can be articulated by a puppet is limited. A dhalang can enliven a puppet, however, and for those accustomed to watching wayang, a conventional puppet’s subtle movements may suggest a greater range of gestures. The fact that wayang is a shadow play, in spite of the puppet’s ornate beauty with intricate carving and painting, is another distinct element of the play.

Traditionally, wayang performance uses an oil lamp (blencong) as the light source for the play, which adds to its unique visual natureAn oil lamp does not produce a steady illumination but rather a flickering reddish/yellowish light. The older generation of wayang connoisseurs hold the opinion that the light source of an oil lamp gives a certain effect, with the flickering light making the puppets on the screen appear as if they are “breathing.” Moreover, the older generation also believes that by watching wayang in shadow, the performance sends them to an imaginative world.

Another important aesthetic in wayang concerns the auditory presentation of the play. The stage apparatus consists of only a stretched white cloth. Through narration and dialogue, the audience understands the content of a scene, including its location, the names of the characters, and their backgrounds. The puppeteer’s delivery of stylized and literary language for narration and dialogue (full of “sound play” or assonance2) deeply affects the psyche of listeners, so much so that its use may not be for providing enhanced clarity of the story but rather for literary enjoyment.

Electric Bulb: Remarkable Movements and Double Shadows

Wayang puppets and their shadows.
Fig 1. A wayangscene viewed from the puppet side, showing the juxtaposition of wayang puppets and their shadows in front of the screen.

Wayang’s traditional practice of the two-dimensional stage and the use of shadow play significantly changed when blencong were replaced with electric bulbs. Gradually, the two-dimensional pictorial space transformed into a three-dimensional wayang stage. Rather than producing shadows, electric light bulbs function more like spotlights in a proscenium theatre. This transformation has changed spectators’ viewing preferences. Increasingly they now watch wayang from the puppet side (as opposed to the shadow side). The strong, sharp light of the electric bulb (halogen is preferred) provides a bright, steady light that allows viewers to see the puppets and their movements clearly. Electric lights also produce sharp shadows, both behind and in front of the screen. Shadows of puppets appear in front of the screen when dhalang hold the figures at a distance from the screen and closer to the light source. Juxtaposing wayang puppets and their shadows in front of the screen makes for a thrilling visual presentation (fig. 1). This compelling display has made it more interesting to watch wayang from the puppet side.

This concept of the three-dimensional wayang stage has also encouraged many dhalang to create more elaborate and sophisticated techniques of puppet movements. Given the larger space now available to him when the light source is moved higher above his head, a contemporary dhalang can manipulate puppets in new and remarkable ways.3 For example, performing a somersault has now become a standard movement for any puppet of strong character. Some puppeteers can make giant puppets do double or even triple somersaults. A technique called gendiran has also become common in fight scenes. In this elaborate movement, a puppeteer finger snaps a hand stick of a puppet, making the arm of the puppet propel into, hit, or be caught by another puppet.
As wayang increasingly becomes a three-dimensional performance, colored bulbs, smoke machines, and other special effects are embedded into it. In one fight scene, I saw a dhalang use a battery-operated device to make an electric spark when two clubs struck one another. Two additional practices have made three-dimensional performance more prevalent: the presence of six or more female singers with alluring makeup and sensuous attire (positioned on a raised stage to the right of the puppeteer and facing the audience), and the presence of guest artists, such as Western and non-Western rock musicians, campursari4 or dangdut singers,5 stand-up comedians, and sometimes singers or gamelan players of foreign nationalities (especially American, European, and Japanese) who happen to study Javanese gamelan.

It is important to mention that these conceptual changes have been and continue to be a controversial topic among wayang devotees and commentators. Debates about the practice of contemporary wayang often arise at conferences, in newspaper articles, and in conversation among the dhalang themselves. I suggest “modernity” has much to do with the development of contemporary wayang. In confronting modernity, wayang artists have become apprehensive about contextualizing their wayang performances within new, unfamiliar environments. Younger generations sometimes claim wayang is old-fashioned (kolot) and not in step with modernity. On the other hand, wayang connoisseurs and certain high-ranking individuals in the government (both retired and still active) have underscored the importance of preserving and safeguarding wayang and gamelan. This led UNESCO to proclaim wayang a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in November 2003.

