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Facts about Indonesia

Surface area: 1 919 440 km2

Capital: Jakarta

Population: 250 million

Ethnic structure: Malays 58%, Chinese 26%, and many smaller ethnic groups

Languages: altogether some 600, of which the dominant is Bahasa Indonesia, also the Javanese, Sundanese, Maduranese, Balinese, Dayak and Batak languages, and some 200 Papuan languages

Religions: Islam 88%, Christianity, Hinduism and plenty of different folk religions

The Republic of Indonesia comprises 17 500 islands. With its estimated population of around 250 million people it is the world’s fourth most populous country, and has the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesia is a republic (since 1950 the Republic of Indonesia), with an elected legislature and a president. The nation’s capital, Jakarta, is in Java, Indonesia’s central island. The transcontinental country shares land borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Malaysia.

There are hundreds of theatrical traditions in Indonesia. Many of them belong to the smaller ethnic groups of remote islands while some of them form what could be classified as “classical traditions”. These latter consist of the traditions of Indonesia’s central island, Java, and the neighbouring, smaller island of Bali.

For two millennia both Java and Bali have been in contact with India and neighbouring cultures, and this is clearly reflected in theatre and dance. Many of the remote islands, on the other hand, have lived in relative seclusion from outside influences, and have thus preserved traditions which, in some cases, stem from the Neolithic Stone Age or the Bronze Age.

Here the focus will be on the traditions of Java and Bali, although a small section is dedicated to the Islamic influence, which started to spread from Northern Sumatra to other parts of the archipelago in the 13th century AD.

The island of Java was Islamised by the beginning of the 16th century, while the island of Bali has retained its old form of Hinduism to this day. Thus Bali has preserved its old culture, including several forms of theatre and dance. In Java the older Hindu-Buddhist traditions were adapted to the Islamic cultural atmosphere, resulting in the sophisticated court theatre and dance, discussed below.


Java, Indonesia’s Central Island

The long history of Java, the central island of Indonesia, is marked by international maritime contacts. The island is a natural crossroads of the sea routes between East and South Asia, and it has been the melting pot of cultural influences for thousands of years. This is clearly evident in the island’s rich traditions of theatre and dance.

The present classical forms of drama and dance were created by the Islamic courts of Central Java over the centuries. They combined old indigenous traditions with mythical story material and classical dance technique from India. Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java and the capital, Jakarta, in the western part of the island are the main centres of Javanese dance and theatre today.

Several early Indianised kingdoms typical of South-East Asia flourished on the islands of Indonesia. The first of these was the Srivijaya maritime empire on the east coast of Sumatra, which controlled trade in the Malacca Straits from the 7th to the 13th centuries.

Srivijayan dominance was also felt on the island of Java, where in the 8tth and 9th centuries the Mahayana Buddhist Shailendra dynasty and its contemporary, the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty, ruled. Since both competing dynasties flourished in the central parts of the island, this epoch, generally regarded as the “classical age” of Indonesian art and architecture, is known as the Central Javanese Period.

Dance Reliefs of the Central Javanese Period, Direct Indian Influence

At the beginning of the Central Javanese period, in the early 8th century AD, the region was ruled by the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty and the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty. Thus the area was divided into two cultural spheres. The Southern part was under Buddhist influence, while the Northern part was under Hindu control. From c. 830 onward the Hindu expansion was predominant, although there seems to have existed remarkable tolerance toward Buddhism. The Central Javanese period ended for reasons not exactly known, and the transfer of political power from Central Java to East Java took place from the 10th to the early 13th centuries.

Central Javanese architecture shows a clear Indian influence. It is believed that Javanese temples or candies (ancient temples) were designed by learned Brahman priests and Buddhist monks, who acted as the scholars and scientists of their age and who either possessed the Indian architectural manuals or at least were familiar with them.

The largest of all Central Javanese Hindu temples, and indeed of all Javanese Hindu temples, is the Loro Jonggaran group, also known as Prambanan. It was constructed in c. 835–856 and it comprises altogether 227 temple towers. The three main towers are dedicated to the Hindu trimurti of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.

The central tower, dedicated to Shiva, rises to a height of 47 metres. The towers are decorated with narrative series of reliefs, which, in the temples dedicated to Shiva and Brahma, tell the story of the Ramayana. The exceptionally early Ramayana panels show few actual dance poses. However, they include many fixed positions related to martial arts and archery. These poses and positions found their way into the later Javanese dance techniques.

Dance is more prominent on the outer walls of the central tower of the complex. There are 62 reliefs showing clearly Indian-influenced dance poses. It possible that these reliefs reflect the Indian system of karanas, the fixed dance units described in the Natyashastra, the Indian manual of dance and theatre, compiled in c. 100–200 AD.

The largest Buddhist building is Borobodur, which, in fact, forms a huge three-dimensional mandala with a plan of 113 by 113 metres. Started in c. 775 its construction was intended to be a Hindu temple but later the plans were, however, changed and the Buddhist Borobudur got its final form in c. 835.

The eight terraces of Bororobudur, with the crowning main stupa at the top surrounded by minor stupas, form an artificial stone mountain. The symbolism of Mount Meru, as well as other Buddhist cosmological features, is apparent.

The lower terraces are built on a square plan symbolising the earth, whereas the upper terraces with stupas are circular and represent the heavens. The lower terraces were meant for circumambulation and were decorated with some 1300 relief panels of altogether 2.5 kilometres in length. As a whole, the structure forms a huge cosmological symbol and circumambulation through the terraces were intended to show the devotee, with the aid of the reliefs, the path to enlightenment.

The great number of reliefs on the walls of Borobudur include numerous dance images. Many of them depict dance performed at court by female dancers. Usually these court performances show a clear Indian influence. Some of the reliefs hint at how the Indian dance technique was transmitted to Java.

In several reliefs we find female dancers accompanied by one or two male figures, which bear the iconographical marks of Indian Brahman priests or dance masters. These portrayals of dance performances can give one answer as to how the dance tradition was passed on to local dancers. It was simply taught to locals by the Indian Brahmans, who had the knowledge of the Indian tradition and acted as gurus, or teacher-masters as well as spiritual guides.

Although fairly many of the Central Javanese dance images show an undeniable Indian influence, it does not mean that all of them are related to the Indian tradition. Among the dance-related images one can identify several types of dances or even dance traditions, such as dance rituals, communal dances, recreational dances, martial arts dances, acrobatics, and the above-mentioned court dances.

As a general rule, the dances performed in a court context show a clear Indian influence. However, many of the dances do not seem to bear any resemblance to the Indian tradition and they may represent local, indigenous dance traditions.

The Wayang Style of the East Javanese Period, The Localisation of the Indian Influence

From the early 10th century onward the Central Javanese kings focused their attention on East Java and in 929 they seem to have almost abandoned Central Java. There has been much speculation about the reason for this drastic change. A volcanic eruption could have been the reason, which was interpreted as a warning sign from the gods. The East Javanese period can be divided into four sub-periods.

During the Majapahit period, in the 13th–15th centuries, the East Javanese culture reached its zenith. The second half of the 14th century in particular saw the flourishing of both literature and architecture. The religion of the East Javanese period was syncretistic in character, while the cults of Shiva and the Buddha merged together.

The free-standing cult images of the period do, in fact, follow the Central Javanese, Indian-influenced tradition. A more drastic change occurred, however, in the style of the narrative reliefs, which were carved on the bases and the balustrades of the outer walls of the temples. From the beginning of the 13th century they no longer echoed the Indian-influenced, round and sensual and even realistic “classical” style but were carved in a completely new style, known as the “wayang style”.

Wayang is a generic term, which has several meanings. It means a “puppet”; it can refer to a shadow and it also refers to a performance. Generally, the shadow play, wayang kulit, is seen as the origin of the whole “wayang family”. It includes several theatrical genres from the storyteller’s scroll performances, wayang beber, to the three-dimensional wooden rod puppet theatre, wayang golek, and finally to the court dance drama wayang wong, in which living actors take the place of the wayang puppets.

All these theatre forms have much in common. Their principles of dramatic action, stylisation of movement, characterisation, costuming, basic role types etc. clearly stem from the same tradition and conventions. The earliest record confirming the existence of shadow theatre in Java dates back to 907.

The present-day Balinese puppets represent an archaic style, and bear a clear resemblance to the East Javanese wayang style reliefs. The Javanese puppets are, in turn, believed to have evolved into their extremely elongated and almost non-figurative style during the period of Muslim rule, which put an end to the East Javanese period by the end of the 15th century. It is generally believed that the extreme stylisation of Javanese puppets reflects Islam’s ban on making a human figure.

Like the shadow puppets, especially those from Bali, the figures in the narrative panels of the East Javanese temples also follow the conventions of the wayang tradition. The torso is shown frontally, whereas the head, legs and feet are depicted in profile. The thin arms and small hands hang down stiffly alongside the torso if they are not lifted and shown in any of the wayang theatre’s limited mudra-like gestures.

The whole treatment of the reliefs is flat, while the large, decorative headdresses of the figures, the Chinese-style cloud motifs and the stylised elements of the landscape often fill the backgrounds. Besides the stylisation of the human figures, the dwarfish servant clowns, the punakawan, and the use of the tree-of-life motif as a dividing agent between the scenes also seem to connect the reliefs with the wayang kulit shadow theatre.

The stories depicted in the East Javanese series of narrative reliefs are based on the localised versions of the Ramayana and other Indian mythological themes found in the Old Javanese texts. The stories that originated in India were, by this time, merged to a great extent with local stories and embedded in the local cultural climate. One can recognise a localisation process of the same kind both in the style of the reliefs as well as in the literary themes they depict.

The mythological stories were retold and elaborated by local storytellers and court poets, while the sculptural portrayals of these stories were also localised. Thus the reliefs lost the style and iconography derived from India during the Central Javanese period, and a new completely indigenous wayang style emerged, indicating a cross-fertilisation of local theatrical conventions and the visual arts.

The Arrival of Islam

Majapahit power gradually declined in the fifteenth century with the spread of Islam, and Malacca, the first of the South-East Asian sultanates, rose to power in the Malay Peninsula. Islam spread gradually from North Sumatra to Java, where Demak, the first Islamic centre, began to break away from Majapahit rule. In 1527, together with its neighbouring towns, it succeeded in crushing the Majapahit dynasty, bringing to an end the Hindu-Buddhist East Javanese period.

