Dance and drama have traditionally been one and the same on Bali. Depending on how you look at it dancers have traditionally played characters and acted while actors have traditionally danced around a lot. The dances usually tell a story, often an episode of a Hindu epic characterized by fighting off evil gods or demons. (See Separate Article on Balinese Dance).

Drama in Bali is usually derived from a local chronicle called Babad. Drama is estimated to first emerge in 1820. The art rose in the golden era of the Klungkung kingdom at the reign of I Dewa Agung Sakti. At that time, it is known in the form of Arja. Arja later developed into some drama forms in Bali, namely Prembon, Sendratari, and Drama Gong. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Though only a small island among the thousands of islands forming Indonesia, Bali is a chapter apart in the field of theatre. Despite the strong influence of increasing tourism since the 1930s, its theatrical tradition is one of the most interesting traditions in the world. Bali has been the home of many unique theatrical genres for several centuries. For over half a century, many of the old court theatre traditions have been maintained by village communities. As a result, the classical tradition has been freely interpreted by Southeast Asian standards, which have mainly been dominated by the courts. While being preserved, traditions have also been developed, combined, and renewed. Many villages have their own specific traditions of music, theatre, and dance, and performances can be seen daily. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

Two genres of theatre survive in Bali: the wayang kulit shadow theatre and the gambuh court dance-drama, which have preserved the ancient Hindu-Javanese tradition in a possibly more archaic form than any corresponding form of theatre in Java. Between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries Bali had close contacts with East Java, at times belligerent and at times peaceful. Over these centuries, Bali adopted the Hindu-Buddhist court culture of East Java and its various forms of theatre. (See Below). **

Ritual and Trance Performances in Bali

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bali is the home of many ritual performances that do not exactly correspond to the traditional Western conceptions of “theatre” or “dance”. They are mostly religious rituals, full of magical meaning to their performers and spectators. They may include dances and elements typical of theatrical performances, but are rarely intended for aesthetic or intellectual pleasure in the present-day Western sense of the term. In these rituals, dance and theatre are always made to serve religious and magical purposes. They are usually performed in the inner temple courtyards in connection with calendar feasts. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The performers are mostly non-professional, although some forms of wali may employ professional dancer-actors. In general, dancing skill is of secondary importance. Ritual performances fall into roughly two groups: ceremonial dances, generally ancient sacred dances of indigenous origin, and trance rituals in which the performers and sometimes the audience as well fall into a trance. **

“The most sacred dances are seen as an act of worship or a sign of devotion. Because of their nature they can be performed only in the most sacred part of the temple. Most of the wali dances are believed to be derived from purely indigenous traditions, although they have later borrowed the vocabulary of Hindu-Javanese classical dance. As the most sacred dances are not meant to be performed publicly, it is quite understandable that they have led to secularised variants for commercial purposes.” **

History of Theater in Bali

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Of all the forms of dance and theatre now performed in Bali, the oldest ritual performances predate the arrival of Hindu-Buddhist culture. The Balinese divide their performances into various classes according to their degree of sacredness. The most sacred ones are the wali performances, excluded from non-Balinese and outcasts, and are usually held in the most sacred precincts of the temples, which consist of several adjacent courtyards. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The bebali performances are staged in the outermost temple courtyards, and they are often of an artistic character and also open to foreigners. Other types include magical, though not temple-related, performances, secular performances, and tourist shows. Most of the styles of theatre and dance are performed to the accompaniment of Balinese gamelan music. There are many types of gamelan music and ensembles in Indonesia, but the gamelan gong kebyar, the most popular form of Balinese gamelan, is generally faster in tempo and sometimes more feverish and more capriciously accented than the classical gamelan of Java. **

“Most of the forms of theatre rely on classical Balinese dance techniques, which partly reiterate old Javanese prototypes, which have developed further into a rich, expressive, and dynamic style specific to Bali. Although Balinese theatre is open to new influences, its sacral core appears to have remained unchanged over the centuries. **

