Friday, February 12, 2016

Seollal Perfornance

Over my years in Korea, I've tried to attend performances that are of part of special events. One such event occurred at the Unhyeongung Palace. Located right next to Anguk station, this former royal residence was easy to get to - perfect for a free winter performance. Prior to the musical performance, different areas were set up for activities such as playing traditional games, trying on (and of course taking photos) traditional Korean costumes, stamping a wooden block with good luck/health characters, and writing good luck messages on small pieces of colorful paper. I loved the patterning of the colorful message papers tied onto rope, contrasting with the brick patterns on the residence wall.

My favorite part of the performance was the solo female dancer. Her movements were very slow and deliberate - no camera shake/blur here! 
Two young drummers took a break from their gongs and drums to do some plate spinning. The balanced disks were also hurtled in the air and caught by the second performer. A couple of audience members were asked to try their hand at keeping the disk spinning or to pass the disk to be caught. 

What's a drumming performance without drums? These guys (and a few gals) looked like they were having fun, despite the rather chilly temps - especially with such thin blouses. I only took a couple photos of their drumming, as the scene, their shabbier-looking drums, and simpler outfits weren't as inspiring. It was still enjoyable though, and a nice way to spend the day off.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ready to Fire at a Klipoh Village pottery shop

After the visit to a local market near Borobudur, the driver took me to a pottery shop in the town of Klipoh. Although I have visited many pottery shops in different countries, I always enjoy seeing the varying ways they create and fire their wares.

Today was the day to do some firing. Some pieces needed their drying time to be hastened, so they were heated just a bit on some ashes.
Using a rag like a potholder, the two women grabbed the still-hot pots and carried them over to the kiln shed. The hot ashes didn't seem to bother their bare feet.

The pots and bowls were stacked over a bed of thin bamboo, husks, and some coconut shells.
The clay pieces were then covered with leaves, husks, and more coconut shells,  over which some ash was placed.
Some dried fronds were bundled and lit.
This was used to light the material covering the pottery.
The man used a long wooden rake to stoke the fire, which quickly enveloped the dry leaves and emitting a thick haze of smoke.
According to the driver, after a few hours, the firing would be finished. This seemed rather short to me, but I can imagine that these utilitarian pieces would be of rather low fire.

Monday, February 08, 2016

All Packaged Up for Seollal

Scattered throughout the grocery store in Seoul this past week were displays of gift boxes. Seollal, the Lunar New Year for Koreans, it is one of the country's most important holidays. In anticipation for the big event, gift boxes full of prettily-packaged skin & hair products, produce and snacks were ready for the taking. Not so keen on buying the box of SPAM? Try the octagonal box of mushrooms - 30% off for only $52. Or try the smaller box of nuts and mushrooms for just $33. Different fungus and seaweed was also available, along with perfect specimens of oranges, apples and Korean pears.

Such pretty boxes of rice cakes.
This box of ginseng seems to be posing for a family photo.

While I don't anticipate any gift boxes coming my way, I'm perfectly happy with the extra two days off. Yipee!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Water Castle - a Perfumed Garden No More

Still within the Kraton palace grounds about 2km south, we visited what is known as the Water Castle - Taman Sari. The driver explained that through that white decorative gate was a bathing complex. At one time, it was just a small part of the 59-building palace complex, complete with 18 water gardens, pavilions, mosques, and was surrounded by an artificial lake. Following a devastating earthquake in 1867 as well as destruction by the invading British in 1812, Taman Sari was abandoned by the sultanate. Since then, the complex has become overrun with squatters who settled and constructed buildings on the dry lake bed. 
A naga greeted us at the gate

 The floral designs and peacock-like birds brought me back to India, particularly the Taj Mahal in Agra. How splendid this place must have looked at one time, harkening back to the meaning of its name - garden of beautiful flowers.
Once through the gate however, I was saddened to see the state of this partially restored section. The pool, once used by concubines of the sultan, was blackened and dingy. Oh how I wanted to drain the water, scrub the bottom and repaint/tile it. The buildings walls were equally dingy. In 2004, Taman Sari was placed on the World Monuments Watch endangerment list. Another devastating earthquake two years after that further damaged the site and has increased the urgency for preservation of this culturally and historically significant site. Despite the series of natural & man-made disasters that have befallen the complex, it is considered one of the best examples of 18th century Javanese architecture and landscape design. While it is quite doubtful that the complex could ever be restored to its former glory, the WMF would love to see more funding to make some attempts at preservation.
With the guidance of the people I was with, we went past some squatter's homes and found the underground tunnel that led to the Sumur Gumuling, an water mosque. Reminding me of a real-life Escher staircase Relativity artwork, four staircases met on an elevated platform in the middle of the building. On the ground level was a pool (now drained) that once served for ritual ablution.

Although I found it a bit difficult to fathom the grandiosity the Taman Sari complex must have once possessed, even the encroachment buildings had their own flavor. Had I more time, I would have liked to wander through the alleys, catching a glimpse of life on what once was a garden of beautiful flowers.