According to legend, Islam was introduced into Java by nine holy men (wali). The most famous of these was Sunan Kali Jogo, who is believed to have spread the teachings of Islam by means of shadow-theatre performances of the Hindu Mahabharata. This legend clearly demonstrates the specific features of Islam in Java. Instead of wiping out earlier beliefs, it assimilated them.

This led to a syncretistic belief system typical of Java, which combines animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and has had a clear effect on the arts, including theatre and dance. As before, the ruler was regarded as divine, and the cult of the god-king and court culture retained many Hindu-Buddhist features of earlier times.

Islamic Traditions of Performing Arts

Islam has not produced many forms of dance and theatre. The tradition of Islam (not Quran itself) takes a negative attitude towards portraying a human form in the visual arts. The only art form referred to in the Islamic tradition is the recitation of the holy Quran.

When Islam started to spread across the islands of Indonesia in the 12th century, it was also bringing new kinds of cultural influences from the Islamic world, from Arab culture, Persia and Islamic West India. They included literature, types of instruments, forms of music, styles of recitation of holy texts, and also some forms of dance.

In many cases these new elements were quickly localised and they intermingled with earlier animistic and Hindu-Buddhist elements. A good example is wayang golek rod puppet theatre, which has its roots firmly in the older wayang kulit shadow theatre that mainly deals with Hindu mythology. Wayang golek, however, takes its main plot material from the Islamic Menak stories. A similar kind of fusion of cultural layers can be recognised in numerous Indonesian traditions.

More purely Islamic traditions can be found on the island of Sumatra, particularly on its northernmost tip, Aceh, from where Islam started to spread to other parts of Indonesia. These traditions include, for example, certain musical styles, as well as dances, which are based on the local martial arts technique, silek.

Forms of group dancing and singing (seudati and remplis mude) in which the formerly all-male cast use their own bodies to create music by singing, snapping their fingers and slapping their chests and legs are also popular. The lines sung are often religious texts, and it is believed that the tradition was inspired by the ecstatic rituals of the Muslim sufi mystics.

The Islamic Renaissance of Central Java and the Colonial Period

After a period of dynastic warfare, the Mataram dynasty came to power, and Central Java again rose in political influence. One of the most important sultans of this dynasty was Agung (1613–1645), whose court in Yogyakarta ruled over the whole of East Java and other regions. Still existing dance forms as well as many mask and martial dances are known to have been performed at the court of Mataram.

In the sixteenth century the island of Java had begun to interest Westerners who were seeking spices. In 1602 the Dutch established their trading company, the Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie, which led to a long period of Dutch hegemony on the islands of Indonesia. In 1619 the town of Batavia was founded at the site of the former village of Jayakarta. This miniature Amsterdam became a major port of trade and the centre of Dutch rule.

The British were the main competitors in these areas, and they succeeded in acquiring dominance over Java from 1811 to 1816. After Dutch rule had been re-established, the actual colonial period began in 1830, when the Dutch gained control of the whole of Java.

The Mataram dynasty expended its energies in the Javanese Wars of Succession. In 1755 the dynasty split into two, and two capitals, Yogyakarta (Yogya) and Surakarta (Solo), were founded only a few dozen kilometres from each other near the ancient Central Javanese temples. In both cities the most important part is the kraton (also known as keraton), the sultan’s palace enclosed by walls and forming a city within a city.

The symbolic features of the plan of the kraton clearly reflect ancient Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The outermost parts of the kraton were reserved for the army and the court officials and their families. The interior consisted of several open administrative buildings serving various ceremonial functions. The sultan resided in the most protected central part, and, in accordance with old Hindu-Buddhist custom, he was regarded as divine.

In the early nineteenth century the royal families of Yogyakarta and Surakarta again divided, leading to a politically precarious situation where the two capitals were simultaneously ruled by two sultans in each. When full political power was taken over by the Dutch, the ruling families of Java concentrated their energies on refining court etiquette and on developing the arts, especially theatre, dance, and music. This led to a unique renaissance of the arts, in which the classical genres of Central Javanese theatre and dance found their present forms.

Early Independence

The rise of nationalism among Javanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century anticipated a period of political turmoil, which was later inflamed by World War II. The Japanese ousted the Dutch and occupied Java from 1942 to 1945. On 17 August 1945, after the end of the Japanese Occupation, Indonesia declared its independence. Yogyakarta was for a short time the temporary capital, and the seat of government was later moved to the Dutch-built city of Batavia, now renamed Jakarta. The Republic of Indonesia was established in 1950 with Dr A. Sukarno as its first elected president.

For over a thousand years, wayang kulit shadow theatre has been the core of Javanese theatre, influencing the development of other genres. Over the centuries, the various sultanates with their kraton have developed their own art forms by adapting and combining ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions in the spirit of Islam.

Java is also home to various classical forms of gamelan music and dance styles, of which the most important ones are the West Javanese style (Sunda), the East Javanese style, and the Central Javanese style, whose best-known traditions were refined in the kratons of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. The Central Javanese dance style can be described as the most classical dance style of Java. During the period of Indonesian independence the dance style of Java and its theatre traditions have spread to other islands, forming a kind of pan-Indonesian style.

Wayang, The World of Shadows and Puppets

Wayang kulit (wayang: literally shadow, sometimes puppet; kulit: leather or skin) is still the most popular form of shadow theatre in all Asia. It has been extremely important in the development of Javanese theatre, as most of the other forms of classical theatre have derived their story material, stylisation, and many performing techniques directly from it. Wayang kulit set the aesthetic standard of Javanese theatre, and partly Balinese theatre as well.

The stagecraft and equipment are relatively simple, the primus motor being a single narrator-puppeteer, dalang, manipulating the leather puppets on a simple white screen and acting as a narrator to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra. It is, however, an art form of immensely rich and intricate symbolism and philosophical content.

Shadow drama gave rise to other forms of puppet theatre, for example, wayang klitik with flat wooden puppets and wayang golek with three-dimensional rod puppets, which are discussed in separate sections. Although these forms of theatre are highly developed, and wayang golek still thrives, they are clearly surpassed by wayang kulit in popularity and complexity.

The Origins

There are two theories concerning the roots of Javanese shadow theatre. According to one theory, it came from India together with the Ramayana and Mababbarata epics during the long process of Java’s Indianisation. The other view maintains that Javanese shadow theatre has ancient indigenous roots. This is often supported by the fact that part of the shadow-theatre repertoire is based on pre-Hindu story cycles, and that all the technical terms of the genre are Javanese and not derived from Sanskrit or other Indian languages.

The earliest record confirming the existence of shadow theatre in Central Java dates from AD 907. In the East Javanese period, shadow theatre is believed to have been adopted by the Hindu courts of Bali during the long process of its Indianisation. The Balinese puppets still bear strong resemblances to the so-called wayang-style reliefs in East Javanese temples, discussed above, which are believed to have shared a common style with the contemporary East Javanese shadow puppets.

Present-day Javanese shadow puppets are, in turn, believed to have evolved into their extremely elongated and almost non-figurative style during the period of Muslim rule, thus reflecting Islam’s ban on making a human image.

Story Material

The story or plot of wayang kulit as well as other Javanese drama performances is called lakon, roughly meaning the course of events or action. The plots are derived from various sources, for example, the Indian Mababbarata and the Ramayana, the East Javanese Prince Panji cycle, and later Muslim stories.

The four oldest cycles, dealing with the ancient history of Java, are collectively named wayang purwa (purwa: primeval, original, ancient). This includes both pre-Hindu material and lakon based directly on the Mababbarata and the Ramayana epics, whose heroes are regarded as the mythical ancestors of the Javanese. Sometimes the lakon are faithful to the original texts, but in many cases the epic heroes have been removed from their authentic contexts and have been written into new, purely Javanese, fantasies.

There are several hundred lakon. They serve merely as guides to the performances, including lists of scenes and personages, and descriptions of the action in the actual play, which in practice includes a great deal of improvisation not written in the lakon. However, a lakon follows a more or less standard structure.

The Structure and Symbolism of the Play

The play begins with audience scenes in the palaces of opposing monarchs, where the main conflict is presented. In the ensuing sections, the opponents send messengers to each other until they finally meet in person. Whilst preparing for battle, the hero will experience many doubts and inner conflicts.

The climax is a great battle, which is also a drastic turning point in the action. Finally, the victorious noble hero presents himself in his full glory at the home palace, and the plays usually have happy endings, the obligatory victory of the right. The themes are highly ethical, and the mood is generally serious, although the whole includes comic scenes with stock clown characters, slapstick, and even topical satire. Javanese theatre thus combines highly noble qualities with earthy comedy and even obscene grotesqueness.

On a philosophical, one could almost say an esoteric level, the play, as a whole, symbolises the human life cycle. The first part symbolises youth, the middle part adulthood, and the final part old age. The steps from one period to the next are emphasised by the change of the mode in the accompanying gamelan music.

On the deepest philosophical level wayang kulit as a whole, including the screen, puppets, dalang etc., represents the cosmic human body, a conception derived through Hindu-Buddhism and Tantrism from the Indian concept of purusha, the primeval cosmic man.


Wayang kulit is, to a great degree, the art of the narrator. The performance of the dalang is the focus of the whole, often 10-hour-long performance, which traditionally begins at 9 p.m. and ends at sunrise. The dalang is also responsible for the rituals performed in connection with the play, and he must know by heart the main lakon, which are in a way revived with the addition of much improvisation.

The dalang have traditionally had a priest-like role, and the profession has passed on from father to son. Today, dalang are also trained in special schools, but they are still highly respected members of their communities, the best dalang being famous throughout the island.

The dalang thus carries on the ancient oral tradition passing on the main body of classical literature, but at the same time he must be able to improvise and add even the most topical items to the whole. He must also be skilled in recitation, singing, the vocal characterisations of the roles, and the elevated and vulgar levels of the language, along with manipulating the puppets in front of the screen.

