Traditional Balinese and Javanese Theater

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Theatre traditions in Indonesia have always been closely tied to the local music

Dance and stroytelling repertoire of a particular region. In Java, for example, all theatre seems to have its roots in the wayang puppet theatre, among which the flat, leather shadow-puppet play, the wayang kulit, is pre-eminent. This is evident from the fact that all Javanese theatre, whether performed by actors or by puppets, is referred to as wayang, a term which means :shadow” and refers in tis narrowest sense to the shadow-puppet play. Used in its wider sense, however, wayang refers also to forms of theatre performed by actors on a stage: wayang topeng (mask drama) and wayang orang (dance drama) being the best known. In these, many of the tales, voices, inconography and even some of the character’s movements have been borrowed from the shadow play.

Of these surviving theatrical forms, the wayang topeng or mask drama is undoubtedly the oldest. The earliest evidence of wayang topeng is in East Java, where it was used, at least by the 14th century, to enact tales from the Pnaji cycle of epics concerning the founding of the 13th century Singhasari dynasty. These ancient performances were perhaps direct forerunners of the gambuh dramas of Bali, dramas that are still performed occasionally today with masks and archaic gamelan intrumenst, and with dialogue that nobody understands, because it is entirely in Old Javanese. Whereas on Bali, mask plays are still popular on Java they lost favour at the Islamic Central Javanese courts sometimes after the 16th cenruty, and were then preserved mainly in north coastal villages, where they barely survive today (notably in the Cirebon area). It seems that competition from other wayang forms, particularly dance dramas resulted in the decline.

Javanese wayang orang or wayang wong (literally: “human”wayang) dance dramas are said to have been created in the 18th century by one or another of Central Java’s rules. This has become a partisan matter, in which Surakartans claim their Prince Mangkunegara 1 as the originator of the genre, and Yogyakartans insist that their Hamengkubuwono 1 created it.

Neither ruler truly invented the wayang orang, for dance dramas (with and without masks) existed already in Java from a much earlier time. On the other hand, both rulers were extremely active in creating new pieces and promoting their performances. A strong rivalry developed, in fact, between the several competing courts – a battle on the stage that followed hard on the heels of the fractious civil war of 1740 to 55. This rivalry intensified during the 19th century, when Javanese rulers became more and more concerned qith matters of cultural prestige, and possessed the time and the means to devote to cultural pursuits.

Wayang orang thus became a part of the state ritual of these kingdoms, performed in a open pavilion to commermorate the founding of the dynasty and the coronation of the king, as well as at lavish royal weddings. The great age of wayang orang was in the 1920s and 1930s, when massive productions lasting several days and employing casts of 300 to 400 actors were mounted. These performances became extremely stylized and abstract, emphasizing music and thecnically difficult movements over drama and dialogue. Today, performances are smallers in scale, lasting only a few hours, in which fragments from the Ramayana or the Mahabrata are staged in a hall with props, heavy make-up, painted backdrop and proscenium lighting. There are now three commercial wayang wong companies in Java: Sri Wedari in Surakarta, Ngesti Pandhawa in Semarang and Bharata in Jakarta. They perform nightly, and the emphasis is on lengthy dialogues and the ever-popular comedy scenes, rather than the dance.

–> Read Also : Modern Trends – Traditional Indonesian Dance and Drama is Today

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