Theater in Bali Today

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “At present, Balinese theatre life continues to be highly active. Despite new experiments traditional theatre has not lost any of its vitality. While Bali has established its reputation as one of the world’s best- known tourist paradises, its classical dance and theatre have become its true trademarks. Ritual performances take place as before, children learn music and dance, and popular performances gather together both local and foreign audiences. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Tourists and travellers come to Bali in large numbers, and every visitor usually attends one or two performances, while the more serious traveller may easily study Balinese dance in some of the numerous private schools operating on the island. Ubud and its surrounding villages continue to attract tourists and offer an opportunity to see several good quality performances daily. Tourism has, naturally, affected the performance practices, which has led to a number of essential changes. Previously, most performances were related to calendar feasts, but today they are held daily. The tastes, or assumed tastes, of tourists dictate the duration and structure of many performances. Most tourist shows consist of a potpourri of the main Balinese dance styles, often performed in a shortened and even somewhat simplified form. Even the annual Bali Arts Festival is basically an international event, and not the kind of traditional religious festivity that in earlier years provided the main theatrical performances. **

“In spite of reforms and mass tourism, there has also been serious work in Bali to maintain the old forms of theatre. The Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia and KOKAR institutes of dance and theatre, operating along pan-Indonesian lines, strive not only towards a new synthesis but also to study and revive old traditions. In the early 1970s cultural leaders decided that the most sacred wali dances must not be secularized or performed commercially for outsiders. This decision showed a clear concern for the dance and theatre traditions of the island, and their innermost sacral core. The dualism of the present situation may, however, explain the secret of the vitality of Balinese theatre. Throughout history, Balinese theatre and dance tradition has been susceptible to change, but its sacral core has remained unchanged. Bali will most probably remain one of the most interesting loci of Asian dance and theatre if Balinese theatre, while responding to the challenges of mass tourism, still retains, as it seems, its deep significance for the Balinese themselves.

Arja and Prembon

Arja is Bali’s oldest drama form, performed for the first time in the 1820s. The name was taken from Sanskrit, Reja, meaning ‘something beautiful’. This was due to the beautiful combination of dancing, singing, and traditional instruments used in this drama. Arja players usually don beautiful dresses decorated in gold, silver, and flowers. Arja is performed not only for entertainment but also for education as there are many moral messages showed through this drama. Comedy, heroism, to the history of Bali can be expressed through Arja. The conversations among characters are done by using macapat style (traditional Balinese singing technique based on a kind of Javanese poetry). [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

There are three types of Arja according to the number of players and the traditional instruments used: 1) Arja Doyong: performed by one person without instruments; 2) Arja Gaguntangan: performed by two to ten persons with traditional instrument called Gaguntangan; and 3) Arja Gede: performed more than 10 persons with traditional instruments. A new type of Arja rose around the turn of 20th century called Arja Muani. Arja Muani is performed by males only, even for the female characters in the drama. Arja Muani is performed for entertainment because the story only regards comedy. This type of Arja is the favorite among the Balinese, usually performed in most social events in Bali.

Arja is like opera. The dialogue has been expressed in macapat style since it debuted on the stage in the 1820s. Arja used to stage the famous story of Panji, but today’s show begins to include the folklores, like Ramayana and Mahabarata. The interesting part of Arja show is that it is very communicative show with some humorous dialogues during its performance.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Arja, a kind of popular opera was created in 1825 for the funeral of a Balinese prince. It was originally performed by an all-male cast. In the 20th century it emerged as a form of sung drama, while women replaced the male actors. The twentieth century has been, in many respects, a period of feminisation in Balinese theatre; in many of the traditions, such as sendratari, actresses often play the roles of noble heroes, while the practice of female impersonators has almost been forgotten. The all-female casting of arja is believed to have led to the predominance of vocal virtuosity, for at the same time the Balinese language has replaced the ancient Kawi court language. Arja became a true folk opera, popular all over the island. It is performed, in Balinese fashion, by dancing, and its plot material is based on The Adventures of Prince Panji, Balinese legends, and even Chinese stories. Like other Balinese dance-dramas, arja combines the most refined elements of dance and music with the earthiness and grotesque humour of clowns and servants. Along with village performances, arja can also be seen on television. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Development of Arja and mask dance-dramas in Bali created a form of Drama called Prembon in 1942. Similar to Arja, this drama also shows stories from the Babad. The differences between Prembon and Arja seem from the masks used by the players. Arja players do not use masks, but in Prembon all the players wears masks. The masks aim to more explicitly express the character in Prembon, such as a king, common people, priest, etc. Though wearing masks, the Prembon players converse among them.