In spite of the amazing innovations of wayang artists who use electricity, some artists and connoisseurs describe these theatrical effects as trik (from the English trick). This implies such phenomena (i.e., the visual marvels produced by electricity, a technology of Western origin) are no more than gimmicks—but are they only gimmicks? Some would say yes. On the other hand, if we subscribe to the notion that the performing arts are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individually applied (Geertz 1973), the answer would be no. Here, contemporary wayangfalls more in line with John MacAloon’s explication of the Olympic Games. “The growth of the spectacle genre in the modern world is to be understood as a public form of thinking out, of telling stories about certain growing ambiguities and ambivalences in our shared existence” (MacAloon 1984:247). As I see it, the use of electric lighting in wayang is, in many ways, meaningful to the play, even though it is also a source of controversy. In this sense, the use of electricity in Javanese wayang can be seen as a metaphor for and realization of the continuing dynamic transformation of the Javanese-Western cultural encounter.

Ethnicity and Nationalism

Java-Bali Cultural Interaction

I now turn to a broader dualism within Indonesia: ethnicity/nationality. In defining the cultural identity of a particular region, ethnicity is an expression of the existential core of a group’s consciousness. Traditional performing arts often serve as a site for the awareness and articulation of a group’s consciousness. Hundreds of traditional performing arts are found in Indonesia. Each is associated with a specific ethnic group and the geographical region of its homeland (e.g., Batak music, Minangkabau music, Acehnese music, Javanese music, Sundanese music, Central Javanese music, East Javanese music, Banyuwangi music, etc.). Philip Yampolsky has identified a key characteristic of ethnic or traditional music in Indonesia. It is music whose scale, idiom, and repertoire are cultivated in Indonesian regions alone. It does not derive from outside Indonesia in any obvious way. In other words, it does not have clear origins in other musical traditions from the West, Middle East, China, India, etc. (Yampolsky 2001b:274–83). If a regional piece of music has a sung lyric, that lyric is sung in the language of that region. In addition to these features, varying performance contexts contribute to the uniqueness of regional music.

While it is useful to keep such categories in mind, a more complex picture of ethnicity emerges when it is seen in the broader context of the history of ethnic relations. One of the most noted intra-ethnic relationships in Indonesia is between the people of Java and Bali. The cultural and political relationship between these two islands strengthened during the Hindu-Javanese period, especially from the tenth to the fourteenth century. The relation reached a high point during the period of Majapahit reign in East Java in the fourteenth century.

A small body of literature has explored the intimate relationship between these two islands and their musical traditions during this time. For example, found on the wall of the famed fourteenth-century Panataran Hindu temple in East Java are drawings of gongs in different sizes, an ensemble of gambang (a xylophone played with a pair of Y-shaped sticks), and an ensemble of reyong (a pair of gongs attached to either end of a pole). These instruments still exist in Bali, although some are now nearly extinct. Additionally, Suasthi Wijaya discovered links between gambuh, a form of Balinese dance opera, and East Javanese raket performed during the heyday of Majapahit (Wijaya 2007). Adrian Vickers’s study of the Balinese text Malat demonstrates the importance of Javanese Majapahit civilization to Bali (Vickers 2005). Its transformation in Balinese performing and visual arts further illustrates the intimate relationship between Hindu-Java and Bali. The same can be said for Paul Wolber’s study of the development of a Balinese-inspired music and dance form, gandrung in Banyuwangi, from the sixteenth century onward (Wolber 1992).

Historiography suggests that by the fifteenth century, the early mode of contact between Java and Bali ended due to the Islamization of Java. Only certain modes of contact ended, however, as trade and warfare sustained the relationship between the two islands. The way Balinese and Javanese communities viewed religion also helped to maintain this relationship. They saw the differences between Hinduism and Islam as being only on the surface (e.g., the food they eat and styles of dress they wear) and not essential in terms of doctrine (Vickers 1987). Strengthened by the feeling of a hereditary connection—Balinese and Javanese people both perceive Majapahit as their “imagined center”—the two islands have been able to maintain their relationship, in spite of (or perhaps as a result of) the interference of the West in the political life of Indonesia.

