The dance dramas performed on Java and Bali probably originated in ancient rituals honoring the ancestors and for the deities of planting and harvest. Later, Hindu and Islamic religious beliefs added to the richness of the ceremonial stories.
Even today on predominantly Moslem Java, the high, cold, Dieng Plateau is a scared place and in the villages trance dances are performed with a variety of animal masks. The mask (topeng) is held over a fire to draw the spirit of the animal into it and to bring the dancer under it's power. The barongan masks shown above represent orge-type characters.
Court dramas are more formalized and usually celebrate the lives and exploits of the Javanese royalty. Masks from these dramas are the kind most frequently seen today in museum collections and in the palace collections of the Kratons in Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo). Informal versions of these place stories and others of Hindu origin such as episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, are performed by traveling troupes in the Javanese countryside. The masks are relatively simple in the Javanese tradition of emphasizing restraint.
The Balinese perform a constant calendar of ceremonies in keeping with their Hindu traditions. One of the most famous masked dances is that of the confrontation between Rangda, the widow witch, and the Barong, who resembles a small Chinese dragon. Other performances are based on stories of the royal courts, and usually have their clown elements, just as the English Elizabethan dramas do.
A village drama frequently goes on all night with the villagers informally coming and going, eating, laughing when the comic characters make jokes at the expense of local people and enjoying the story which they have all known since childhood. Ceremonies happen all day in Bali, beginning with the twice a day offerings put out for the good and evil spirits.
Family workshops on both Bali and Java produce masks ranging from the papier mâché folk festival of Muhammad masks from Java, which are sold by paddlers on the street, to extremely fine and sacred masks with many layers of delicate painting made by famous master craftsmen for use in court or temple ceremonies.
The Balinese carve many elaborately detailed wooden masks with a wide variety of forms, reflecting the Hindu belief that everything has an active spirit. The mask maker dries the wood and, after the carving is finished, an undercoat of white gesso is applied with the colored paints applied on top. Metallic foils are used for accents.
Javanese masks from the villages are exuberant and strong. These masks are usually painted with ordinary paint, rather than lacquered. Horsehair is used for mustaches and beards, glass or mirrors may be used for eyes, tire rubber may form ears or straps. Masks which have been used for awhile will acquire a dark patina on the inside, even if the front has been repainted. Sometimes there is a back cross-brace where the performer grips the mask with his teeth. Older masks cost more and some are artificially aged, so look carefully.
A mask communicates some of the life of the ceremonial world that it represents. Although their features are fixed, in a performance the masks become as animated as the faces of human actors. On Bali, the Ubud Village Tourist Center posts a weekly list of performances in the area. Most of these are by professional troupes and the dances have been shortened to give visitors a sampling of the different traditional dances. Tickets are inexpensive and available at the Center or from street vendors. No matter what the street sellers say, there are no reserved seats, so go a little early to get a good view.
Some of the older dancers feel that these shortened dramas for the tourists are threatening the continuance of the traditional longer, more complex dances. Most Balinese seem to be able to accept the tourists while continuing to practice their own observances.
Once in the late afternoon, we were sitting in Made's Coffee Warang, one of the oldest hangouts on Legion Road in Kuta Beach. Down one side of the road, going into town, came the Peanut's Pub Tour with open VW's and partying Aussies. Down the other side, going out to the beach, was a huge procession of fantastic coffins, dancers, musicians, and offerings for a Balinese cremation ceremony. The two worlds passed by, each seemingly oblivious to the other.
For further reading: The Spirited Earth, Dance, Myth and Ritual from South Asia to the South Pacific
text and photographs by Victoria Ginn
published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1990, ISBN 0-8478-1167-0
300 Park Ave South, NY, NY, 10010, USA
Color plates convey the powerful dramatic effect of village performance and dance. Balinese ceremonies pp. 44-47, 60-63, 66-68, 90-94, 112, 113, 162, 188, Javanese ceremonies pp. 69-75, Dyak ceremony p. 153.
Link to a summary of this excellent article on Cirebon topeng dances excerpted from The Jakarta Post, September 25, 1994 in the Arts section, "Averting falling popularity of masked dances", text by Hartoyo Pratiknyo, photos by Arief Hidayat.
Wayang Cycles, part of our Indonesian Puppets article, has brief descriptions of the major play cycles.
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