Drama: Balinese Dance and Dance Drama

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Balinese dance and dance drama are integral to the distinctive Hindu-Buddhist religious practices found in Bali, Lombok, and parts of East Java, Sumatra, and Celebes recently converted to Bali-Hindu religion or settled by Balinese under Indonesia's national program to relocate population. Many sourcebooks for Balinese drama derive from the pre-Muslim period of Javanese civilization. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Java's Hinduized courts confronted first Islamic, then Western forces of trade, political authority, and religious instruction; the ritual and drama apparently central to Javanese statecraft altered accordingly. Neighboring Bali, in part isolated from these developments and from the more intensive style of Dutch colonialism, provided a context for the continuing cultivation of both scribal and performing arts tied to rites of ancestor commemoration and a cult of kingship, to wet-rice agricultural cycles, and to intricate temple systems that organize productive lands, civic units, domestic space, and funerary areas into networks of shrines. Hindu deities and local ancestors make periodic visitations to these shrines to be entertained. Moreover, demonic agents both regularly and occasionally upset the social and cosmic equilibrium and must be appeased at places vulnerable to their influence, such as the ground, the sea, and all crossroads.

Balinese temple celebrations always include the playing of gongs and metallophones (gamelan, the instruments for which the percussion orchestra is named) and specific dances in ritual processions; they may also include shadow puppet theater (wayang ), masked dance drama (topeng ), or many unmasked dance dramas. Performances may be used to upgrade life-crisis rites, such as tooth filings, weddings, and cremations. A specific orchestral ensemble accompanies each variety of dance and drama. Important genres include gambuh, topeng, parwa, and wayang. In gambuh, unmasked courtly dramas dating back at least four hundred years, the orchestra adds haunting flutes to its percussions. Gambuh tales come from the indigenous cycle of love and political intrigue called Malat in Bali and Panji in Java. Masked topeng, performed either by a soloist or by multiple actor-dancers, stages narratives from dynastic chronicles. Parwa, probably originating around 1885, is similar to wayang wong, in which masked dancers replace the famous leather puppets of wayang kulit; but parwa contents are restricted to episodes from the Mahābhārata. Bali's versions of the Rāmāyaa remain the basic source for wayang, both the renowned nighttime varieties that project puppet shadows onto a screen and the daytime version without shadows, regarded as a more potent message to ancestral shades. Myriad additional genres represent one of the fullest flowerings of dramatic dance in the history of civilizations.

Complex rules delimit which episodes in what performance mode are suited to which rituals; variations reflect Bali's history of shifting sponsorships by courts, ancestor groups, localities, and now national and commercial agencies. Several types of dance involve divine or demonic possession (for example, the prepubescent trance dancers of Sanghyang Dedari ). Trance occurs frequently in Balinese ritual, most spectacularly among the participants in the famous exorcist battles based on the Tantric tale of Calonarang, in which the witch Rangda (whose dread masks belong to village-area temples) engages the friendlier force of lionlike Barong (whose costumes are usually owned by hamlets). The end is inevitably a standoff. Most Balinese dance dramas, however, are thought to be given not by deities or demons, but for them. Bali's traditional concept of "audience" includes the ordinarily remote deities, lured to their "seats" for the show; partisan ancestors, to whom descendants may have "promised in their hearts" a particular performance; human spectators of all social ranks; and outsiders as well, including foreigners and tourists. Indeed commoners, called "outsiders" to noble courts (puri ), are essential spectators. That ritual and drama are seldom designed for a closed public, despite the culture's exclusivistic hierarchies, helps explain the resilience of Bali's semiprofessionalized dance and drama organizations: talented peasants moonlighting in troups for hire.

Any Balinese ritual mobilizes an array of specialists, some restricted by caste or social position, others not. Brahmana priests (pedanda ) specialize in Sanskrit and esoteric manuals that prescribe rituals for purifying water (tirtha ) required by their clients for ceremonies. Puppeteers (dhalang ), not restricted to a particular caste but sometimes concentrated in certain ancestral lines, are highly respected virtuosi: a dhalang is the actors, propmen, screenwriter, director, and conductor rolled into one. Young dancers are intensively exercised in choreographic codes that replicate in gestures what a dhalang depicts through puppets. A temple celebration, cremation, wedding, or other ritual may be elaborated into a bustling, muted circus, with multiple rings of performers and onlookers, perhaps including a priest intoning mantra s, a reading group reciting select texts, a wayang, various phases of the ritual itself, extra attractions, and several gamelan. Historically transforming genres of dance and drama have combined and recombined select channels of refined versus agitated form: sound (in phased periodicities of percussion), voice (in chant and prayer, individual and choral song, and spoken dialogues), languages (Sanskrit; Old Javanese, or Kawi; High Balinese; vernacular Balinese; Indonesian), styles of movement, and levels of gesture. Certain performersthe puppeteer, the topeng soloist, the translating and paraphrasing servant-clowns of wayang wong must master all codes.

