Dance dramas performed on Java and Bali probably originated in ancient rituals honoring the ancestors and 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, trance dances are performed in the villages 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.
Court dramas are more formalized and usually celebrate the lives and exploits of the Javanese royalty. Informal versions of these stories and others of Hindu origin from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are performed by traveling troupes in the Javanese countryside.
The Balinese perform a constant calendar of ceremonies in keeping with their Hindu traditions. One of the most famous dances is that of the confrontation between Rangda, the widow witch, and the Barong, who resembles a small Chinese dragon. Others are based on stories of the royal courts. 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.
Family workshops on both Bali and Java produce masks. 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 usually painted with ordinary paint. Horsehair is used for mustaches and beards, glass or mirrors may be used for eyes. Sometimes there is a back cross-brace where the performer grips the mask with his teeth.
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.
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/