To illustrate this point, I present evidence of possible musical exchanges between East Java and Bali that resulted in the creation of an ensemble called carabalèn in the courts of Central Java, Surakarta, and Yogyakarta.6 Javanese believe carabalèn is an ancient ensemble. It has been suggested that the word carabalèn means “in the manner of” (cara) or à la Bali (balèn), referring to the Balinese style of gamelan (Kunst 1973:265). In fact, some older literature employs the term cara bali, which is a clear reference to Bali, instead of its derivative, balèn. Certainly, the fast tempo and interlocking pattern performed in carabalèn, especially with the bonang and a pair of drums, are reminders of the interlocking practice that is central to Balinese gamelan technique. I propose that the creation of carabalèn was inspired by Balinese gamelan styles, particularly bebonangan or beleganjur. During the height of the Balinese courts, this ensemble accompanied armies in battle.

What historical events made a transfer of this musical genre possible? Throughout the seventeenth century, the Blambangan kingdom on the eastern tip of the island of Java was under the sway of the Balinese rulers of Gelgel, Buleleng, and Mengwi. These Balinese courts assisted Blambangan against the rebel Surapati, when he established his headquarters in East Java in the 1680s. The Balinese gamelan style ofbeleganjur was introduced to Blambangan in this context. The most likely scenario is Balinese armies fighting in the service of the rulers of Blambangan brought beleganjur to the eastern part of Java (Carey 1997). In fact, some of the Blambangan rulers and members of the aristocracy were of Balinese descent.

A list.
Fig 2. DeGroot’s list of pieces of gamelan cara bali (1852).

Subsequently, Javanese musicians created an ensemble that was inspired by beleganjur, which led to the development of gamelan cara bali (in the manner of Balinese). Gamelan cara bali cannot be found in contemporary East Java, but evidence from the early part of the nineteenth century testifies to its existence in the past and its connection with Balinese gamelan. This evidence is part of a rather long ethnographic report written in 1852 by the Dutch official Cornet deGroot. He included sections on various kinds of performing arts, such as wayang, dance, dance drama, and gamelan. His report on gamelan describes each kind of ensemble, its instrumentation, the playing techniques of each performer, and a list of the pieces performed by each ensemble. In addition, he provides drawings of the instruments in six different gamelans and a chart of the nine ensembles, with a list of pieces and their usage in performance. Gamelan cara bali (spelled Tjårå Bali) is also mentioned in the report. From this report (fig. 2), I found revealing evidence of how Balinese gamelan inspired the creation of Gresik cara bali: the names of two pieces, “Reijongan” and “Tabah Pisan,” clearly point to Balinese origin. “Reijongan” (ij is the Dutch spelling for j or y; hence reyongan) derives from reyong, the main melodic instrument of Balinese beleganjur. “Tabuh Pisan” is the name of a colotomic structure of Balinese composition.

These direct references suggest a clear link between Gresik cara bali and Balinese music. This conjecture is strengthened by the fact that in the early nineteenth century and before (perhaps as early as the seventeenth century), Gresik was known as the principal center of Javanese gamelan forging and for its dynamic cultural life. Javanese gamelan made in Gresik, perhaps including cara bali gamelan, were sent not only to places in East Java but also to the courts of Surakarta, Yogyakarta, Bangkalan in Madura, and Kalimantan (Raffles 1817Carey 1997Gomperts and Carey 1994).

The East Javanese gamelan style of carabalèn was then introduced to and subsequently adopted by the royal courts in Central Java. In the nineteenth century, carabalèn was used in the court of Surakarta to accompany wirèng (a fighting dance) and drills of soldiers using lances (Kusumadilaga 1930:182). A military connection between the original context of carabalèn and beleganjur appears in Bali. In sum, when two or more ethnic groups interact with each other, dynamic cultural interchanges and transformations happen, including those affecting musical forms and idioms. The creation of Javanese gamelan carabalèn and its inspiration from Balinese beleganjur is a clear example of this cultural process.


