The tradition of barongan in Blora had experienced a decline. People were reluctant to hold performances of the show, considering it too frightening and mystical. It also lost its popular appeal. Barongan were only known as a mandatory part of cultural ceremonies, such as the village cleansing ritual. However, efforts had been made to promote barongan as an entertaining piece of traditional art.
Adi Wibowo is an art activist who continued to preserve and develop the art of barongan at Blora Regency. His effort to develop the traditional arts in Blora had been consistent for the last 19 years, ever since he founded Paguyuban Risang Guntur Seto in 1999.
He said that during the early 1990s there were many barongan troupes at Blora. However, the shows were not managed well. “Most barongans in Blora were constructed haphazardly, with hair from plastic rope and glass eyes. The shows were mystical and frightening. Not entertaining,” said Adi Wibowo, known as Didik.
It made barongan lost the competition to other more entertaining traditional arts such as tayub. Seeing that, Adi and fellow barongan artists attempted to innovate and create, in order to capture a wider audience for barongan.
They tried to improve barongan’s appearance by using ijuk (black palm fibers) as its hair. The music, originally only “tholek thogling” beats with “mo-nem mo-nem” gamelan, is made more dynamic and upbeat with saron demung, drums, slompret, and other East Javanese instruments.
The dances in the show are developed as well. These were given storylines to make the show more ordered. For instance, singa barong as a representation of Gembong Amijoyo becomes the main character in barongan Blora. Gembong Amijoyo is believed to be the guardian of Alas Jati Wengker or today’s Blora Regency. Other characters include gendruwoan (manifestation of Jaka Lodra), pujangga anom,, Mbok Gaenah, Untup, Nayantaka, and horsemen (jaranan), all in an attractive repertoire of dance.
His efforts were not in vain. With other barongan artists from all over Blora, Adi managed to make barongan known as a cultural icon of the regency where the great author Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born.
Adi said that it is the duty of cultural activists in Blora to continue promoting the barongan art of Blora, locally as well as internationally. As it became more well-known, barongan can continue its performances and receive appreciation. Therefore innovation and development of the art is an imperative.
“We have to continue to learn, create, innovate, and rehearse to make the Blora barongan more attractive and entertaining. Of course we must also stay to the original canon,” Adi stated.
One of the initiatives to promote and appreciate the barongan is its stage performance at the Story from Blora Festival on 12–15 September. The slow but steadily changing face of barongan is a story of struggle for the traditional arts of Blora. The story would surely continue in future festivals and more places.