Sendratari, Balinese Pan-Indonesia “Ballet” Drama

Sendratari is a form of dance-drama that emerged in Bali around 1960. Like other Balinese drama forms, Sendratari combines traditional dancing, singing, and instruments but this drama is closely associated with modern drama forms. Every scene is manages to portray clearly the characters such as main character on the primary antagonists. Created by Balinese artist I Wayan Beratha, Sendratari is categorized as large drama because it is performed by 10 to 150 players. Originally Sendratari only told stories from the Babad but versions took on a wide range of clasical stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The sendratari dance-drama, created in the 1960s after Javanese models, shows no signs of diminishing popularity. Sendratari (seni: drama; tari: dance) is a spectacular form of dance- drama, originally created in 1961 for the Prambanan Festival in Central Java to provide entertainment for both foreign and local tourists. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Compared with other forms of classical dance-drama, it is more concise and more action-orientated, as the dialogue, recitation, and all ritual elements have been excluded. A narrator sitting in front of the gamelan presents the plot and the lines, while the dancers and large dancing choruses enact the story. Sendratari makes full use of Western stage techniques with coloured lights, spotlights, and other effects. Its overall dramaturgy mainly resembles Western narrative ballet. **

“The subject of the original sendratari performed at the Prambanan Festival, in Central Java, was the Ramayana. Soon after the first sendratari performance in Java, artists from the Balinese College of Performing Arts (KOKAR) staged, for the first time, a Balinese version of sendratari called Jayaprana, based on a popular Balinese love story, a kind of local “Romeo and Juliet” tale. In 1965 KOKAR presented the Sendratari Ramayana, a Balinese novelty based on the Ramayana, which became even more popular than Jayaprana, and many villages soon established their own sendratari groups. This genre combines elements of indigenous Balinese dance forms, such as legong and kebyar, as well as Javanese dance traditions. **

The sendratari can be regarded as a kind of pan-Indonesian official state art, although in Bali the style has achieved an increasingly local flavour. Since the inauguration of the Bali Arts Festival in 1979, a large-scale sendratari spectacle has usually been the main event of the festival. Sedratari has influenced many other genres, especially in the way in which they have been “modernised”. **

Drama Gong

Drama Gong is the youngest form of drama in Bali, estimated to emerge 6 years after Sendratari, around 1966. Drama Gong mostly brings comedy and is usually performed for entertainment. Unlike Sendratari which needs many players in luxurious dresses, Drama Gong is necessarily less in players and some use funny clothes or accessories. Drama Gong also has fewer scenes than Sendratari. Drama Gong is performed in many social events in Bali. It has been one of the favorite shows among the Balinese. The golden era of was reached in 1980. Even as the popularity of drama slightly decreased, many groups still exist, such as: Drama Gong Bintang Bali Timur, Drama Gong Duta Budaya Bali, Drama Gong Dewan Kesenian, Drama Gong Dwipa Sancaya, etc. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Sendratari influenced the birth of yet one more novelty in 1966. It was drama gong, a mainly spoken form of Balinese theatre, which is accompanied by gamelan gong kebyar, the most expressive of all Balinese gamelan styles. Drama gong is performed in the vernacular on a proscenium stage with melodramatic effects borrowed from Western theatre and with painted scenery. The stories are usually from the Panji cycle, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or from Balinese legends. Drama gong is still popular and troupes are hired to perform at various occasions. TV also regularly broadcasts drama gong productions. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Tari Topeng (Balinese Mask Dance-Drama)