These sociocultural practices become even more complex when the incorporation of ethnicity into the development of the nation-state is examined. Unpacking the dynamic relationship between ethnicity and the state is one key to understanding the formation of nationalism. Since nationalism uses ritual symbols (e.g., the performing arts) to create loyalty and a sense of belonging (Eriksen 2010:121), which cultural symbols and practices in Indonesia’s polyethnic region should represent the whole nation? The youth movement of the 1920s laid a foundation for nationalism by creating Sumpah Pemuda (the Youth Pledge), which made a threefold declaration of national unity: “one homeland, one nation, one language.” Reinforced by “Indonesia Raya,” the national anthem composed in a Western musical idiom by Rudolf Wage Supratman, this declaration is a powerful practice, aspiration, and symbol of unity. The efficacy of Sumpah Pemuda and “Indonesia Raya” informs us that nationalism derives from a combination of political legitimation and emotional power (Eriksen 2010:121). As such, music—and the performing arts more broadly—play a significant role in propagating national identity. Often, the performing arts serve as an important means to evoke a sense of unity.

As Indonesia is populated by hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive social and cultural traditions, how is a national identity propagated through the performing arts? How does the nation define “national culture”? Members of the exploratory committee for the independence of Indonesia addressed these questions. In a draft of the 1945 constitution, the committee took a clear position that “the government must advance the national culture of Indonesia, and to that end [it must] advance the culture of each region, as pillars of that national culture” (Yampolsky 1995:701).7In spite of this original claim, however, the committee ultimately stated that only “the government shall advance the national culture of Indonesia,” striking out the last two-thirds of the statement. This final wording caused an uproar. The committee’s spokesman had to explain it in a general session. He said reassuringly that the final version did not mean the rejection of regional culture. “Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese culture—these are all Indonesian culture. They must be respected and revered. The [final] clause means that because we want to institute unification (persatuan), we must, so far as we are able, create a national Indonesian culture. What that culture will be is up to the people” (Yampolsky 1995:701).

This debate illustrates the dualistic nature of the development of nationalism, namely, the search for a balance between cultures of the past and cultures of the present, between unity and diversity. Dynamic discussions on this matter have continued from one era to the next. For example, the 1974 Five Year Development Plan (Repelita) during the Orde Baru period states, “The nation’s culture is in fact one, and the existing varieties of culture [i.e., regional culture] demonstrate the richness of the national culture. This rich variety is the capital and basis for the development of the entire national culture, the result of which can be enjoyed by the nation” (Yampolsky 1995:707). As this statement argues, regional culture should be used as the basis for the creation of a national culture. The fruit of this national aspiration varies from region to region, depending on the understanding and knowledge of individual artists. In any event, Indonesia is likely to remain highly culturally diverse. Creating a single homogenous culture based on hundreds of regional cultures is an impossible goal to achieve. After all, one of the basic tenets of multicultural society is to encourage its members “to accommodate, recognize the equality of, and indeed celebrate a great variety of cultural values” (Eriksen 2010:178).

I do not have the space here to say more about the complexity of what might be called the entwining of the arts and identity politics, and of national and regional perspectives in the construction of national identity. Like any cultural display, the performing arts are essentially an important marker for the identity of a people. According to Kathleen Adams, however, in a multiethnic society, “not only do people from different ethnic, rank, class, or national backgrounds [imbue] the same object or cultural display with different meanings, but members of the same group can also ‘appreciate’ the same object in varied ways. Art objects, therefore, can be ambiguous and multivalent: they can be capable of carrying different meanings for different people. Furthermore, as peoples’ material circumstances and aspiration shift, or as new political and cultural scenarios emerge, the meaning of and peoples’ sensibilities to these objects shift as well” (Adams 2006:11).

Within the context of the multiethnic Indonesian nation-state, some artists respond to aesthetic pluralism by creating new works that often involve hybridizing two or more regional musics, revising existing forms (e.g., shortening a repertoire), performing them in new contexts, and/or imbuing them with new meaning. Thus, performances should not be seen merely as entertainment but as dramatizations of cultural, social, and political phenomena that reflect the emergence of new circumstances and contexts. The meanings of particular regional dances, such as Javanese bedhayaor srimpi ceremonial court dance, transform when performed in the context of the Indonesian nation-state. During the Orde Baru period, this ceremonial court dance can be interpreted as mimesis and/or a methodologically conscious reconstruction of forms of hegemony in Indonesian national reality (Larasati 2013).

