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In the 14th century, Bali was conquered by the great Majapahit kingdom of East Java. As a result, a number of Javanese nobles and courtiers settled in Bali, bringing with them their dances, their caste system and a variety of ceremonies which quickly became interwoven with the rich tapestry of indigenous beliefs and rituals.
The language of Gambuh is Kawi or old javanese which very few Balinese understand. There is little clowning, as more attention is paid to the choreography than to the story. Perhaps because of this, there are only three active village troupes left on the island, all in Batuan. Gambuh is definitely worth seeing, as all Balinese dance and musical forms may be said to stem from it. Gambuh is accompanied by a small ensemble in which four to eight men play meter-long flutes. These, along with a two-stringed rebab, provide hauntingly beautiful melodies.
Topeng literally means ”pressed against the face or mask. All actors in Topeng dramas are masked. Refined characters wear full masks; clowns and servants sport a half- mask which facilitates speaking. Topeng is a tremendously popular form in Bali, as it relates local lore and historical tales concerning the royal lineages in scenes of everyday life. Topeng is also immensely entertaining, as the use of humor and clowns is extensive.
The first dancers to emerge are the pengelembar or introductory characters three or four ministers at the court. Next to appear is the penasar by far the most important character in the play. His role is a combination of storyteller, royal servant, stage director, and at times music conductor. He extols the virtues of the king in a sung soliloquy alternating between Kawi and Balinese. As in many dance dramas, form takes precedence over plot.
His younger brother and sidekick Kartala then comes out and the two engage in slapstick antics. Both the penasar and Kartala wear half-masks and speak in colloquial Balinese. The king then appears, moving with delicate steps and thus showing his refined nature. He gestures as his full mask prevents him from speaking ” and the penasar translates for him.
Inevitably there is a kingdom to conquer or a person to rescue. The servants of an opposing king appear and more clowning takes place. Often a series of masked dancers with grotesque features appear one at a time under the guise of joining the king’s army or going to pay homage at the palace. Here, the audience goes wild.
Masks with three sets of teeth, burlesque women even tourists in cock-eyed berets appear on the scene, If the audience is receptive, these antics could go on for hours. Imbedded in the joking, however, are values of religious piety and honesty that the Balinese treasure. Topeng, along with the wayang kulit shadow play, is the primary medium through which Balinese history, values, and even a knowledge of current events are transmitted, In the end, the two factions contend, and the ”bad guys” admit defeat.
The Balinese love to create new genres by melding together different forms. In the 1940s the king of Gianyar, I Dewa Manggis VIII, summoned his royal dancers and asked them to create a new dance called Prembon, taking elements from the Gambuh, Arja (a kind of operatta), Topeng, Parwa (a non- masked form based on the Mahabharata) and Baris.
A night of Prembon often begins with a solo Baris and some other tari lepas (non-dramatic dance). A story of Balinese kings with characters from all of the above forms is then presented, although it most resembles a Topeng performance. Watching Prembon gives the uninitiated an excellent glimpse of all of these genres in a way that is easier to follow than say, Gambuh or Arja. And often it is the best dancers of each tradition that perform these pieces.
Every fifteen days, on Kajeng Kliwon, the dark forces of Bali gather to frolic and inflict illness on unsuspecting souls. These witches or leak are humans who, through the study of black magic, are able to transform themselves into grotesque animals, demons, even flying cars. They haunt crossroads, graveyards or bridges, and this particular day, due to its inauspiciousness for dharma, or the correct path, is auspicious for Rangda, queen of the leaks. A performance of the Calonarang dance is then often held.
As with many Balinese dance dramas, the story is based on historical sources. In the early 11th century, a powerful Balinese king. Udayana, married an east javanese princess. Mahendratta. When he found out she had been practicing black magic, he banished her to the forest. No one dared to marry her daughter, even though she was stunningly beautiful so afraid were they of her mother’s magic. To this day the queen, her teeth grown into fangs, her tongue a long flame and her hair full of fire, takes revenge by spreading pestilence throughout the land.
