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Balinese Dances and Dramas – Culture in Bali

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Balinese traditional performing arts, which are incorporated into most ceremonies, feature a rich variety of music, dance and theatre that remain vibrant to this day. There are interesting shows going on somewhere in Bali every day. Dance is an important art form in Balinese culture. Balinese dance is known for its ancient traditions and expressive styles. Topeng (mask in Indonesian) is a highly popular and dramatic dance widely performed in many ceremonies such as at wedding, Odalans (anniversary temple festival) and tooth filings (a Balinese coming-of-age ritual). The mask-wearing performers enact stories from Balinese folk tales as well as the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The performance is freely adapted to the context, be it religious or not. One performer will play all the parts by changing masks throughout the show.

The Mahabharata – Balinese Dances and Dramas

The Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem with about 200 000 verses. It tells the story of two cousins-clans: the Kurus – sons of darkness who take over the power in the kingdom and the Pandawas – sons of light who are sent to exile by the Kurus. Each side is supported by different gods.

The Pandawas and their leader Arjuna are counseled by Krishna – one of Wisnu’s human interactions. One of the culminating events of the Mahabharata is the Battle of Kurksetra. As Arjuna gets ready to fight, he is hesitant about facing his uncle on the battlefield and killing his relatives. Khrishna gives him a long speech called the Bhagavad-gita in which he explains how to deal with difficult decisions and ethical questions. Basically, Arjuna has a duty and nothing else matters. He needs to carry out his Dharma, to play his part in keeping the balance in this world even if it means killing members of his family. In the end, although both sides suffer heavy loss of life, the survivors are the Pandawas who are able to reclaim the throne (the grandson of Arjuna becomes king).

The Ramayana – Balinese Dances and Dramas

The Ramayana tells the adventures of Prince Rama (another incarnation of Wisnu), as he searches for his lost wife Sita, kidnapped by Ravana, the demon king. Rama enlists the help of his half-brother, Laksmana and Hanuman – the general of the monkey army. After many adventures, Hanuman manages to locate Sita in Lanka (Ravana’s kingdom) where the famous Battle of Lanka takes place. Injured, Laksmana can only be cured by certain herbs that grow on the Himalaya Mountains. Sent to look for the magic herbs, Hanuman cannot remember which plant he is to bring back, so he decides to take whole chunks of the mountain, hopefully bringing the herb that will save Laksmana’s life. That does the trick; Laksmana is saved. The battle ends with Rama killing Ravana and reuniting with Sita. However, Rama questions Sita’s loyalty. To prove herself, Sita jumps into the flames only to be saved by Agni, the god of fire. But still, Rama is not convinced. When he finally comes to his senses about her faithfulness, it’s too late. Sita has decided to kill herself and she dies. Part of the Ramayana Epos is performed during Kecak dance – a beautiful fire and incantation show presented during sunset time at Uluwatu Temple.

Barong and Kris Dance – Balinese Dances and Dramas

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Another popular Balinese dance is the Barong, which portrays the conflict between Barong the good monster and Rangda the witch. It’s a story of good versus evil. The fight between Barong and Rangda is also the topic of traditional narratives, usually performed in the temple of the dead. The story goes that Rangda, the mother of Erlangga, the King of Bali in the tenth century, was condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits in the jungle, the leaks and the demons, to come after Erlangga. A fight occurred, but she and her black magic troops were too strong that Erlangga had to ask for the help of Barong. Barong came with Erlangga’s soldiers, and fight ensued. Rangda casted a spell that made Erlangga soldiers all wanted to kill themselves, pointing their poisoned keris into their own stomachs and chests. Barong casted a spell that turned their body resistant to the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won, and Rangda ran away.

There is high possibility that somebody can die or get seriously injured in a Barong dance. It is said that if Rangda’s spell is too strong, a weak soldier may not be able to resist it, even with the help of Barong. He may end up hurting himself with his own keris. The masks of Barong and Rangda are considered sacred items, and before they are brought out, a priest must be present to offer blessings by sprinkling them with holy water taken from Mount Agung, and offerings must be presented.

Legong Dance – Balinese Dances and Dramas

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The Legong Dance is inspired by Balinese Legends. It was originally performed by two mask-wearing girls representing divine spirits. Today, masks are not used and the story is performed by three girls- one playing the servant and the other two as her mistresses.

Wayang Kulit – Balinese Dances and Dramas

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For Wayang Kulit or shadow play, puppets are made of flat, carved leather painted and braced with sticks. The dalang or puppet master moves the puppets using the sticks behind a large white cotton cloth lit by an oil lamp in the dark. The dalang manipulates all the puppets in the show and changes voice depending on the character.

Kecak Dance – Balinese Dances and Dramas

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In Kecak Dance the music is generated from a combination sounds “cak” which sung by about 50-70 people all of them will make music in akapela. A person will act as a leader who gives the tone early, someone else acting as a suppressor in charge of pressure high or low tone, someone else acting as a solo singer, and someone else will act as the mastermind behind that to deliver the story. The dancers in the Kecak dance motion is more relaxed because the main priority is the storyline and the sound mix. What makes this dance special is that the accompanying music is provided by the human voice, the gamelan suara, a choir of a fifty men or more sitting in concentric circles, swaying, standing up, lying prone as the story develops .Amongst the swaying masses the voices of the storytellers can be heard telling the unfolding tale. The story is a fragment from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic which finds its expression in many forms, not only in dance, but also in painting and carving.

The above are only a few examples of Balinese dances and dramas. Which one interests you the most? Let us know and share your thoughts in the comments below!

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