The dalang also displays expert knowledge of the music so essential to the performance. He leads the gamelan, an ensemble of up to thirty musical instruments: gongs, metallophones, xylophones, drums, flutes, zithers, and stringed instruments along with a chorus of female singers. One set of metallophones carries the recurrent melody, which is elaborated by other metallophones, xylophones, and gong sets, with the drums leading the rhythm, while another set of metallophones gives the dalang his pitch.

The gamelan accompaniment is indeed an integral part of the performance. Each principal character has his or her own musical theme or Leitmotif, and the gamelan drastically accentuates the three decisive turning-points of the performance, changing from the rather low-keyed accompaniment of the beginning to an ever higher pitch and faster tempo towards the end.

The Puppets

The wayang kulit puppets, skilfully cut and chased in leather, are in themselves works of art following strict iconographic rules. A single performance may require the use of 100–500 puppets, varying from some 20 to 100 centimetres in height. The body of the puppet is usually depicted frontally, but the face and feet and the extremely long movable arms and hands are in profile.

The different characters, as well as their social status and psychological qualities, are marked by the size, colour, and other details of the puppet. There are, for example, fifteen eye shapes, thirteen nose shapes, and eleven mouth shapes, which together with specific costumes, headdresses, crowns, and jewellery typify the characters. The noble, so-called alus, characters are usually small, the strong gagah characters are larger, and the demons full of aggressive power are the largest.

Like the genre as a whole, the puppets of wayang kulit form an endlessly rich world of their own, a kind of science, which to an ever-increasing degree leads the initiated viewer into the secrets of the “wayang world”. The noble hero puppet, for example, follows the Javanese hero ideal of utmost beauty. His body must be slender and well proportioned his nose long and pointed, and his eyes must be shaped like soya beans. He must also look downwards, a reference to self-control and humility, the greatest virtues of Southeast Asian heroes.

The stronger characters may look straight ahead, and the more arrogant ones may even look upwards. The noses of the strong characters point upwards, and they have round, bulging eyes. The requirements of the male hero also apply to the royal princesses, whose refinement is taken to the extreme.

Colour symbolism gives added detail to the characterisation of the puppets, specifying their mood or temporary emotional state. Gold, the dominating colour, indicates dignity and serenity; black is a sign of anger or maturity; red is for tempestuousness; and white is the colour of youth.

To make matters more complicated, the principal characters can be represented by several puppets during a single performance, according to the situation, mood, or age. For example, Arjuna of the Mababbarata, the Javanese hero par excellence, has thirteen different puppet shapes.

Punakawan, the Servant Clowns

Some of the puppets are revered as sacred objects, and they can even belong to the sacred court heirlooms called pusaka. One of the most sacred puppets of a wayang kulit set is, surprisingly, not a noble hero but Semar, the head of the servant clowns or punakawan of the ethically good party.

Semar is old, fat, short-legged, and flat-nosed. He is far from noble or handsome, but his eyes are those of a wise and kind person. With his soft breasts and round bottom, he is regarded as a hermaphrodite, the “father and mother” of his servant sons, the long-nosed Petruk, the limping Gareng, and the shy Bagong. The servant clowns assist the noblest heroes, and they are permitted to utter the most daring jokes.

The mood of a performance usually becomes intensified when they appear on the screen. Semar is basically seen as a god in the guise of a clown, who helps the hero achieve his goal with kindness and humour. The origin of the punakawan has led to much speculation. It is maintained that they are old indigenous deities, which have been adapted to later Indianised mythology.

This suggestion is supported by, for example, the stylisation of the Semar character, which differs drastically from the other puppets. On the other hand, clowns play a central part in numerous forms of theatre in Asia. This is also the case in Indian drama, where the sudraka, a noble-born but lazy Brahman, acts as the king’s adviser.


The wayang kulit puppets are opaque, and on the screen they are seen as dark shadows articulated by precise lace-like perforations. The screen is divided into two, the right-hand side being reserved for the good characters, and the left for the evil party. This polarity, however, is not rigid, since both parties include characters with qualities that could belong to the opposing one. At the sides of the 4-metre-long screen the puppets stand in rows with their rods stuck into the soft trunk of a banana tree placed below the screen.

When the play begins, the gunungan, a tapering structure resembling a temple spire or a tree, is removed from in front of the screen. The gunungan is the symbol of the “wayang world” and is a kind of “curtain” marking the beginning of the play, changes of scene, and the end. It is also used for special effects such as storms, or even the disruption of the cosmic order. Like all other features of wayang kulit, the gunungan has many symbolic meanings; it is said to symbolise, for example, the World Mountain, the tree of life, and the cosmic order.

Watching Wayang Kulit

In earlier times it was customary for men to watch the play from in front of the screen, while women sat behind it, thus being able to see the orchestra, the dalang, and the brightly coloured puppets. This custom is no longer maintained, at least in large-scale public performances, and today the performance can be freely viewed from both sides of the screen.

In its many variants, wayang kulit is performed throughout Java on feast days. Performances are regularly staged by the kraton, and they are also broadcast frequently. Shadow theatre still partly has its traditional, deep, and even sacral meaning, and performing and viewing the play can be experienced as a kind of spiritual exercise. However, many also claim that it has recently been too heavily popularised and is thus becoming only a form of entertainment.

Forms of Wayang Kulit

The steady popularity of wayang kulit has also made it a platform of various later ideologies. It was used to propagate the Islamic faith, and Western missionaries have also spread the message of Christianity with their Western-influenced puppets. In the mid-1950s the naturalistic puppets of wayang pancasila (Pancasila: the doctrine of the spiritual foundations of the Indonesian Republic) presented the history of Indonesian independence to the people.

The Chinese minority of Java has also developed its own shadow puppets, combining Javanese and Chinese features. There are also many wayang kulit-related drama forms, of which the most archaic is wayang beber, now practically extinct. In wayang beber the dalang illustrated the story by opening a painted scroll supported by two poles. Another now rare form is wayang klitik, based on the Islamic Damar Wulan story cycle. It was performed without a screen with flat, wooden puppets carved in relief.

Wayang Golek

Wayang golek is a still popular form of rod puppetry, which, according to tradition, was invented by a Javanese Muslim ruler in the late sixteenth century. Its main repertoire is derived from the Menak cycle, dealing with the Muslim hero Amir Hamzah. Local variants of wayang golek have evolved in various parts of Java. The tradition is strongest in West Java, where it has been used in performing the stock repertoire of wayang purwa, that is, the Ramayana, the Mababbarata, as well as local tales, and the East Javanese Adventures of Prince Panji.

Wayang golek uses a set of 60–70 puppets, which do not always portray specific characters, but stock types, the puppets thus being interchangeable. The heads and arms are carved three-dimensionally in wood, and the lower part of the body is covered by a batik sarong, beneath which the dalang operates the rod that makes the puppet’s head turn. He uses his other hand to manipulate the rods for the arms and hands. There is no screen, the dalang, the orchestra, and the singers all being visible to the audience.

Although wayang golek is performed in many places, wayang kulit is still the most popular form of Javanese puppet theatre. It is the origin of the whole “wayang family”, and has provided the general aesthetics, characterisation, and repertoire of Javanese classical theatre as a whole.

Central Javanese Court Dances

Many ceremonial court dances developed in the kraton palaces of Java. They include ceremonial group dances of male dancers reflecting the influence of ancient martial arts. The most famous are the beksa dances of the kraton of Yogyakarta. They were originally performed by two groups of soldiers of the royal guard, depicting scenes of warfare with a strong military spirit.

The most valued court dances of are bedhaya and serimpi. They are both slow, restrained group dances performed by women to the accompaniment of choral singing and gamelan music, and their traditions are especially linked to the kraton of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java.


The Bedhaya, laden with deep symbolic or even religious meaning and usually performed by nine dancers, is, along with its many variations, the most sacred of all Javanese court dances. Performances and even rehearsals are restricted to certain places and times. It is usually performed at major court festivities, such as coronations or the sultan’s birthday. The oldest existing form is the bedhaya ketawang, commemorating the bond between Senapati, the first sultan of Mataram (1584–1601) and the mythical Queen of the Southern Sea.

It is still preserved as a pusaka, or royal heirloom, in the kraton of Surakarta, and is regularly performed at the kraton of Mangkunegara. Along with the three forms of bedhaya inherited from the ancient Kingdom of Mataram, there are several other bedhaya compositions, most of which were created between the mid-eighteenth century and the middle of the 20th century. Although the bedhaya is basically a monopoly of the kraton, often created by the sultans themselves, it could also be staged by high officials in its less sacred forms.

The bedhaya is an extremely slow and solemn dance. The dancers arrive on the scene in an orderly geometric procession formation, carrying the hems of their batik sarongs. Majestic, almost martial, music accompanies them to the scene of the performance, usually a pendopo hall open at the sides, a typical feature of kraton architecture.

The dancers then kneel down in respect before beginning the actual dance. The footwork is relatively simple, but the grouping of the dancers changes almost unnoticeably, creating ever-newer and increasingly intricate patterns, like pieces on a chessboard. The face is kept strictly expressionless, and the eyes look down, while the dancers undulate to the gamelan music in a continuous flow of movement like underwater plants.

Indian-derived hand gestures are used, but they no longer have any direct symbolic meaning and have become extremely streamlined and decorative dance gestures. In the basic position, the dancers’ knees are bent, making the body S-shaped. This extremely demanding position, sometimes making the dancers collapse and faint, permits, however, flexibility for sharp rises and falls of the body and accentuates the otherwise continuous legato-like movement.

At times, the dancers continue their uninterrupted movement crouching on their knees, and at other times they make sudden, deep asymmetric bends. In the climax the two main dancers separate themselves slightly from the group to begin an extremely stylised battle with their wavy-bladed krises (also keris: dagger), after which the dancers leave the scene in a procession-like formation similar to their entrance.

The bedhaya dancers wear a batik sarong, often decorated with motifs restricted to court use. The upper body is clothed by a tight-fitting dark velvet blouse, and a dance scarf is worn around the waist. This is skilfully manipulated with the tips of the fingers, the controlled handling being an essential part of the choreography. The dancers wear gilt tiaras with large brightly coloured feathers softly following their movements and delicate bends of the head.