There are many variations on the Calonarang dance, but all involve the Barong a mythological beast with an immense coat of fur and gilded leather vestments. The most common and sacred is the Barong Ket, a cross between a lion and a bear, although the Barong Macan (tiger), Barong Bangkal (wild boar), Barong Celeng (pig) and Barong Gajah (elephant) also exist.
The Barong is considered a protector of the village. Of demonic origin, the people have made a beast in his image and transformed him into a playful, benevolent creature. Upon entering, he prances about the stage, shaking his great girth and clacking his jaws. He is often followed by the telek and jauk, two masked groups of men depicting deities and demons, respectively. They fight, but no one wins (a common theme in Balinese performances). Their role is simply to help restore and maintain balance.
The story then begins with the condong (lady-in-waiting) bemoaning the fact that no one will marry her mistress, Ratnamanggali, who then enters and dances. The lights are dimmed and the followers of Rangda enter, holding white cloths whose touch can cause illness. Matah Cede the witch in human form, then Instructs them in deeds of destruction and walks up to her temporary shack on the stage.Two male papaya trees have also been stuck into the ground here, said to represent the kepuh tree of the graveyard, a favorite haunt of leaks.
The scene then switches to the village, where many people have died. A group of vilagers brings a baby to the cemetery to be buried and the slumber of men in the graveyard is comically disturbed by a celuluk a balding demons with bulging eyes. This scene is always played to the hilt, with suggestive gestures from her and lewd remarks from the men.
The king and his minister, Mpu Bharadah, then appear and the king asks for advice on how to stop the horrible pestilence plaguing his kingdom. The advisor suggests that his son, Bahula, marry Ratnamanggali to discover how her mother gains her power. This he does, and it turns out that Rangda has stolen a book of holy mantras and recites them backwards. Bahula steals the book and takes it to his father. Mpu Bharadah then confronts Rangda, and a battle of magical wits takes place. Rangda burns the papaya tree and challenges the priest to do the same. He revives the tree and burns Rangda, but brings her back to life, determined that she will see the evil in her ways. On stage, Rangda can never be killed, only pushed back to the cemetery where she belongs.
The most famous part of this dance drama is the confrontation between Rangda and Barong, involving followers of Barong who attack Rangda with krisses or daggers that are then turned back on themselves. This can also be performed as a separate drama, called simply a Barong dance.
Barong enters, followed by the telek and jauk, and then Rangda appears, challenging him to a fight. He cannot withstand Rangda’s evil power, so the ”keris dancers” (ngunying or ngurek) rush to his assistance and attack Rangda. In a traditional performance, these ngunying are in a trance of sorts. The players have reported feeling a heat inside of them and a burning desire to kill Rangda. At times, her power is too much and they fall, apparently lifeless, to the ground. At other times, her power makes them convulse and stab themselves. Some men state that there is a spot, usually on their chest, that itches and they feel compelled to stab it. These men are never allowed to get too far out of control if they do, their keris are taken away from them and they are sprinkled with holy water to bring them out of trance.
Barong moves among them, shaking his beard (next to the mask itself, his most holy attribute). After they have all come out of trance, the performance is over and everyone goes home. To the Balinese, the struggle is real enough to be frightening, and the best actors can actually ”invite’ leak to come to the stage to challenge their own magic.
During the political upheavals of the ”60s, many new ideas in dance and music were ushered in. A team of Balinese artists at KOKAR (now SMKI, the High School for Performing Arts) in 1962 created a new form called Sendratari, from seni (”art”)-dramatori (dance”). Instead of having dancers speak their lines, as in Gambuh, Topeng and Arja, a juru tandak sits in the gamelan and speaks them in Kawi and Balinese. The dancers pantomime the action on stage. Since then, KOKAR and STST artistes have created new Sendratari every year for the Bali Arts Festival, filling to capacity the open-air the theater at the Art Center which seats 5,000. These are lavish spectacles, with casts of hundreds. The stories are usually taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.