Ethnographic Display: Outsider/Insider Voices

Two important points emerge from this discussion: (a) the performing arts are an embodiment of a sociopolitical and cosmological order and/or disorder, and (b) the performing arts are multivalent and ambiguous. They can have different meanings for different people. When a performing art is detached from and presented outside of its cultural milieu, do these two premises still apply? When gamelan is performed in the West, what kinds of new meanings emerge from its recontextualization? As we gather here in Smithsonian—one of the most renowned places to display cultural practices and artifacts—to discuss and witness the presentation and representation of Indonesian performing arts, the relevance and importance of these questions are especially clear.

In keeping with the themes of this presentation, here I frame the discussion in terms of dualism. The distinction between outsider/insider voices reveals the dualism between colonizer and colonized. More specifically, I examine how Dutch colonizers and non-Indonesian audiences—as outsiders—conceptualized Indonesian performances at world’s fairs and how the responses of Indonesian performing artists—as insiders—shaped the perception of Indonesian music outside of Indonesia.

Gamelan and dance from Java and Bali first appeared in several exhibitions in Europe and the United States during the colonial period in the mid-nineteenth century. It is thus understandable that most of the studies concerning the display of non-Western cultures in the West highlight the injustices and legacy of colonialism. As Raymond Corbey states, “Persons from tribal cultures, on show in the West, were commodified, labeled, . . . scripted, objectified, essentialized, decontextualized, aestheticized, and fetishized” (Corbey 1993:363–64). He goes on to explain that “natives figured as categories in Western representations of Self, as characters in the story of the ascent to civilization, depicted as the inevitable triumph of higher races over lower ones and as progress through science and imperial conquest” (Corbey 1993:363–64). On top of this imperialism, racism generally dominated the nineteenth-century Western worldview; music and dance often illustrated this. It was painful for me and shameful for the copy editor of my recent book to read a section of an article about the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The author Edward categorized Javanese people as coming from one of the “semi-civilized races” (McDowell 1893:414). He added that unquestionably, “the affable little Javanese holds a position nearest the American heart. . . . The Javanese babies are as cute and frisky as Palmer Cox’s own children, the ‘Brownies.’”8 In any event, Corbey’s conclusions represent the dominant thinking of the time, and a few of his conclusions may still hold on today, whether we examine the presence of non-Western music in historical world fairs or in the context of twentieth-century academia.

It is not easy to obtain and distill public responses to these performances, especially for those that occurred before recording devices existed. In contemporary literature, such responses are typically only mentioned in passing. As such, we can only ask questions (Bloembergen 2006). What did visitors actually see when they entered the Dutch Indies’ cultural display at the Colonial World’s Fairs of 1880 to 1931? Did they learn about the evolution of civilization or colonial superiority? Was the public’s interest in world fairs really anthropological? Did they connect the explanations they read in the program notes to the world exhibited in the hall?

As mentioned earlier, a performing art takes on different meanings for the diverse people in its homeland. This premise is intensified when the art is presented abroad. The public may be mystified when they encounter the inscrutable strangeness of unfamiliar objects. At the same time, the format of an ethnographic display, accompanied by all kinds of information about what is on view, encourages the public to try and understand, consider, and interpret what they see (Bloembergen 2006:72)—here, a mystification/demystification dualism is at work. Such factors, combined with the public’s prior knowledge, results in a range of heterogeneous responses and interpretations. In the following I present some examples of such responses.