The dancers’ bodies are painted in a golden hue, and the eye make-up corresponds to the old court traditions. In the various genres of bedhaya, the even-tempoed music is performed by gamelan ensembles, which were rather small, in the earliest traditions. The text sung by the chorus usually has no direct connection with the dance or the stylised battle enacted by the principal dancers, but only sets the general mood of the performance.

The bedhaya still has a deep religious meaning for both the performers and the spectators. Its aesthetic principles are linked to a non-verbal, esoteric conception of beauty and strength, and the dancing of bedhaya is seen as a kind of yoga or meditation. The nine dancers have been explained as symbolising the eight cardinal points and the centre of the universe, a conception derived from ancient Indian cosmology.

The number of dancers can also be seen as representing the nine human orifices, and the whole composition is thus associated with the structure of the cosmic body, discussed in connection with wayang kulit. Along with other interpretations, the bedhaya can also be regarded as a representation of the struggle between the human mind and desires.


Serimpi, sometimes called “the sister of bedhaya”, shares its basic aesthetics, dance technique, and costumes with the bedhaya, although it is performed by only four female dancers. It has been used in the Central Javanese kratons for the training of the princesses.

Serimpi is also of ancient origin and with distinct symbolic connotations. Its four dancers are seen as representing the four universal elements of earth, water, fire, and air, as well as the four cardinal points of the universe. The composition depicts a battle with kris daggers between the four heroines, although the actual plot or story is only alluded to, as if taking place in a distant, mythical past.

Serimpi does not, however, have quite the same aura of sacredness as bedhaya, and when court dances began to be taught outside the kraton in the 1910s, serimpi was chosen as the basis of Javanese classical female dance.

Golek Dances

There are also forms of solo dance cultivated in the kraton, which do not, however, have the same ritual connotations as the above-mentioned female group dances. The most popular one is the golek, a solo dance portraying a young girl growing into womanhood. The basic position and technique resemble bedhaya and serimpi, but the descriptive movements depict the self-beautifying of a maiden.

The name golek refers to wayang golek puppetry, and this genre has its parallel in the wayang golek repertoire, while the dance style reflects the movements of the wooden wayang golek puppets. The golek has traditionally been performed at festive receptions.

The golek style was originally created in the 1950s and it flourished outside the court. In the 1980s a new form of dance-drama, beksa golek menak, was created by the order of the sultan of Yogyakarta. It is rarely performed today, but the golek style dance numbers are still popular and at present they have become the stock numbers of tourist shows.

The Social Milieu of the Court Dances

Most of the court dances are traditionally attributed to sultans, and many of the rulers are themselves known to have been skilled dancers. The performers were mostly close relatives of the sultan, or members of the court and the bodyguard. The dances are of a highly aristocratic character, and consequently Central Javanese dancers have usually had an exceptionally high social status.

In 1918 the first public dance society was founded, extending the court traditions outside the kraton. However, the aristocratic nature of the dances has survived despite these developments. At present, the court traditions are taught and performed by several private dance societies, although the kratons of Surakarta and, especially, of Yogyakarta are still the best places to see authentic court performances.

Topeng, Mask Theatre

Java is the home of several mask theatre and dance traditions, which are commonly referred to as wayang topeng (wayang: shadow or puppet; topeng: mask). They are believed to have evolved from early shamanistic burial and initiation rites. Mask traditions universally contain shamanistic features, for when an actor puts on a mask he gives up his own identity and embodies the character of the mask, usually a mythical being such as a demon, a supernatural hero, or a god.

The Origins and Stories

The earliest known literary reference to wayang topeng is from 1058, and mask theatre is believed to have been very popular in the kingdoms of East Java over the following centuries. This led to the birth of wayang wwang, a spectacular form of court theatre, where some of the characters are believed to have worn masks.

Two main traditions of topeng developed: the impressive dance-drama of the court, and the village traditions, which still contain ancient shamanistic elements. Throughout the history of topeng, the “major” court traditions and the “minor” village traditions have been in a constant state of interaction.

Topeng is often based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics, among other sources, but from a very early stage The Adventures of Prince Panji has been the most popular source of its plot material. This story cycle was created in East Java during the Majapahit dynasty. Its hero, the handsome Prince Panji, combines features of earlier historical and mythical figures.

Prince Panji became the Javanese ideal hero par excellence along with Arjuna of the Mahabharata and Prince Rama of the Ramayana. By the end of the fourteenth century, the Panji romance spread to Bali and other parts of South-East Asia, where it is known in several versions.

Topeng Dances

Full-length topeng performances have become rare, but topeng dance numbers are still often presented. Popular items of the repertoire are the introductory dances of Prince Panji and Princess Candra Kirana, allowing them to display their respective psychological qualities with classical dance patterns. In topeng these are usually faster and more expressive than in other forms of Javanese dance-drama.

An especially popular number is the so-called Kiprah dance of the enamoured King Klana (also Klono, Kelana) with his red mask. It most probably evolved from ancient ritual dances, and is known in several versions throughout the island of Java. For example, in the kraton of Yogyakarta it survives as the classic Klana topeng dance, and on the island of Madura it has its own highly different variants.

The dance expresses the yearning of King Klana, who has fallen in love with Candra Kirana. He imagines meeting his beloved and, with extremely expressive dance movements, enacts all the gestures of a vain man in love: he spruces himself up, arranges his hair, dresses in his best clothes, and plans to give a present to the object of his affections, who never appears. King Klana’s dance is usually performed in the energetic dance style of a strong male figure, but it also exists in a noble alus version, where the character is more refined, though still a desperate lover.

Styles of Topeng

The decreased popularity of mask theatre is usually explained by the spread of Islam. When the Central Javanese Mataram kingdom was divided into two in 1755, it was the kraton of Surakarta that inherited the ancient wayang topeng tradition of Mataram and its old masks. In Yogyakarta, wayang wong, which developed in the late eighteenth century, replaced the spectacular mask theatre performances of the court, but the old mask sets are still revered in the kraton as royal pusaka heirlooms.

Today, in the kraton of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, topeng is performed from time to time, although mostly as solo numbers. In addition to the rarely performed court topeng, popular forms of this genre survive and are performed, especially in the villages of western Central Java. East Java and the island of Madura have their own mask theatre traditions.

Topeng mostly thrives in Sunda in West Java, where Cirebon with its small kraton has been the traditional centre of topeng. Alongside the court performances, the villages around Cirebon still have their own vital mask traditions. The folk forms of topeng include topeng batavia, a relaxed variant of topeng with a lot of elements of slapstick comedy. It has been performed in the area of the capital, Jakarta.

The Masks

In all parts of Java the topeng masks share the aesthetics based on the iconography of the wayang kulit and particularly wayang golek puppets. Carved out of wood they also resemble, however, the faces of the three-dimensional wayang golek puppets. Their stylization is almost abstract, and the oval masks in downward tapering form are usually slightly smaller than a human face. The faces of the noble characters are taut, narrowing towards a delicate chin, and the noses are sharply ridged and pointed. The eyes are elongated, and the mouths are small.

Strong characters, such as King Klana, wear energetic masks with upturned noses and wide-open, round eyes. The colour symbolism is the same as in the wayang golek puppets: noble characters have white or golden masks, although Prince Panji’s mask is usually green. The masks of the strong characters, like King Klana, are usually red.

The various local traditions clearly differ in style. In Central Java the masks are almost triangular; the masks of east Javanese wayang topeng malang retain their own archaic stylisation; and the masks of Cirebon are perhaps the most abstract with almost symbol-like faces. The mask sets and collections on display in the National Museum in Jakarta, the Museum of Yogyakarta, and in some kraton museums demonstrate not only the local variations in mask styles but also their excellent artistic level.

Wayang Wong, The Court Dance-Drama

In its grandeur and extreme stylisation, the Javanese wayang wong (wayang: shadow or puppet; wong: man) is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest theatrical traditions. Several forms of large-scale dance-drama are known from the early periods of Javanese history. A literary source from AD 930 refers to the wayang wwang dance- drama, a kind of wayang kulit performance where the puppets were replaced by human dancers. Its dance style is assumed to have been strongly influenced by India, and the actors were masked or unmasked according to the character portrayed.

The Origins

In the East Javanese Majapahit kingdom, the court dance-drama was called raket. The stories were derived from a contemporary East Javanese story cycle known as The Adventures of Prince Panji, and the performances are known to have lasted from evening until noon the next day. The theatrical tradition of Hindu-Buddhist East Java disappeared or a least changed with the spread of Islam to Java in the fifteenth century. It was, however, adopted by the Hindu courts of Bali, where it evolved into the gambuh, the quintessentially classical style of Balinese dance-drama.

In Java, the wayang topeng mask theatre discussed above remained the most popular form of dance-drama until the eighteenth century. When the kingdom of Mataram in Central Java split in two in 1755 as a result of Dutch domination, the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta became rivals, mainly in the field of arts, as the Dutch had considerably curbed the actual political power of the rulers. The court of Surakarta inherited the highly valued bedhaya dance and the topeng mask theatre from the Mataram kingdom.

The Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwana I (1755–92), therefore began to design a new form of theatre as his pusaka heirloom. In creating the spectacular wayang wong dance-drama, he explicitly strove to revive the dance-drama tradition of the ancient Majapahit dynasty in order to emphasise his role as its true descendant.

Human Puppets

Wayang wong has many features in common with the wayang kulit shadow theatre. These include a similar overall aesthetic and the same narrative material, often from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; even the movements of the actors clearly imitate puppets. The steps and gestures of the actors are basically “two-dimensional”, designed to move to the left and the right like the movements of puppets on the screen. Like wayang kulit, wayang wong is also accompanied by a large-scale court gamelan orchestra.

A State Ceremony

Wayang wong has been closely linked to court ceremonies. Large spectacles were staged, for example, in honour of the sultan’s coronation, or for weddings and birthdays. The performances had a deep symbolic meaning, and the hour of the spectacle and its plots were determined by the fact that the Sultan of Yogyakarta was identified with the Hindu god Vishnu.

The performance began early in the morning, when the sun, identified with Vishnu, appeared in the sky. The sultan sat on a holy throne, always facing east in the middle of the famous Golden Hall under the highest point of its pyramidical roof, symbolising the axis of the universe. The performance took place on a lower level in a smaller hall annexed to the magnificent Golden Hall, for no one was permitted to stand higher than the divine sultan.