Tari Topeng is a kind of traditional Balinese dance-drama Originally Tari Topeng mask dance-dramas were sacred, but over time they have been developed to entertain as well. The sacred mask dance-dramas are usually performed by a single dancer or a group of male dancers in large ceremonies. They have a purpose for telling viewers about the historical background of why a ceremony must be held or to deliver Hinduism wisdom through simple conversation among dancers. It is also believed that it can protect a ceremony from evil interferences.[Source: Bali Tourism Board]

The most famous sacred mask dance-drama is Topeng Pajegan. It is based on a legend about an old priest named Sidhakarya. Sidhakarya actually is the brother of the king of the Gelgel kingdom who hailed from Java. He was chased away by the king of Gelgel (kingdom located in district of Klungkung) without clear reason. Before he left Klungkung, he cursed the king that every ritual ceremony proposed by the king will not run well. It became true. Finally the king realized his mistake and tried to apologize. For respecting the priest and neutralizing the curse, a mask dance-drama must be performed before a ceremony is started, the Topeng Pajegan. So that is why Topeng Pajegan is always performed prior a big ceremony.

Topeng Pajegan is only performed by male dancers who use some masks. The main mask is called Sidhakarya. This dance tells us about Sidhakarya’s journey to Bali until he met the king and was chased away. Balinese people believe that the mask is the same as the Sidhakarya priest’s face. This dance is also believed to cure illnesses.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “There are two classic forms of mask theatre in Bali: the wayang wong and the topeng. Both contain features derived from the old Hindu court culture, which was adopted from Java. They developed into their present forms under the patronage of the Balinese courts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in the central court, which was first located in Gelgel and after the beginning of the eighteenth century in Klungkung. Their creation is associated with certain artists and artist families. The oldest mask sets are revered because of their sanctity and like old theatrical costumes they are passed on as family heirlooms. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Balinese topeng came about in the seventeenth century, when a new form of dance-drama was created for masks inherited from East Java. The old masks are still revered to such a degree that they are very rarely used and may not be photographed. Over the centuries topeng became popular throughout Bali, and new mask sets were made. Old masks are venerated as sacred heirlooms believed to possess magical powers. **

Topeng Stories and Masks

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Topeng can be described as a Balinese chronicle play with plots relating to the island’s history, ancient kings, ministers, and court intrigues. There are two types of topeng. Topeng paiegan (paiegan: offering), also known as topeng wali, is performed by a single actor as a kind of monodrama, which is still regarded as having a profound magical-religious meaning. The performer is at the same time a priest and an actor. In the latter capacity he displays considerable virtuosity, changing his character and movements according to the masks used in the play. The one-man topeng is still performed in various rituals, such as the filing of teeth, weddings, and funerals. In the historically younger topeng panca five actors appear. In both types, the action consists of a series of stock scenes presented in predictable order. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“For dramatic action, the main mask types are the refined (alus), white-faced king (dalem), his white-faced consort, the strong large-eyed antagonist king, and a number of strong minister characters with face colour ranging from cream to grey and red. A comic touch is added by several grotesque clown masks, often portrayed as suffering from physical defects. The masks of the clowns leave the mouth visible and cover only the upper part of the face, permitting the actors to present their lines. The task of the clowns is to describe the plot to the audience in the vernacular, as several languages are spoken in topeng, for example, classical Sanskrit and Kawi. **

The masks of topeng include those for special characters such as jauk who are not directly related to the dramatic action of a performance. Some of the characters are presented in their own, separate introductory dances. One such character is the white-haired Tua, wearing a light-coloured old man’s mask. In the one-man topeng the final mask is usually the smilingly grotesque Sidha Karya (the one who fulfils the task). It is a good example of the typically Balinese way of combining the grotesquely comic with the sacred. The mask of Sidha Karya, with its white face, buckteeth and almost mad smile, is actually the most sacred of all topeng masks. It is only when he wears this mask that the actor may recite the Sanskrit prayers. On the other hand, Sldha Kariya may behave in a very unruly manner, and small children in the audience are prepared for his well-meant teasing. **