The Taman Sari, along with the Sultan's Palace, was listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage site. Although I've seen some UNESCO sites that also feel neglected, perhaps a full acceptance onto the esteemed list would provide some needed funding and awareness.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Gamelan Orchestra at the Sultan's

After our tour of portions of the Kraton, our palace tour guide led us to the Gamelan orchestra that was gathering and bid us farewell. With far more lighting than that at the Wayang puppet performance the previous night, it was far easier to see the instruments. Each musician was dressed in traditional local costume, complete with beautiful batik fabric. The men sported a sword as part of their outfit.

Huge gongs were arranged in a row behind the metallophones. Women and men looked very studious as they read the cipher system notation on a sheet of paper. 

The women all had huge "buns" of what looked like fake hair. They also sang. Note the lidded tea cup which was omnipresent in so many places I visited in Indonesia.
The wood carving on the instruments was quite ornate and bore the seal of the sultan.

Many musicians played different bonang instruments. These covered kettle-like instruments were an essential part of the gamelan orchestra. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Sultan's Palace, Yogyakarta

The morning after the Wayang Puppet Show, I went to see the Sultan's Palace, otherwise known as the Kraton. It is essentially a walled city, with a population of around 25,000, complete with its own mosque, shops, schools, and more. The fa├žade of this building read 1925, the date when some European touches were added, but the innermost section where the sultan still resides dates back to 1755. 

This grand complex, with its spacious halls, beautiful pavilions, smooth marble floors, and decorative symbolic touches, is considered the epitome of Javanese architecture. 

I especially loved this pavilion, with its music-themed Dutch stained glass and pretty flooring.

The lavish ceiling decorations and chandeliers reminded me of the Chow Mohalla in Hyderabad, India. Both palaces were an interesting combination of European and local elements, with grand imported chandeliers.

 Our palace guide shared with us (in her very thick Indonesian accent) some of the symbolism that abounds in almost everything in the palace - from the trees and flowers all the way down to the decorations. From the image above, the date of that building's renovation could be determined (1 = crown on the serpent's head, 8 = serpent, 5 = giant, 3 = leech).
More beautiful Dutch stained glass and some ornamental teak columns
Many of the buildings we saw were made into a museum holding furniture, clothing, puppets, family photos, gifts to the sultan, and other collections of the ruler.

Over 1,000 residents are employed at the Kraton. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wayang Kulit Show, Yogyakarta

After thanking the puppet maker for the demonstration, I headed over to the building at the Sonobudoyo Museum where the puppet show was taking place. The music had already started, with the Gamelan orchestra comprised of gongs, metallophones and xylophones, flutes, zithers, drums, and vocalists.
The dalang puppeteer was seated in front of the wide screen. Large puppets and several Tree of Life props were in front of the screen, their bone sticks stabbed into the soft banana leaf log. I was a bit surprised to see how tall some of the puppets were; Wayang Kulit puppets range in size from around 8-40 inches (20-100 cm) tall.

 Additional puppets were lined up on each edge of the screen. Traditional Wayang shows might last around 9 hours and comprise of between 100-500 puppet characters.
The dalang puppeteer was quite the multi-tasker. In addition to manipulating the sticks of the puppets, he was the narrator, made lots of sound effects, and leads the gamelan orchestra. He must know the entire performance by heart and keep track of all the different puppet characters - their personality, voices, actions, and physical location. Humor and the ability to comment on current affairs is also important. I can only imagine that with so many puppets lined up, the dalang must be very organized, arranging the puppets in an efficient order so he can grab the correct one at the correct moment. Improvisation is also a part of Wayang performances, ensuring that things stay fresh. The dalang traditionally had a priest-like role which was passed on from father to son, but now there are special schools that provide training. A dalang may have an assistant, who also must know the story well so he can anticipate the needs of the narrator. In the battle scenes, it was fun watching the dalang flip, spin, and twirl the puppets and then crash them together, much like a young boy does with cars or action figures. The "good" characters were positioned to the right of the puppeteer.
As much fun as it was watching the behind-the-scenes work of the dalang and the gamelan orchestra, I spent part of my time watching the actual shadow performance on the other side of the screen. (Years ago it was customary for women to view the colorful "behind" side, while the men viewed the shadow side). The intricately painted designs that were so apparent on the other side of the screen were replaced by an emphasis of contrasting negative and positive spaces. The lace-like perforations I had seen the puppet maker punch into the leather were now much more visible. I found it interesting that the puppets were never totally flush against the screen. The heads were pressed against the screen for clarity, but the legs were often slightly away. I later read that this was done to help achieve the desired proportions of the shadow. At times the action was quite slow and subtle, emphasizing the intricate movements of the arms. Punctuated with vocal cues of the dalang and synchronized orchestral accents, some scenes became quite dramatic. 
During the 80 minutes or so that I was there, I went back and forth between the front and back sides. I could see that the storyline was about good vs. evil, but found it a bit difficult to stay focused. It is rather typical for viewers to wander in and out. Imagine though, how challenging it must be for the dalang to stay on top of things and keep his voice for the entire duration of those really long performances. No wonder his role is held in high esteem!

I'm glad I had a chance to view a Wayang Kulit show in its epicentre of Yogyakarta. In 2008, the Wayang puppet theatre was inscribed on the intangible UNESCO cultural heritage of humanity list.