Dance and drama in Bali portray stock types of conventional characters, ordered into cosmically opposed sets, right-hand ("mountainward") and left-hand ("seaward"). The familiar panoply from Hindu myth and epic includes gods; heroes; adventurous knights; ladies; prime ministers; ladies-in-waiting; servants; ogres; demons; animals (some anthropomorphic); and clowns, the most popular figures, marked by specifically Balinese characteristics. Stage layouts, the situation of performances in and around temples, and the punctuation of ritual by dance and drama help articulate such conceptually opposite attributes as refined and crude and divine and demonic implicit in all spatial arrangements, interactions, and temporal flow. Styles of offerings and priestly functions, too, activate complementary cycles of patterned sound, gesture, story, and ritual regalia: from the esoteric mantra s and mudrā s (hand postures) of pedanda (high priests of the right-hand powers) or sengguhu (high priests of the left-hand powers), to the charms, tokens, and homey icons of the many balian ("curers") dealing in sorcery and love magic. The realms of health and disease, activities of allure and cure, and the values of aesthetics and exorcism remain intertwined in Bali-Hinduism, where any analytic separation of the theatrical, the political, and the religious arts is difficult to sustain.

Recent studies of Balinese dance and drama adopt helpful, although conscientiously rationalized, schemes advanced by I G. Sugriwa, R. Moerdowo, and other Indonesian scholars. They distinguish four types of dances. There are dances indispensable to ritual sacrifice, performed in the inner temple by the deities' female attendants and male guardians, drawn from the community concerned. There are optional dance dramas of the middle courtyard that heighten a temple ceremony or a crisis rite; masks and costumes and the performers themselves, perhaps hired from outside, are ritually consecrated. A third type encompasses "secular" dances performed in conjunction with a temple ceremony, but outside the walls, along with cockfights and games of chance; one example is the flirtatious Joged, a dance that recalls precolonial royal involvement in prostitution and other service monopolies. Finally, commercial dances, casually performed with unconsecrated masks, have flourished in tourist shows; the consummate example is the picturesque monkey dance (the Cak), which has become the trademark of Balinese culture in Indonesia.

The rich interplay among dance, drama, and religious practice and belief in Bali pertains to many important issues. Balinese Hinduism's stress on dance in popular ritual sets it off vividly from Islamic values of neighboring islands and of the Indonesian nation. Although many dramatic texts in Bali originated in India, its dance is very different from South Asian varieties, as are its temples. The rituals garnished with Balinese dance drama have counterparts among non-Hindu Indonesians, particularly wet-rice growers and societies organized into rival centers of authority marked by competitive displays during rituals of death, reburial, marriage, circumcision (not practiced by Balinese), or other passage rites. A major problem in interpreting Balinese arts concerns their place in rivalries among rajas, among localities, and among other sponsors. The manufacture of sacred objectsgongs, masks, daggers, written texts, and the likeand expertise in rituals necessary to maintain and periodically cleanse and reconsecrate them remain important in Balinese notions of status and prestige. Moreover, dramas often contain stories of their own origins and credit different social segments, dynasties, and ancestors with instituting distinct arts and performances. Contrary claims in these matters still vitalize Balinese social and political processes and introduce complications into the historiography of Balinese religion, dance, and drama.

Explicit Bali-Hindu philosophies of religion correlate action, word, and thought, thus orchestrating ritual deed, spoken syllables, and mental images in a theory of the interrelation of visual, verbal, spatial, and sonic arts. Some Balinese experts make fine distinctions between trance and "inspiration" (taksu ) as well as other conditions of dramatic and religious awareness. Although several modern institutes and schools for the preservation and advancement of Balinese arts have promoted new experiments in training and documentation (including musical notation systems), traditional court-based or village-centered training techniques persist for music, dance, drama, sculpture, painting, and so forth. Certain principles of Balinese religion seem manifest less in popular creed than in ideals of transmitting from masters to novices complex aesthetic skills, such as musically structured muscular coordination of postures plus pulsations of eyes, limbs, feet, and fingers. Performers achieve exemplary concentration, self-control, and personal effacement; their poise seems to exist in dynamic tension with the risk of demonic abandon. Judging from Balinese culture, a religion can be danced as much as believed.


A recent, insightful general description of Balinese dance is I. M. Bandem and Fredrik De Boer's Kaja and Kelod: Balinese Dance in Transition (2d ed. New York, 1995). The classic account, which accentuates dramatic narrative, remains the splendid volume by Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies, Dance and Drama in Bali (1938; reprint, Oxford, 1973). There are fine illustrations with concise descriptions and case studies in Urs Ramseyer's The Art and Culture of Bali (Oxford, 1977). The abundant philological work on Balinese texts, many involved in dance drama, can be surveyed, beginning with Christiaan Hooykaas's Religion in Bali (Leiden, 1973) and Drawings of Balinese Sorcery (Leiden, 1980); Hooykaas alone produced a score of major books of translation and commentary. On performance contexts for right-hand and left-hand magic, see Marie-Thérèse Berthier and John-Thomas Sweeney's Bali: L'art de la magie (Paris, 1976). For a guide to the intriguing collection of work done by assorted artists, musicologists, anthropologists, and performers in the 19201930s, see Traditional Balinese Culture, compiled by Jane Belo (New York, 1970). Still vivid and relevant are many parts of Miguel Covarrubias's Island of Bali (New York, 1937). Background on social and historical processes at work in religion and dramatic arts is reviewed in my book The Anthropological Romance of Bali, 15971972 (New York, 1977) and Clifford Geertz's Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, 1980). All of the works listed include extensive bibliographies with copious relevant literature in Dutch, Indonesian, and Balinese.

New Sources

George, D.E.R. Balinese Ritual Theatre. Alexandria, Va., 1991.

Herbst, E. Voices in Bali: Energies and Perceptions in Vocal Music and Dance Theater. Hanover, N.H., 1997.

Lewiston, D. Music from the Morning of the World: The Balinese Gamelan & Ketjak, the Ramayana Monkey Chant. New York, 1988.

James A. Boon (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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