The acting technique concentrates on virtuoso characterisation. The language of gesture is mainly based on classic Balinese dance derived from gambuh, although it varies greatly according to character. The noble king is always alert, the old man shakes and shudders absent-mindedly, and the red-faced minister with his broad movements represents the universal mood of wonder. In the one-man topeng paiegan the dancer sets his mask basket in front of the gamelan, from where he chooses and dons the appropriate masks. The presentation of the stock characters thus provides the essence of the actual scenes. With its five actors, topeng panca, developed from the one-man topeng in the late nineteenth century, has smoothly flowing dramatic action without interruptions. Unlike the sacred topeng paiegan, the group topeng is a theatrical performance without deeper ritual significance. **

Wayang Wong

Wayang Wong is a form of Balinese dance theater. The word Wayang means puppet and Wong means human, so Wayang Wong means humans portraying as puppets. Wayang Wong looks like a Mask Dance. The performers use masks which reflect characters in the story and engage in dialogue. The difference between mask dance and Wayang Wong is about the story told. Unlike Mask Dance which mostly takes a story about history of a ceremony, Wayang Wong takes it story from the Babad just like Wayang Kulit. It also takes stories from the Ramayana and Mahabarata. Wayang Wong is rarely performed because it can only be performed by special performers that are chosen by local priests through a ritual. The villages which perform Wayang Wong regularly are Tejakula (district of Singaraja), Sukawati & Mas (district of Gianayar), Marga (district of Tabanan), and Bualu (Badung). [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “There are two classic forms of mask theatre in Bali: the wayang wong and the topeng. Both contain features derived from the old Hindu court culture, which was adopted from Java. They developed into their present forms under the patronage of the Balinese courts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in the central court, which was first located in Gelgel and after the beginning of the eighteenth century in Klungkung. Their creation is associated with certain artists and artist families. The oldest mask sets are revered because of their sanctity and like old theatrical costumes they are passed on as family heirlooms. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Wayang wong dance-drama was created at the turn of the 19th century when the king of Klungkung wished to use his old, inherited masks in a new form of theatre based on the Ramayana. It was not, however, a completely new invention, being based on already existing forms of theatre such as the wayang kulit and the gambuh. Certain postures and gestures were adopted from shadow theatre, while gambuh provided the style of dance and even complete dance numbers. **

“Wayang wong is an impressive, large-scale form of dance theatre, in which decorative, slightly Chinese-influenced masks and large headdresses offer visual splendour. Actors sing their lines and dialogues in the Kawi language. As in other South-East Asian Ramayana-related drama forms, for example, khon of Thailand and wayang wong of Java, the noble heroes and heroines no longer wear masks. They are worn only by actors playing the demon and monkey characters. Monkeys have a central role in wayang wong. In Bali, monkeys have been revered as guardian spirits, and they have been the inspiration for many theatrical creatures, combining monkey features with elements of other animals, such as tigers or even birds. The monkeys’ pantomime-like gestures add a special flavour to the movements employed in wayang wong. **

“Along with the heroes, dancing in the pure classical style, the monkeys introduce positions and gestures based on animal movements adapted from earlier traditions. Despite their apparently relaxed nature, their execution is based on fixed choreographies. The cast of a wayang wong performance includes several dozen dancer-actors. Experienced professionals play roles such as the heroes and the demon-king Ravana, usually employing classical dance techniques, while the minor monster and the monkey characters are often played by amateurs. **

“A performance usually elaborates only a single episode of the Ramayana. The dialogue and the Kawi language have been adopted from shadow theatre, though in a simplified form. Wayang wong performances still have a ritual significance. Many of the masks, which in wayang wong also include headdresses ear ornaments and sometimes even wigs, are regarded as highly sacred objects.” **

Balinese Wayang Kulit Shadow Puppet Theatre

The Balinese love shadow puppets shows and have gamelans like the Javanese. A host of gods are featured in dramas that often symbolize the battle between order and chaos. Balinese wayang kulit is closely related to Javanese shadow theatre. This is indicated by the use of the name wayang kulit (wayang: shadow, puppet; kulit: leather) on both islands. Shadow theatre is believed to have arrived in Bali from Java along with the Indian-influenced court culture before the eleventh century. At this time the Balinese adopted the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics of India, which constitute the main repertoire of shadow theatre in both Java and Bali. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