Regarding gamelan performance at the 1879 exhibition in Arnhem, The Netherlands, a reporter named Kehrer, writing for the newspaper Algemen Handelsblad, condescendingly noted, “They played a battle song: Srebegan. If our shooting clubs ever need a war song, then this calm, monotonous, frequently repeated melody (if there were such one), repeated ad nauseam would be highly recommended” (quoted in Terwen 2009:96). Regarding the ronggengs (female dancers), the author described them as “walking-girls” whose “distorted way of moving is not dancing. They walk while they are bending in all kinds of snake-like curves. . .” (quoted in Terwen 2009:96). Another author, music critic Daniel de Lange of the Nieuws van de Dag, declared his discomfort after listening to gamelan: “I think I can give the best description [of my suffering] by saying that the Cacophony brought about by the simultaneous performance of two different pieces on two Pianos that are not wholly in tune with each other . . . seemed to be even more bearable than the miserable ‘tick-tock’ mixed with heavy beating of kettles of the music played by my Javanese fellow artists” (quoted in Terwen 2009:99–100). While de Lange’s comment is sarcastic and condescending, to do him justice I should acknowledge that after repeated listening, gamelan had a definite impact on de Lange’s musical life. Such study spurred him to theorize and lecture about the gamelan tuning system and to compose a cantata influenced by his gamelan experience.

In contrast to de Lange’s initial response to gamelan, the dramatist Antonin Artaud responded positively and intuitively to the Balinese dance/theater he saw at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Bois de Vincennes. He deeply appreciated the genre, calling it a form of “pure theater” that embodied a highly metaphysical dimension (Artaud 1958). Similarly, Claude Debussy’s positive evaluation and recollection of gamelan performance in the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle is well documented (see Lesure and Smith 1977:278). In both cases, the presence of the performing arts at world’s fairs involved a dynamic perceptual and performative transformation. The theatrical repertoire presented at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition that Artaud saw was comprised of music and dances performed nightly for tourists at the Bali hotel in Denpasar (Sumarsam 2013). This means that music decontextualized from its traditional context was subsequently recontextualized twice: first for tourists at the Bali hotel, and second for the world’s fair in the Bois de Vincennes. In regard to Debussy’s positive response to gamelan, a central issue emerges: What kind of gamelanmusic did he hear? To address this question involves not only a consideration of the decontextualization/recontextualization process but also an acknowledgment of the Sundanese and Javanese artists who appropriated and recontextualized the music for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle.

What’s missing from the contemporaneous literature are the voices of Sundanese and Javanese musicians and dancers who performed in the world fairs but were presented as little different from silent museum objects. They had limited contact with the organizers and visitors of the fairs. If they did, contact occurred via an intermediary, either a European or Javanese assigned for this purpose, or their Javanese master. Despite limited performer-sponsor-audience contact, the performers responded to the situation in a significant way. They selected repertoire according to the imposed format of the display and the resources available to them. Earlier I mentioned Artaud’s positive response to Balinese music and dance at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition. What he did not know was that the repertoire performed was a set of compositions selected by the Balinese performers according to what they thought would be most appropriate, convenient, and practical for the fair. Apparently, the assortment of dances with musical interludes presented at the exposition was similar in design to the program performed nightly for tourists in hotels in Bali.

Another example of performers’ responses to their ethnographic display is the “classic” case of the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle that significantly impacted Debussy’s work.9 In regard to the influence of gamelan, most scholars have focused on Debussy’s following works for piano and orchestra: (a) “Pagodes” (from Estampes), a prime example of such work (Howat 1994); (b) “Nocturne” and “La Mer,” which have been described as “stylized gamelan” (Lockspeiser 1962); and (c) “Fantasie,” a piece influenced by the Javanese composition “Wani-Wani”(Mauller 1986). These studies are based, however, on the mistaken assumption that the gamelan music Debussy heard was Javanese court gamelan. Evidence has shown that Sundanese music, dance, and wayang golek were the main repertoire performed at the Paris exposition. Promoting the trade of agricultural products was an important aim of the exposition. Consequently, the Dutch organizer dispatched musicians and dancers to the Paris exposition from the location where goods were produced, that is, the Parakan Salak tea plantation at the foot of a mountain in West Java. Four dancers from one of the courts in central Java (the Mangkunegaran) joined the group to represent the court’s “high culture.”10Interestingly, both historical reports and new studies have been more concerned with the court dancers than with the Sundanese performers, which indicates an ongoing European fascination with and highlighting of highbrow Javanese court culture.

