Java's master potters pick up the pieces on their shattered island

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The Independent Online

The earthquake that levelled most of the buildings in Kasongan, a little village in central Java, also destroyed the livelihoods of its inhabitants.

For generations, the people of Kasongan, in the district of Bantul, have made traditional clay pottery, selling it from local showrooms and exporting it to galleries in Jakarta and overseas. Now their products lie in pieces among the rubble, and the tourists who are their lifeblood are nowhere to be seen.

Bantul is part of the ancient kingdom of Yogyakarta, regarded as the cradle of Javanese art and culture. Thousands of villagers in Bantul, the district worst affected by last weekend's quake, make traditional handicrafts such as ceramics, batik clothing, and gamelan musical instruments.

The fruits and tools of these industries were destroyed, adding to the misery of people who lost homes and loved ones. In a back lane in Kasongan, Yeni pointed to her shattered kiln and the ruins of the studio where her family and five employees turned out hundreds of ochre vases, pots, bowls and statues.

"I'm not brave enough to go in there," said Yeni, a fifth-generation artist. "I'm afraid that what's left of it will collapse on my head." The family's workers had all returned to their homes in West Java, frightened of another earthquake, she said.

Such workshops supplied raw fired pottery to the shops and galleries that line Kasongan's main road. The latter glazed and painted it, then sold it to tourists, or packed it up for export.

Yeni's mother, Murtiyem, who was sweeping up shards of clay in a vain attempt to make order from chaos, said: "We used to make a good living. Now we don't know what our future will be."

On the main road, five brothers - Agus, Edi, Purnama, Sholeh and Fajar - were picking through the debris of their once thriving family business. A little row of shops and houses that they owned was flattened. They are sleeping in tents. They were lucky, though. Unlike some of their neighbours, none of their relatives were killed or seriously injured. In a small warehouse that survived almost intact, crates of goods - ashtrays, footstools, candlesticks, urns and figurines - stood packed for export to Italy and Australia. There is a healthy overseas appetite for Kasongan pottery, and much is made to order. Whether the village will be able to continue to meet demand is another matter.

"What a mess," said Edi, the oldest brother. "When I look at this I feel paralysed. I don't know what to do. All the buildings gone. And so much stock lost."

When the earth shook just before 6am a week ago, the brothers and their families were all asleep. "I tried to get out of bed, but the ceiling fell on me," said Edi. "I was very afraid. I grabbed my three-year-old boy, Bima, and jumped over a wall. We ran into the street, and thankfully there was my wife, Jumi."

A few miles away, in the village of Manding, locals led the way to the spot where the house of Slamet, a master craftsman of Javanese shadow puppets, once stood. Slamet survived, but most of his intricately-carved and painted leather puppets did not. The wizened 58-year-old lost $500 (£270) of tools, materials and artworks - a fortune for a man of his circumstances.

Slamet learnt his art from an old-timer at the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta, north of Bantul, and has been practising it for 40 years. Each puppet takes him a week to make. He sells high-quality products, made of water buffalo hide, to professional puppeteers, and supplies cheaper tourist versions to shops.

Shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, is one of the oldest art forms in Indonesia, and is a central plank of Javanese culture. The puppets depict characters, from ancient kings and queens to monsters and clowns. Yogyakarta is famous for its performances of wayang kulit and gamelan music - which features string, percussion and wind instruments.

Slamet had just finished a dozen puppets for an upmarket gallery. He knelt on a scrap of batik beneath an orange tarpaulin and fingered one crumpled figure that he had managed to salvage. "It's a new life now," he said. "I have to start from zero."

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