Based on the show time, there are two types of Wayang Kulit; namely Wayang Peteng and Wayang Lemah. Wayang Peteng is performed in the evening only for entertaining. It is also known as a shadow theater. Wayang Peteng is performed behind a white flat screen (made from stretched cloth) which is lighted by a traditional hanging oil lamp. Wayang Peteng viewers watch the show in front of the screen. Though viewers can only see the shadows of puppets (the puppeteer not visible through the screen), it does not decrease the interesting aspect of the show. Wayang Peteng usually takes local stories, such as children stories, comedy, or even social-politics and bringing in many moral messages. Therefore, this puppet theater is often used as a traditional educational media. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Another type of Wayang Kulit is Wayang Lemah. Unlike Wayang Peteng which is performed in the evening, Wayang Lemah is performed in the morning or afternoon. Wayang Lemah can be categorized as a sacred show, because it is only performed in big ceremonies and tells stories about God or histories of a ritual. In Wayang Lemah it is not too different than Wayang Peteng, both having movements and voices handled by a Dalang (puppeteer) and accompanied by Gender Wayang (traditional music instrument), but in Wayang Lemah it is performed without a screen. The viewers can see the puppets and Dalang clearly. This show is believed to be able to protect a ceremony celebration from evil influences.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “ In Java wayang kulit developed into a large-scale, classical form of theatre of complex philosophical and aesthetic content, which had a decisive effect on the visual arts and other forms of theatre. In Bali shadow theatre also retained its ritual character and its role as a mediator of moral values, but it did not influence other forms of theatre to the same extent as in Java. However, the traditional Balinese style of painting, the so-called wayang style, is based on the stylization of the wayang puppets. Wayang kulit can be performed both in the daytime and at night. The night performances are literally a theatre of shadows, as the dalang moves the puppets behind a screen that is lit, while a screen is not used in the daytime form (wayang lemah). The Balinese wayang kulit does not require as large a troupe as its Javanese counterpart, and the former normally consists of the dalang and his assistants, and a small gamelan ensemble, usually with four metallophones. **

“The stories are derived not only from the originally Indian Ramayana and Mababharata epics but also from East Javanese story cycles, such as The Adventures of Prince Panji, known as Malat in Bali, and in the 20th century also the Calonarang, which deals with magical powers and horrible witches. As in most other classical forms of Balinese theatre, the majority of the characters speak Kawi, the language of the Javanese courts from the tenth to the fifteenth century. The servant clown characters speak colloquial Balinese, translating the dialogue for an audience unfamiliar with Kawi. A wayang performance is a highly diverse combination of moral teachings, adventure, and slapstick and obscene burnout performed by the clowns, much loved by the Balinese. Wayang kulit is still popular, and several hundred dalang are active in Bali.” **

Balinese Wayang Kulit Puppets and Puppeteers

Wayang Kulit is made from stiffly tanned hide mounted on handles of horn or bone, each cut out in its characteristic shape and pierced with a fine lace-like pattern that allows the lamplight to reveal details of face and dress. The arms joined at the shoulders are manipulated with great expressiveness. Wayang Kulit movements are controlled by a puppeteer called Dalang. It is usually accompanied by traditional music instruments called Gender Wayang. The Dalang manipulates all the Wayang movements and also Wayang voices behind the screen. A Dalang must have ability to change their voice depending on which Wayang character, so the conversations among the characters look real. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The Balinese and Javanese leather puppets are skilfully cut and incised, and they share common aesthetic principles: the puppet’s face and feet are shown in profile while the torso is presented frontally. The arms, articulated at the shoulder and the elbow, are the only jointed parts. Javanese and Balinese puppets differ, however, in style. Experts assume that the Javanese puppets received their extreme stylisation and symbolic character from the Islamic courts after the fall of the Majapahit Empire. The Balinese puppets, on the other hand, reflect older prototypes. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“This is shown by the fact that the puppets of Bali with their headdresses, hairstyles, costumes, and their more realistic features reflect the stylisation and aesthetics of the low-relief carvings of the Majapahit temples in East Java. This archaic puppet style was preserved in Bali when contacts with Islamic Java ceased after the sixteenth century. **