The presence of these four court dancers raises a number of questions. Given the absence of Javanese musicians, how did Sundanese musicians accompany Javanese dances? What dances did the four court dancers perform? Did the gamelan group also perform Javanese repertoire? Due to prevailing opinions that gamelan at the exposition influenced or inspired the work of French composers (especially Debussy) and writers, these questions warrant further examination. Based on the historical evidence (written documents, engravings, dance costumes, etc.), I have found that one of the dances from the opera genre langendriyan was featured in the performance. Enacting the story of Damarwulan, langendriyan was performed exclusively by women. Besides dancing, the performers convey dialogue through macapat sung-poetry and are accompanied by gamelan. If the performing ensemble at the Paris exposition indeed performed langendriyan, the question becomes, How did the Sundanese musicians accompany this form of Javanese dance opera?

It has been suggested that perhaps a cultural (and musical) exchange occurred through marriage and trade between central Javanese and Sundanese communities. This would make it likely that the Sundanese musicians could play Javanese music with some modification (see Fauser 2005), yet there is no conclusive evidence to support this assumption. In any event, we have enough evidence to conclude that a kind of langendriyan was performed in the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, but no materials have been found to elaborate in what ways Sundanese musicians accompanied this Javanese dance opera. Four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, however, evidence of the music that accompanied this dance opera emerged in the form of cylinder wax recordings of Javanese gamelan performances at the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition had the same concept as the Paris exposition and employed Sundanese performers from the same plantation. Benjamin Gilman, sponsored by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, recorded musical performances at the exhibition, which yielded 101 wax cylinder recordings of the Samoan exhibit, Java Village, and Kwakiutl Indians (De Vale 1977:93). Forty-three of the recordings were from the Java Village. From them we can learn much about the kind of gamelan and dance repertoire that was performed there. Among the ten different performances in the kampong, Gilman titled cylinders 26–33 as a genre of “Javanese wayang.” He referred to the dancers as “serimpi.”

After examining the recordings and Gilman’s notes on the sequence of the dancers’ appearances, I have concluded that Gilman described a fragment of dance drama that involved four dancers, singing or dialogue, and a fight with weapons. The other dancers appeared at the end, conducting a dialogue with the wounded dancer. Was this langendriyan? The order of the dancers’ appearance seems to follow a story line of a fragment of langendriyan. The first dancer entering the stage was the villain king Ménakjingga, and the second was the protagonist Damarwulan. They fought, and Ménakjingga was wounded. The third and fourth dancers might have been Ménakjingga’s captive princesses, Wahita and Puyengan.

An intriguing fact comes to light upon further examination of the dance’s musical accompaniment in Gilman’s recording. As mentioned earlier, the music of traditional langendriyan is quite elaborate, involving gamelan accompaniment to poetic dialogues sung by the dancers. The changing temporal flow and density of the music (irama) convey the dynamic of the dramatic action. In the langendriyanat the Columbian Exposition, however, the accompaniment consisted of a single piece in a short gongan structure, the lancaran Kembang Jeruk in pélog, repeated many times. Occasionally, the irama of the piece changed momentarily to the second level of irama in sirepan (soft-playing style). At this point, the dancer sang a few phrases. From the recordings (cylinders 29 and 32), the singing is in slendro (audio 1)I suggest that what is heard here is a fragment of langendriyan with a simplified musical accompaniment—a single piece performed repeatedly. The piece was in pélog, but the singer sang in slendro. As such, it appears that the langendriyan at the Columbian Exposition was mounted using the resources then available to performers.

Audio excerpt of Benjamin Gilman’s cylinder wax recording, number 29. Heard at 1:11 is a cue for the ensemble to play softly (sirep). At 1:15 is solo singing until the tempo speeds up.