The performances, which could last several days, were grandiose events, and the audience included not only members of the court but invited colonial representatives as well. Wayang wong was an exceptionally expensive art form placing heavy demands on the kraton’s treasury. In some cases, the sultan even had to borrow money from the Dutch in order to be able to arrange these spectacles. The last full-scale court performance was staged in 1939.

Actors and Styles

In Yogyakarta, all the wayang wong actors were originally men, and included members of the royal family, other members of the court, and bodyguards. In Surakarta, Pangeran Adipati Mangkunegaran I, the contemporary and rival of Hamengkubuwana I, the creator of wayang wong, also began to compose wayang wong plays. This marked the beginning of the Surakartan wayang wong tradition of the Mangkunegaran kraton.

The Yogyakartan and Surakartan styles differ in certain respects. In Surakarta women played female roles from the very beginning, and often noble hero characters as well. With its undulating movements, the Surakartan dance style is more subdued than the Yogyakartan style. There are also differences in costume and in the gamelan accompaniment.

A Complex Whole

The movements of the wayang wong dancer-actors are generally fluid and solemn, and recitation is extremely stylised. The main language of the performances is Old Javanese, not the modern language, and the actors recite the lines themselves, while singers sitting among the gamelan perform the more demanding vocal parts.

The performance is an intricately complex whole, where the concept of time and the structure is dictated by the gamelan’s soft and elaborate fabric of sound, further elaborated by the recitation, songs, and comments of the chorus. The dancer-actors move slowly, apparently according to their own logic, and from time to time remain frozen, reciting their lines in highly ornamental positions between their elegant dance movements. The chorus and the singers sitting together with the orchestra describe and comment on the events, while the actor-dancers recite their own lines in a stylised manner.

Physical Characterisation

Because wayang wong borrowed the characterisation of shadow theatre, the style of dance, costumes, make-up, and vocal technique are all dictated by the stock types portrayed. The characters fall into three major categories: the female type, the refined male alus type, and the strong male gagah type.

The dancer’s physique determines his or her role type. The women must be petite and slender, and they should also have beautiful facial features. The noble male characters must also be slender and delicate, whereas the strong male type should be powerful in both body and appearance.

The slow female dance is restrained and graceful, and its movements are directed at a low level covering only a narrow space. The female dancer rarely lifts her feet from the floor, and the basic position is always an open demi plié bent slightly forward. The movements of the refined male type are also directed at a rather low level, but the dancers are allowed to lift their feet slightly. Their whole dance technique aims at creating an overall impression of withheld strength, so typical of the Southeast Asian ideal of a hero.

The strong male type, on the other hand, moves energetically, standing in a very open leg position and lifting his arms and legs horizontally to create the impression of aggressive macho masculinity. All the role types use four basic hand gestures, derived from the shadow puppets. These, in turn, are partly based on the Indian-influenced dance of the Central Javanese period, as shown by preserved reliefs and sculptures. Unlike the Indian mudra, the wayang wong hand gestures do not have, at least not any more, any direct symbolic meaning. They are rather unforced, albeit extremely decorative, gestural extensions of the dance movements.

The above three major role types are each divided into a number of subtypes (humble, refined, proud, servant, adviser, etc.). There are a total of twenty-one role types, each with its own style of make-up and dress. The leading types have their characteristic movement patterns revealing their psychological qualities. For example, symmetrical movements indicate strength, stability, and, above all, humility, whereas asymmetry is a sign of proud and powerful energy.

Costuming, Masks and Makeup

The costume includes a brownish-black batik sarong with a tight black velvet bodice for women, while the men dance with bare torsos. Also worn are jewellery and a crown or tiara, skilfully cut in gilt leather, with the model of the headdress revealing the rank of the character. The overall aesthetics are familiar to wayang kulit, and in this century the dance costume and head-dress were made to correspond more closely to those of shadow puppets.

Characterisation is further emphasised by means of facial make-up, as masks are worn only by the demon and monkey figures. The slightly stylised make-up is light for the noble male and female roles, and red for the strong and coarse types. The facial make-up of the punakawan or servant clowns is usually white.

Make-up can be divided into seven basic types, including, for example, various models of painted whiskers and beards for the men. The actors paint their whole body with yellowish boreh liquid, giving the skin a soft golden glow.


The traditional wayang wong plots or lakons, which in the early nineteenth century finally developed into written “librettos”, are mostly based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In Java, these originally Indian epics are regarded as national literature, even to the extent that their heroes are felt to be the mythical ancestors of the Javanese.

It is no wonder then that the heroes have, in a way, begun to live their own lives and have given rise to new and purely Javanese stories, which no longer have much to do with the original epic context. For example, the Lakon Rama Nitis (The Incarnation of Rama) portrays an incarnation of Prince Rama of the Ramayana as the god Krishna of the Mahabharata.

One of the earliest fantasies of this kind is the kakawin court poem, Arjuna Vivaha, composed in honour of King Airlangga’s wedding in 1035, whose principal hero is the virtuous Arjuna of the Mahabharata. Although it was originally official court poetry lauding the virtues of a ruler celebrating his marriage, it has survived as one of the most beloved and valued lakon of wayang wong.

Later Developments

The flourishing period of dance and theatre, which began in the kraton of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in the mid-eighteenth century, continued throughout the following century. It led to new forms of wayang wong-related dance-drama. The best known of these are langen driya and langen mandra wanara.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century Mangkunegoro V from the Mangkunegaran kraton in Surakarta created the langen driya, based on the adventures of the hero Darmawula, a story cycle dating back to the East Javanese Majapahit dynasty. It is performed by an all-female cast, who unlike the cast in wayang wong, sing all of their lines.

Langen mandra wanara, also a kind of wayang wong-derived “dance opera”, was created in the late nineteenth century by Prince Danuredio VII of Yogyakarta. Its plot material is based solely on the Ramayana, and its name derives from the epic’s monkey characters (wanara: monkey). The monkeys also lend a special feature to the whole performing technique: langen mandra wanara is performed in a crouching position and the movement patterns are characterised by monkey-like movements and gestures.

At present, both langen driya and langen mandra wanara are rarely performed, although the latter experienced a kind of renaissance in the 1980s when a complete performance was recorded by Radio France. The original wayang wong, on the other hand, is still performed actively, and it can be truly regarded as the classical dance-drama of Java. It has evolved into new variants in the twentieth century, which has in many ways been a period of drastic change in the performing arts.

The Twentieth Century

Until the beginning of the twentieth century much of Java’s traditions of classical dance and theatre discussed above had been closely guarded treasures of the courts. Dance was mainly intended for court rituals, and its training was basically a means of educating the aristocracy and the court. The early years of the 20th century brought about a number of changes that have come to be called the “democratization of dance”.

In 1918 the first dance society, Kridha Beka Wirama, was founded in Yogyakarta to teach court dances to all, regardless of class. The idea was launched by the son of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and the teachers included the best dance masters of the kraton. This marked the beginning of a still-active custom whereby the court traditions of Yogyakarta are taught in private dance societies to all who are interested, often for only a nominal fee.

At present, the societies receive part of their income from performances aimed mainly at tourists. The leading dance societies in Yogyakarta that actively stage performances are the kraton-related Dalem Pujokusuman and Dalem Notopraian associations.

Wayang Orang

The gradual popularisation of wayang wong began in Surakarta in the 1890s when a Chinese businessman founded a commercial group adapting the wayang wong tradition of the Mankunegaran kraton. This new style, generally referred to as wayang orang, was aimed at ordinary city audiences. The company, now under the name of Sriwedari, still performs in the amusement park in Surakarta. The Bharata Theatre, founded in the 1940s, has maintained this tradition in Jakarta.

Wayang orang is usually performed on a Western-type proscenium stage with heavy illusionistic backdrops, and an abundance of various stage effects. Commercial wayang orang groups are also active in the smaller towns, such as Semarang and Malang. Despite modernisation, wayang orang has preserved something of its original stylised dance-drama character.

Ketoprak and Ludruk

A drastic step towards Western stage realism and melodrama can recognised in the Central Javanese ketoprak and the East Javanese ludruk, which are forms of popular theatre evolved around the end of the nineteenth century. Their plots are based not only on the traditional stock stories from the Ramayana and the Mababbarata but also on historical or modern topics.

The performances are accompanied by music and include dance numbers, although the main emphasis is on a less stylised acting resembling Western spoken theatre. On the whole, stagecraft is similar to wayang orang, although there is even more of an emphasis on realism and even naturalism. Ketoprak and ludruk are still performed on temporary stages and in the theatre halls of amusement parks in various parts of Java.


The Indonesian nationalistic movement awoke during Dutch colonial rule in the 1920s and during the Japanese Occupation in the mid-1940s. After that, when Indonesia was in the process of gaining independence, even wayang kulit, the most traditional form of theatre, was used to propagate patriotism and new political ideas.

In the 1950s, the new nation, constructed of hundreds of ethnic groups, sought its identity, which was naturally also reflected in the arts. In the field of dance the new, nationalistic theatre organisations followed the model of the European socialist countries in transforming old traditions into new, “mass-oriented” variants, such as the peasant’s dance, the tea-picker’s dance, and the dance of the fishermen, as has been the case in many countries from the Soviet Union to China, to Cambodia etc.

Western-influenced Spoken Theatre

Western theatre and dance has begun to interest Indonesians to an increasing degree, and many artists have studied in the West, especially in the United States, since the 1960s. As in many Asian countries, so too in Indonesia the early interest in Western theatre and dramatists was concentrated in academic circles.

A student theatre group, called Studiklub Teater (STB), was founded in the university city of Bandung, in West Java, in 1958. Many of the some 60 dramatic works staged by STB were by Western writers, including Chekov, Gogol, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Ionesco, Brecht, and Camus.

STB was followed by several theatre groups, which aimed to reflect the rapid change in society and politics. In Jakarta Teguh Karya founded a group called Teater Populer. Teguh had studied in the West, and his work was dominated by realism and political idealism.

Realism, often with political overtones, was the trend in several other modern theatre companies. Bengkel Teater, founded by Rendra, was even a target of the government’s censorship in the 1970s. Political criticism was the aim of the Teater Kicil (Little Theatre), founded by Arifin C. Noer in 1968.