“The primus motor of wayang kulit is the dalang who manipulates the puppets and acts as a narrator. He must have command of a wide range of vocal expression and the movement patterns of various puppets in addition to being responsible for the sacrifices and rituals connected with the performances. The art of puppetry is recorded in an old manual, called Dharma Pewayangan or the Laws of Puppetry.” **


Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Gambuh (gam: way of life; buh: king) is an old form of court dance-drama. It has not been possible to trace its exact roots, or to define which specific Javanese traditions constitute its origins. It is believed, however, that this genre came from the royal courts of East Java. The gambuh tradition is at least four hundred years old, and it has had a great influence on other forms of theatre in Bali and Balinese dance in general. Gambuh is performed in the daytime, and it belongs to the semi-sacred bebali performances. While originally performed at court festivities, it can be seen at present in temples and in commercial performances, although the latter are very rare. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The gambuh repertoire is drawn from classical epic literature, usually East Javanese tales relating to Prince Panji. As in the wayang kulit, several languages are used with the royal characters speaking Kawi, the old Javanese court language, and the comic servant characters conversing in colloquial Balinese. The musical accompaniment is extremely complex and perhaps the most demanding form of Balinese music. The orchestra is relatively small and dominated by long, wailing flutes. Gambuh was originally performed by an all-male cast, but today women usually play female roles and sometimes even noble heroic characters. The all-male gambuh was, however, revived at the end of the 20th century with great success. Experiments have also been done with Western texts, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1990. **

“Like most South-East Asian theatre traditions, gambuh has distinct stock characters with specific styles of dance, make-up, and costume. The characters correspond to the Indonesian classification according to which heroes are represented in refined (alus) and sweet (manis) styles. Ministers, attendants, and evil figures are portrayed in strong (keras) and coarse (kasar) styles. **

“The present repertoire represents only a small fraction of the original gambuh tradition. When the Dutch conquered the Balinese courts in the early twentieth century, the gambuh lost its original royal patronage. In its extreme sophistication, it could not survive as such in the village communities. Performances were shortened and the style was vulgarised, but despite these developments the gambuh is still being performed. **

Gambuh Dance and Acting Techniques

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The general dance style of gambuh is characterised by stiff shoulders, tensely moving arms and expressive, upwardly bent movements of the fingers. In the basic position, the thighs and knees are turned outwards, with the legs forming a kind of rhombus, and the shoulders are pulled up so that the head rests on the torso. The dancer often lowers his centre of gravity in a kind of demi plié by bending the legs and shifting his weight from one leg to the other. The hands repeat the conventional gestures, echoing the distant influence of the mudra, the symbolic hand gestures of Indian dance. In fact, the Sanskrit term mudra is still used in Balinese to denote a gesture. The facial expression is also dictated by convention, but expressive eye movements are used considerably more than in Javanese dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“This dance technique can well be described as the Balinese classical style, for it has been adapted in the techniques of other major genres such as the legong, topeng, and arja. The court performances originally went on for days, but a modern-day gambuh performance lasts only a few hours. It is composed of stock scenes, where fixed characters present monologues, dialogues, dances typical of their roles, and sometimes fighting scenes. Traditionally, sets or props are not used. The performing area, usually a second temple courtyard in the gambuh as well as in other bebali performances, is fitted with traditional parasols and bamboo decorations, with the costumes, based on old court dress, providing additional visual splendour. **

“A typical gambuh costume consists of a long-legged and long-sleeved white undergarment and a wide, gold-embroidered collar with wide gold-patterned strips of fabric hanging down to the knees. The actors move the strips in the same delicate way as the Javanese court dancers handle their long scarves. The costume includes an impressive piece of headgear, often decorated with fresh flowers. Like the dance technique of the gambuh, the costume was also adopted by other theatre traditions.” **

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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