Did audiences at the Paris Exposition Universelle hear the same simplified fragment of langendriyan? While we cannot definitively answer this question, it appears likely due to the many shared characteristics between the performances at these two world’s fairs. If this was the case, should we be disappointed that Debussy heard only a simplified—and rather confusing—mixture of music for langendriyan performed by Sundanese musicians from the village of Parakan Salak, instead of the full-fledged expression of aristocratic artists from Surakarta? How could this mystifying musical mixture have so greatly affected the work of Parisian writers, painters, and composers? I ask these questions rhetorically, with the assertion that the gamelan presented at the world’s fairs reflects an intriguing mixture of various elements. This parallels—and is a consequence of—the very nature of the exposition itself as a mixture of various interests (e.g., trade, national image, ethnographic show, colonialism, human evolution, etc.). In other words, the music of langendriyan at the world’s fairs is an allegory of the events themselves.


We have learned from the case studies discussed in this presentation that the performing arts are inextricably linked to various forms of the nation-state. Employing appropriated Western terms to describe past and present performing arts practices, wayang performance can be seen through a tradisional/moderen dualism. Wayang tradisional existed in the era before Indonesian independence (pre-1945). Its development and refinement, at least in Central Java, resulted from the work of court artists. During the era of independence and thereafter, as the courts lost their power, the nation-state took over this development, fostering wayang through government-funded performing arts academies and wayang organizations to form wayang moderen or wayang kontemporer. It was in this period, especially starting in the 1980s, that the tradisional/moderen dualism intensified. Since this time, many aspects of traditional performance practices have been and continue to be intensely modernized or contemporized (e.g., light sources for the performance, the position of pesindhènsingers, the use of sound amplification systems, and the mode of presentation).

In my second case study on the ethnicity/nationality dualism, I illustrated the dynamic fluidity of ethnicity as groups interact with one another. The long historical relationship between Javanese and Balinese people (in both intimate and conflict-based contexts) has made it possible for each group to inspire musical creations. The genesis of Javanese gamelan carabalèn is a case in point. When the Indonesian nation-state was formulated, the complex relationships between ethnicity and nationality were brought to the surface as the new state searched for ways to unite Indonesia’s diverse ethnic groups and create a unified national identity. As such, the question arose: How does one present a national identity through the performing arts? In response to the drive toward a national identity, regional artists have revised existing repertoire to give it new meanings within a national performance context. In this regard, this revision of regional performing arts is, as Rachmi Diyah Larasati asserts, a methodologically conscious reconstruction of forms of national hegemony (Larasati 2013).

With regard to the presence of Javanese performing arts at world’s fairs, such performances were appreciated at the time as ethnographic objects and symbols of the strangeness of the exotic. Here, we see the demystification/mystification dualism come into play. It is thus interesting how we position Debussy—a composer who is infamously known for his gamelan-inspired compositions—within the scheme of audience reception. I suppose he could be placed along the continuum of this dualism, although we do not know much about his interest in Javanese ethnography. For me, the most fascinating aspect of this example is the question of what type of gamelan did Debussy hear. The notion that, as previously assumed, he heard Central Javanese gamelan is not supported by the available evidence. Rather, he was more likely listening to a combination of Sundanese music and a simplified version of Javanese gamelan that accompanied the dance opera langendiryan. Such examples illustrate the dualistic interests that must be taken into account when interpreting these performances. Organizers of the fairs had to balance their interests in advancing trade by presenting performances from where the commodities were produced (the Parakan Salak tea plantation at the foot of a West Javanese mountain) and by offering cultural performances that met the audience’s expectations for high court culture. The resulting performance was a rather confusing, mixed version of the genre that nonetheless shaped the West’s understanding of gamelan.

In this presentation, I have utilized the concept of dualism or binary taxonomy to discuss a number of case studies: wayang performance, Bali-Java intra-ethnic interaction, ethnicity and nationality in Indonesia’s performing arts, and the performing arts as intercultural objects. It is important to note that dualism should not be understood as two diametrically opposed elements. Instead it should be seen as a continuum of interactional relationships that may come in the form of dynamic tension, complementary pairing, or both. All in all, these dynamic dualisms have framed and continue to frame the reception of Indonesian music, such as wayang and gamelan, in both Indonesia and the West.

I would like to thank the steering committee of the festival and conference, Bapak Haryo Winarso, the cultural attaché at the Indonesian Embassy during the time of the festival, and Andy McGraw for trusting me to deliver this keynote address. I also thank Lauren Sweetman for making my English clearer for this published version of my keynote address.