Some of the pioneers of modernism employed Indonesian styles and aesthetics in their work. One of them is Balinese Putu Wijaya, who founded Teater Mandir (Independent Theatre) in Jakarta. In his work Putu adapted Balinese theatre conventions to his experiments.

Yogyakarta, the old cultural and intellectual centre of Central Java, has also had several important early modern theatre groups. They include Teater Alam, Teater Dinasti, Teater Jepik, and Teater Gandrik.

Sendratari, The “Ramayana Ballet

In the early 1960s sendratari (seni: drama, tari: dance) was developed as yet another spectacular form of wayang wong -derived dance-drama. It had none of the patriotic fervour of the 1940s and 1950s, and was mainly intended for both Javanese and foreign tourists.

The first sendratari performance was staged by a group of artists from Yogyakarta and Surakarta in 1961. It was especially designed for an outdoor stage erected in front of the Hindu temple of Prambanan in Central Java with the temple’s enormous silhouette as its background. The choice of the theme and venue of this first sendratari production is self-evident: the Prambanan temple area is one of Java’s main tourist attractions and it is also related to the Ramayana through its early series of reliefs.

The Prambanan spectacle has come to be known as the “Ramayana Ballet”. This is indeed an apt name for a genre where the overall dramaturgy with its impressive mass scenes and modern stage techniques is modelled after the practice of Western fairy-tale ballet.

The Ramayana Festival was for a long period a yearly event, performed at the time of the full moon from May to October. The scenes and events of the epic are divided into four full-evening performances. The Abduction of Sita is presented on the first night, followed by Hanuman’s Mission to Lanka, The Conquest of Lanka, and finally the fall of Ravana and the proof of Sita’s marital fidelity.

The sendratari of Prambanan turned out to be a success, perhaps partly because of the growing tourist industry focusing on Central Java. It has become an obligatory event for tour groups, and the previous modest stage has been replaced by a luxurious amphitheatre.

The “Ramayana Ballet” served as a model for later sendratari productions, which were staged in other parts of Java at sites of touristic interest. While the Prambanan ballet was mostly based on the Central Javanese heritage, the stories and dance styles of later innovations are based on their respective local traditions.

Near Surabaya in East Java there is a huge open-air stage with a perfectly conical volcano in the background. It was especially built for a sendratari production based on an East Javanese story combining in its presentation East Javanese and Balinese elements.

In Cirebon in West Java, the local sendratari is staged in front of an ancient stone garden, and its dance style is based on local topeng dances. As a kind of Pan-Indonesian state art, the sendratari has also been adopted outside Java, for example, in Bali, where the first Balinese Sendratari Ramayana was staged in 1965.

Modern and Contemporary Dance

Western classical dance technique, ballet, had already found its way to Java in the 1940s, mainly through Dutch ballet teachers. A decade later modern Western dance also started to interest young Indonesian artists. One of the pioneers of Indonesian modern dance was Jodjana, who in his work focused on individualism and personal impressions, aspects, which were not emphasised in the traditional dance of Java.

Another pioneer was Seti-Arti Kailola, who went to study in New York at the Martha Graham studio, one of the leading institutes of American modern dance. In Jakarta she set up her own school, thus establishing the long-lasting link between the Graham technique and Indonesian modernism. The Graham technique and aesthetics were also explored by other choreographers, such as Bagong Kussudiardja and Wisnoe, who in their turn established their own dance studios by the end of the 1950s.

Another pioneer of Indonesian modern, or more appropriately contemporary, dance, who studied in New York, is Sardono (W.Kusumo). He had a background in classical Javanese dance and he started his exceptional career as one of the star dancers in the Pramabanan Sendratari Ramayana.

He established his own Sardono Dance Theatre in 1973. He has worked with artists and styles from different regions of Indonesia and has thus been instrumental for the experiments and innovations later done around the whole country. His works include, among others, environmental and site-specific productions.

Several governmental institutions founded since the 1960s have had a decisive role in the development of Javanese as well as Pan-Indonesian dance and theatre. The establishment of the Jakarta Arts Centre Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) in 1968 has provided an arena for contemporary as well as traditional arts.

The Jakarta Arts Institute, which was opened in 1970, provided further opportunities for both art teachers and students. In 1978 TIM initiated the Young Choreographers’ Festival, which serves as a platform for choreographers and dancers working in the field of contemporary dance around Indonesia.

The Island of Bali

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.

The History of Early Bali

Ancient megalithic ritual sites bear witness to the long history of this island, although they have been covered over by later terraced rice fields and villages. Archaeological finds include bronze artefacts from before the present era. A large bronze drum or kettle gong called “The Moon of Pejeng”, stored in a temple in the small village of Pejeng, indicates contacts with the Dong-son bronze culture, which spread from Southern China to South-East Asia in the first millennium BC.

In the early centuries AD Bali gradually came under the strong influence of the Indianised Hindu-Buddhist culture. Bali was also influenced from time to time by Chinese culture, as can be seen in architecture and the visual arts, and in theatre, where certain mask types and plots indicate Chinese influences.

The nearby island of Java played a decisive role in the development of Balinese culture. Java often overran its tiny neighbour, and Ball did not have its own king until the tenth century. In the late tenth century a Balinese prince married a princess from East Java, which led to a brief union of the kingdoms of Bali and East Java. Around the middle of the fourteenth century the powerful Majapahit dynasty (13th–15th centuries), the last Hindu dynasty of Java, conquered Bali, which was to become the place where the old Javanese culture made its greatest impact outside Java itself.

The island of Bali, however, was never wholly Javanised; it continued to develop its own type of Hindu culture, which, unlike that in Java, managed to retain its integrity against the spread of Islam, which came to dominate Javanese culture in the fourteenth century.

When the East Javanese Majapahit dynasty was conquered by later Islamic dynasties in the early 1500s, members of the Hindu nobility, artists, and priests fled to Bali, bringing with them a new wave of Javanese culture. The culture of the small Balinese kingdoms preserved many features inherited from East Java, whose influence is especially obvious in the oldest preserved forms of Balinese court theatre.

Early contacts with Islamic Java were few, and Balinese culture was able to develop its intrinsic features undisturbed by outside influences. The West became interested in Ball in the sixteenth century, but the first European trading station was not established until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Dutch soon exerted their influence on the island, but Bali never became a centre of colonial rule in the same way as the island of Java. Balinese culture preserved its original features throughout the nineteenth century, a critical period for many Asian countries under Western colonial rule.

The Dutch Period

In 1906 the Dutch, nevertheless, took Bali by force, and most of the members of the eight royal families took their lives in an act of ritual suicide (puputan). Only a few of the children of these families survived, though they lost most of their political power and wealth. As a result, the artistic traditions of the courts came to be preserved by the artists now employed by the village communities.

The villages of Bali had traditionally maintained a relatively broad degree of self-government with village councils (banjar) presiding over common affairs. The musical instruments, masks, and theatrical costumes of the courts, as well as their traditions of theatre and dance, became the cultural heritage of the villages and their councils.

“The Last Paradise”

The Western myth of Bali was created in the 1920s and 1930s, and its fame as “the last South Sea paradise” quickly spread to the West, partly as the result of a regular shipping route opened by the Dutch. Bali soon became a Mecca for artists and travellers thirsting for the exotic.

Western artists and intellectuals found their way to Bali, and local artists inspired by Western aesthetics began to develop modern Balinese art. Western travellers and influences soon had an effect on the development of theatre and dance. Luxury hotels began to stage performances, which were the predecessors of today’s tourist shows, and Balinese dance and theatre became known in the West when a Balinese gamelan orchestra and dance troupe toured Europe, performing to enthusiastic audiences.

Independence of Indonesia

World War II disrupted the peace of this island paradise, and the Japanese Occupation was a trying time for the Balinese. Indonesia declared its independence on 17 August 1945, and soon afterwards local officials were entrusted with the civilian administration of the island. This ensured the preservation of the island’s own culture and religion in predominantly Islamic Indonesia. Further trouble, however, lay ahead. In 1946 the Dutch returned to Bali, which led to a bloody civil war and the heroic puputan ritual suicide of Balinese freedom fighters.

The 1960s was a tragic time in Bali. The island’s main volcano, the sacred Gunung Agung, erupted and caused great damage, while famine and bloody political upheavals killed thousands of Balinese.

The beginning of mass tourism was heralded by the opening of an international airport in the late 1960s. The tourist industry has grown steadily, and despite the bombings by militant Islamists in 2002 and 2005, the present yearly number of visitors is about two million. This has had both positive and negative effects on Balinese theatre and dance. While tourism provides welcome revenue, it can also erode the standards of performances when the local repertoire is adapted to foreign tastes.

Forms of Performing Arts, The Grades of Sacredness

Of all the forms of dance and theatre now performed in Ball, 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.

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.

Religion and the Performances

Bali is the home to its own type of religion, Bali-Hinduism. It combines elements of animism, ancestor worship and Hinduism, which was received from India almost two millennia ago. After that Hinduism developed in Bali through several steps into its present syncretistic form.

Religion is very much a part of everyday life in Bali. Morning starts with offerings given to various parts of the house, trees, rivers etc. A complicated system of several simultaneous calendars gives an almost daily reason for minor or major temple festivals somewhere on the island.

Temple festivals include myriads of different rituals and ceremonies as well as voluptuous offerings, which in themselves are art works of the highest order. Temple festivals, as well birthdays, weddings or grand cremations provide the natural context for many theatrical performances.

As in India, also in Bali, theatre and dance, on the deepest level, are seen as acts of sacrifice. In Bali, as in many Southeast-Asian countries, there are no specific words for an “actor” or a “dancer”. A general term, tukang, means “the one who beautifies”.

A charismatic performer is said to possess taksu, a special energy or a kind of spiritual power. Some masks or even theatrical headdresses are also believed have taksu. Many masks such as the mask of the village protector, Barong, as well as some exceptionally old masks are venerated in temples.

A good performer should be able fulfil the tripartite idea, which covers, first, bayu or energy, secondly, sabda or inner voice, and third, idep or thought.

Ritual and Trance Performances

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.

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.

Wali, Ceremonial Dances and Their Secularised Variants

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.

Baris, from a Sacred War Dance to a Dance of a Warrior

One of the main groups of wali dances is the dignified and ceremonial baris gede, performed by men. It is an ancient war dance, performed by a group arrayed in line, usually with six to sixty dancers. The main emphasis is on co-ordinated group action, sometimes creating the impression of a stylised battle with movements limited to simple steps and leg movements. Baris dances are known to have been performed as early as the 16th century.

The dancers, who can be regarded as the bodyguard of deities visiting the temple, wear pyramidical headdresses decorated with triangular pieces of mother-of-pearl, and in their hands they hold sacred weapons that are heirlooms. The various genres of baris are classified according to the types of weapons used. There is also a modern, completely secular variant of the dance.

The secular baris is a virtuoso solo in which the dancer portrays the emotions of a warrior departing for the battlefield. The technique is a combination of the sacred baris and various elements of Balinese classical male dance. Fast, jerking movements, tensed arm gestures, and expressive eye movements are used to convey the warrior’s rapidly changing moods, ranging from courage to fear and from doubt to determination. This form of the baris is usually included in dance performances staged for tourists.

Female Group Dance

Another significant form of the sacred wali dance is the rejang, a group dance, performed by women. Its choreography is based on simple line formations, and it is performed in daytime usually by a group of forty to sixty non-professional dancers. The rejang is a relatively simple dance, although its slow movements evoke a dignified feeling of beauty.

The gabor is another female group dance, a graceful offering-ritual usually performed by professionals, and it is thus natural that its movements do not greatly differ from classical dance. A secular variant of the gabor has become established as a general welcoming dance which is usually performed as an opening number in tourist shows or in receiving honoured guests.

Sanhyang, Possession and Trance

Ball is famous for its many traditions of trance rituals, where one or several dancers fall into a trance by means of incense, music, chants, prayers, and sometimes drugs. The trance is an altered state of consciousness, and sometimes the audience can also come into contact with the spirit world and be possessed by gods, animistic spirits, or even animal spirits. Trance rituals are not limited to Bali alone.

Almost everywhere in Asia, trance, in one form or another, is an integral part of indigenous ritual theatre. In view of its small size, there are exceptionally many kinds of trance rituals in Bali.

Sanghyang (sang: Lord; hyang: God) is a genre of trance dances generally performed in remote villages, although occasional tourist performances can also be seen. It comprises several forms, and local variants abound in many villages. In most types of sanghyang the men become possessed by animal spirits. In sanghyang jaran the men are transformed into horses, in sanghyang lelipi they are changed into snakes, and in sanghyang celeng they are possessed by the spirits of pigs.

The performances have the purpose of ritual purification; for example, men in the pig trance “eat dirt”, at least symbolically, and thus aid in the purification of their community. Trance rituals often become hectic events, where the village priests and their attendants control unpredictable action to avoid injuries. After the performance the priests sprinkle the participants with holy water, thus helping them regain normal consciousness.

The most famous and, without doubt, the most beautiful form of sanghyang is the sanghyang dedari (dedari: fairy), performed by pre-adolescent girls. The performers are usually temple servants of some kind, sometimes relatives of the priests, but without actual dance training. The girls are induced into a trance, after which they begin to perform an intricate dance partly based on various ancient animal movements.

They are then lifted onto the shoulders of men, who move rapidly, while the girls continue their dance without any support. Finally, the girls dance on glowing coals, and are later brought back to normal consciousness. The young performers are believed to be possessed by celestial nymphs. The almost feverish vocabulary of movement of the sanghyang dedari has influenced other dance forms such as the classical legong.

There are also other Balinese trance rituals, some of which have been combined with less sacred forms of dance-drama. Among the most famous of these is the self-stabbing kris dance related to the Barong-Rangda performances. Trance rituals have also evolved into purely commercial performances. One of the best known of these variants is the kecak or cak, which was created in the twentieth century and will be discussed later.

Wayang Kulit and Gambuh, The East Javanese Heritage

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.

Wayang Kulit, The Shadow Theatre

The 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Wayang Wong and Topeng, Forms of Mask Theatre

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.

Wayang Wong

Wayang wong (wayang: shadow, puppet; wong: man) 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.

Topeng, Stories of Balinese History

Along with wayang wong, the topeng is another important form of mask theatre created in the central court of Bali. Here too, the old masks are venerated as sacred heirlooms believed to possess magical powers. 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.

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.

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.

Legong, Dance of the Maidens

Legong is probably the best-known form of contemporary Balinese dance theatre. It is worthy of this reputation, as this form of dance-drama, performed by mostly three girls, represents the classical standard of Balinese female dance. Legong was created at the turn of the eighteenth century by combining elements from older traditions such as gambuh and the sanghyang dedari trance dance with its many ancient animal movements.

Early in its development a variant of legong was performed by young boys, but it was rechoreographed for girls by royal command. The pre-adolescent girls were chosen from nearby villages, and they served as legong dancers until puberty. Present-day tourist shows, however, mainly employ adult dancers.

The standard plot of legong is based on a cycle of East Javanese tales relating to the adventures of the legendary Prince Panji. Legong is, however, an implicitly abstracted form of dance theatre, and the various events are vaguely alluded to.

It usually concentrates on only a fragment of the whole tale, where the King of Lasem has kidnapped Princess Rangka Sari, who has fallen in love with Prince Panji. The king tries to win the heart of the beautiful princess, but she does not respond to his advances. The princess demands that the king beat Panji in battle. The unhappy king goes off to the battlefield, but on his way he meets a crow, the bird of ill omen. The king arrogantly strikes the bird with his fan and thus seals his fate in the coming battle with Panji.

One of the dancers plays the princess, another has the role of the king, and a third plays both a servant and the bird. All three dancers wear the same standard costume in which the waist and back are enclosed tightly in a long belt of fabric with a long skirt covering the legs. The material of the costumes is typically gold- embroidered dark green or violet fabric, originally derived from court dress.

The dancers also have a wide collar of gilt leather and headgear of the same material, which is decorated with fresh flowers. They usually have fans in their hands, and the dancer in the role of the bird has gilt wings. In the original court performances the dancers wore gold ornaments and headgear with jewels.

The dancers do not speak or sing themselves, and the lines are presented by singers among the orchestra. Legong is accompanied by an exceptionally old type of sweet-sounding gamelan. The dance is based on gambuh, but the special features of costume, the tightly wound waist and the narrow lower part, create a different aesthetic for the dance.

The legs are bent forward with the torso also leaning forward. Delicate movements of the head and tensed arms are characteristic of legong. An aesthetic concept of tropical insects and animals may account for the way in which the dancers’ fingers tremble like antennae when they are not handling their fans. The technique also involves the expressive eye movements, typical of Balinese dance but rare elsewhere in South-East Asia.

A legong performance traditionally begins with a complex introductory dance, followed by the drama proper and an abstract epilogue dance. The movements are fast, sometimes creating geometric floor patterns, and the characters communicate with rapid movements and expressions, ending at times in precise unison. The overall mood is almost feverish.

Legong dancers begin their training in early childhood. The demanding technique is taught by moving and twisting the girls’ arms, necks, and body until “the dance enters their innermost being”, that is, they learn it. Many villages have their own legong traditions, and at present the style is used not only for performing The Adventures of Prince Panji but for other tales as well.

Barong, Rangda, and Calonarang

Two mythical beings are ever-present in Bali. They can be seen in travel advertisements and postcards, and their colourful masks are sold everywhere as souvenirs. They are Barong, resembling a lion with its long mane, and the witch Rangda with matted hair and large tusks.

Both are invested with a strong aura of magic. Old, authentic Barong and Rangda masks with holy inscriptions, consecrated in temple rituals, are kept in village temples, where they are revered as patron spirits. The mythology of Barong and Rangda is complex and anything but unequivocal. They often have leading roles in village events and drama performances, of which the best known is the Calonarang, based on an East Javanese legend.

Barong, The Protector of the Village

The term barong can refer to a mythological animal mask in general. In practice, however, it usually means Barong, a mythical animal figure known to all Balinese. Inside its hairy body are two male dancers, whose movements and steps must be completely co-ordinated to perform its fast turns and leaps. The forward dancer supports and moves the head and jaws.

The decorative, slightly Chinese-influenced Barong mask is stylistically related to the old wayang wong masks. The Barong mask has bulging eyes, large ears, and a headdress of gilt leather and shining pieces of mirror, and large ears. Similarly, the upright tall and the ornaments of the hairy body, made of the same material, glimmer along with the Barong’s movements.

The Barong figure is believed to have its roots in the ancient Chinese lion dance, which is still performed at New Year celebrations everywhere in the Chinese world. The lion dance was also previously common on many islands in Indonesia. Later, the Balinese lion figure acquired its own features, and became a creature combining various elements in a way typical only of Bali.

Barong is not actually a lion, but a composite of various animals. The Barong types are named according to the dominating animal figure: Barong Asu combines the features of a dog and a lion, while Barong Machan resembles a tiger, the Barong Lembu has the shape of a cow, and the Barong Bankali has the features of a wild boar.

Grossly simplified, Barong is usually described as a manifestation of virtue. It is, however, too capricious and unpredictable to be interpreted unequivocally as such. Nevertheless, Barong is revered as the protector of villages, and its outfit and mask are regarded as sacred. During festivities, the Barong figure is carried around the village to the accompaniment of music. Each banjar or village council has at least one Barong mask and outfit of its own.

The Barong figures are given human and identifiable traits. The history of many Barongs is known, particularly those regarded as exceptionally magical, and their reputation has spread throughout the island. On some occasions Barong is taken to a neighbouring village to meet his lover, and grand gatherings of many Barongs occasionally take place. In practice, the Barong processions, games, and gatherings are also a way for young men and women from neighbouring villages to become acquainted with one other.

Along with the various types of processions, specific forms of drama have evolved around Barong. Possibly the oldest of these is the hereditary Barong Kedingkling, a form of sacred dance-drama developed in the eighteenth century to ward off an epidemic. In this drama Barong appears together with monkey characters borrowed from the Ramayana.

The performance lasts all day, beginning in the village temple and dispersing later throughout the village. The monkeys accompanying Barong are permitted various forms of mischief, such as pilfering food and well-meant teasing. Many villages have their own versions of this tradition. Barong is also a central figure in the Calonarang drama, and modern, non-ritual Barong dramas have been developed mainly for tourist shows.

Rangda, The Queen of Black Magic

Rangda is the other main mythological figure of the Balinese. Its symbolic significance is also complex and hard to interpret. It is often regarded as the incarnation of “evil”, but in fact the mask of this ferocious witch is revered in the village temples as a patron and a protector against evil.

The mask has a horrifying appearance with its aggressive bulging eyes, long tusks, and red tongue extending down to the waist. Rangda is related to the Durga goddess of India, a ferocious emanation of the spouse of Shiva, the creator and destroyer, a kind of personification of holy wrath. Rangda is basically a manifestation of rage and destruction, and in performances many deities and supernatural beings often suddenly appear in the frightening shape of Rangda when experiencing such extreme moods.

Rangda, however, completely lacks the jocularity and good nature of Barong. She is dangerous and destructive, possessing the power of making her opponents fall into a trance. The actor of the Rangda character may often fall into a trance himself while performing. The magical powers and destructiveness of Rangda place many requirements on the performer, who is often a respected individual in his community.

Rangda’s movements deliberately contradict all the ideals of Balinese classical dance. She often stands simply with her legs apart, trembling spasmodically, extending her hands, and shaking her long fingernails in readiness to attack her enemies. Like Barong, Rangda appears at village festivities, but she may also participate in large gatherings of Barongs and Rangdas as well as in many kinds of rituals and dramas.

Calonarang, The Battle between Good and Evil

The Calonarang is probably one of the best-known forms of drama, in which Barong and Rangda play central roles. It is an ancient East Javanese text in the Kawi language, and was originally influenced by Indian tantric teachings. It tells of a Javanese princess who controlled her spouse, a weak Balinese king, by means of black magic. In Bali the text was first converted into drama form in the 1890s, and it soon established its position as a central form of drama.

According to Balinese custom, this new dance-drama employed existing histrionic conventions. The various scenes of the original Calonarang drama are performed in the village temple and in various parts of the village, at road crossings, and in the cemetery. The two latter sites, like the seashore, are regarded by the Balinese as the most unholy and magically dangerous places in their environment.

For the Balinese, black magic – the central theme of the Calonarang drama – is living reality, and some communities on the island still practise it. The Calonarang is a form of theatre laden with magical meaning, and was originally meant to ward off an epidemic. The plot is constructed as follows.

Calonarang, the widow of Girah (played by a male priest in trance), a practitioner of black magic possessing two very powerful books, is furious because no one dares to marry her daughter. To avenge this wrong, the widow intends to destroy the kingdom with an epidemic brought about by black magic.

She directs her pupils in a magic ritual. Young maidens with flowing hair and white costumes perform a strange dance, a kind of negative version of Balinese classical dance. News of the widow’s intentions has spread throughout the island, and the king decides to send his prime minister to fight the widow. The king instructs his minister, who then goes on with his retinue to meet the witch.

The magical rite directed by the widow is approaching its climax when the prime minister arrives at the scene. The widow now appears in the shape of the furious Rangda, refusing to bow to the minister’s demands. A battle is inevitable. Rangda falls into a trance and incites everyone to attack her.

The performance often reaches its culmination in the famous self-stabbing dance, where the villagers, incited to a blind rage, attack Rangda, who casts a spell over them with her white magic scarf. Finally, the villagers begin to stab themselves with their wavy-bladed kris daggers, as Rangda has the power to make people turn against themselves. This kris dance or onying was originally an independent form of trance ritual, but at present it is almost always performed at the end of a Calonarang or Barong performance. The village priests control the proceedings, moving the exhausted participants to the most sacred courtyard of the temple where they are revived with incense and holy water and brought back to consciousness.

Calonarang includes long comic scenes, where clowns, speaking in the vernacular, comment on the proceedings, entertaining the audience with their obscene humour. The Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia has created a shortened version of the Calonarang, from which the ritual elements have been excluded.

The energetic and flamboyant characters of Barong and Rangda have particularly appealed to Western audiences. In the 1940s hotels began to stage shortened Barong and Rangda spectacles, which were the predecessors of the present tourist shows.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century brought an end to the isolated tranquillity of Bali. For centuries Balinese culture and theatre had been able to develop undisturbed. Now, influences flowed from all directions: from both the West and the island of Java. However, throughout their history, the Balinese have combined new ideas with old traditions, and foreign influences have stimulated Balinese theatre even in politically unstable times. The increasing mass tourism of recent years has created a new audience, which, however, has not always had a solely positive effect.

The Kebyar Style

After the Dutch take-over of Bali in 1908, the traditional central court of Klungkung in Eastern Bali lost its former importance, and the focus of cultural life partly moved to North Bali near the Dutch colonial centre of Singaraja. New gamelan and dance clubs were established, and their competition led to a cultural renaissance in the 1910s–1930s. The most sensational novelty was a style of gamelan and dance called kebyar, which came about through a competition between two villages in creating musical and dance compositions.

With its wildly complex dynamics and its florid, embellished sound, the gamelan gong kebyar is probably the most expressive style of Balinese gamelan music. In 1914 it was used to accompany the first performance of kebyar dance, the kebyar legong, performed by two maidens dressed as men. The new style became popular in only a few years.

It was further developed by the legendary dancer I Nyoman Mario, who in 1925 presented the first performance of his own innovation, kebyar trompong. In it the performer both dances and plays the trompong, an ancient percussion instrument placed in front of the gamelan.

Kebyar is an abstract non-narrative dance, where the performer interprets the rapidly changing moods of the gamelan with his or her movements and expressions by combining elements from various older dance styles.

A characteristic feature of the style is that it is mostly performed in a crouching position, with the dancer often raising the hem of a narrow skirt resembling older legong costume with one hand. The dancer’s bare arms trace expressive movements in the air while the hands and fingers are extended into delicate, quickly changing gestures.

The dancer uses a fan to accentuate the rhythmic and emotional patterns of the gamelan accompaniment. Along with the costume, many movements and gestures also derive from legong. Several dance versions were developed at the height of the kebyar fever.

The Panji semirang portrays the Princess Candra Kirana of the Panji Tales disguised as a man, a typical feature of the kebyar intermixing male and female roles. The kebyar bebancihan, or neutral kebyar, is in turn a form of dance that can equally be performed by both men and women. Generally speaking, the kebyar style has had a decisive effect on the aesthetics of twentieth- century Balinese dance and music.

The Western Art Colony

I Nyoman Mario, one of creators of kebyar, was greatly admired by both the Balinese and foreigners living on the island. Over the decades Westerners have had an increasing influence on the development of theatre and dance. Dutch colonial officials were, in some cases, patrons of the renaissance of North Balinese theatre, and the German-born painter and composer, Walter Spies, who settled in the small town of Ubud in Southern Ball, was in many ways instrumental in reshaping Balinese arts.

Among the Western artists residing mainly in Bali, mainly in the village of Ubud, were the Mexican painter Miquel Covarrubias and his wife, Rose Covarrubias, who actively documented Balinese dance and theatre. Among the Western residents was also the American composer, Colin McPhee. His writings and compositions proved important in popularising gamelan music in the West.

Walter Spies was also the founder of the modern Balinese school of painting. He was visited by a wide range of Western artists and scholars from Charlie Chaplin to Margaret Mead, and he assisted European film-makers in planning the first documentary on Bali. For this film a new type of dance was created, the kecak, which has found an established place in the Balinese standard repertoire. These early Western admirers of Balinese culture were instrumental in organising the first visits of Balinese artists to the West.


The kecak (cak) is based on the ancient dance chorus tradition. Men seated at the dead of night in circles around a large oil lamp chant the syllables “cak-kecak-cak” with immense strength and astounding rhythmic precision. The fast abdominal breathing and the bursting vocal of this gamelan svara or “voice orchestra” lead easily to hyperventilation and trance.

It is generally believed that Walter Spies combined this archaic ritual tradition with a scene from the Ramayana, where Rama, Sita, and Ravana appear in the midst of the suggestive chorus to enact the scene where Sita is abducted. Sitting, singing, and dancing with their hands and upper torso, the chorus becomes, among others, the Ramayana’s army of monkeys.

In the climax, the chorus, with a heightened feverish pitch, rises as it takes part in the events of the drama. At present, kecak is frequently performed in many villages, but the shows are mostly intended for tourists.

Since the 1970s several new versions of kecak have been created. One of them is the all-female kecak, which had its premiere at the Bali Arts Festival, in 2004.

New Dances

As the reputation of Bali spread throughout the world, Balinese dance troupes were invited to the West. In 1931 the first full group of Balinese dancers and musicians performed at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, and in 1953 a Balinese group toured Europe and the United States.

The Balinese artists were enthusiastically received, and their performances had a profound effect on many Western artists, including Antonin Artaud, one of the pioneers of modern Western theatre, who projected into Balinese performances his own concepts of “total theatre” and “Oriental dance”.

In view of the Western audiences, I Nyoman Mario created a repertoire for the tour with short numbers, easily comprehended by foreigners, such as Oleg Tambulilingan, a composition portraying the mating of bumblebees. Mario’s choreographies have found an established position in Balinese dance repertoire.

Tambulilingan already described animals, and since then various animals have inspired Balinese choreographers to create numerous short, non-ritual dances. Besides the animal themes, the Balinese dance of the mid- and late-20th century has been dominated by a kind of gender play. Cross-dressing and particularly women performing the male roles have become popular.

Arja, Balinese Opera

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.

Influences from Java

When Indonesia achieved independence after a severe period of political strife, Bali became part of the new republic, and again after four hundred years of isolation Javanese influences increased in Balinese culture. In the field of dance, a new, nationalistic concept of art emerged, which was partly modelled after the socialist countries, and engendered a number of dances portraying the life of various ethnic groups and social classes.

These included the Peasants’ Dance and the Weavers’ Dance, which reflected the ideas and alms of the new national government. In Bali the kebyar was chosen as the basic technique of these new, relatively simple dance compositions. The new ideas led to many experiments, which, however, did not achieve any permanent popularity.

Sendratari, The Balinese Version of Pan-Indonesia “Ballet”

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.

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, Spoken Theatre

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.

The Present and the Future

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.

Tourists and travellers come to Bali in large numbers (annually some 2 million), 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.