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Comparison And Contrast Between Javanese and Balinese form of theatre arts

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     Comparison And Contrast Between Javanese and Balinese form of theatre arts

They say art imitates life. What better example to prove this dictum right than these ancient Indonesian dance rituals that seem to so effectively throw light upon this statement. Indonesian theatre predominantly has to forms of theatrical performances, the Wayang( Shadow puppet) and the Topeng(Masked dance). This discussion will primarily highlight the differences between the two be it sharp or subtle. Each of these forms will be discussed together.

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Topeng is the name given for this Balinese form of masked theatre performance whereas Topeng pajegan is what it is called when this is inched a little more rigorously with the same performer playing all the characters one after the other by story narrations, playing characters, performing rituals and also cracking jokes at the expense of the characters being played or on nationalistic themes or country humor. Topeng is a form of mediated rituals of ancestral visitation performed as part of festivities like weddings, cremations or an odalan which is a yearly occasion where the Gods are believed to descend down to their appropriate temple shrines.

Sometimes for a Topeng performance, the villagers from the host village are themselves selected or an expert performer is hired from outside the village. This is perhaps where Topeng strikes a chord against the class and social structure that Bali boasts of even today. Their society is divided into the upper class Brahmins and the lower caste Sudras or Jabas as they are called in very general terms. While hiring an artist for a performance this fact is overlooked and the performer even if being of the sudra class is allowed to play say a priest or a king during his Topeng performance and is allowed to perform rituals within the performance which in Balinese society would be taboo otherwise. Topeng is mostly if not always performed to summon the spirit of a dead priest into a temple shrine. The village is festive with women and children showering offerings and deities and the guest performer, the stage is set, lights are luminous and the wooden sarcophagus of an animal, mostly the holy cow is set high in the air supported on a bamboo base by a group of men. This represents the model which would encorporate the holy spirit of the priest or Brahmin in question. Before the actual performance would begin an offering would be made in an area and the performer would invoke the elements namely air, heavenly ether, earth and the nine manifestations of Hindu gods as he speaks Javanese Sanskrit invocations amidst a blur of sandalwood incense which is deemed holy. The performer then prepares to begin his performance. The costume worn is only one for all the characters to be portrayed and the story to be narrated is derived mostly from ancient wars and folktales.

 This form of Balinese theatre unlike Javanese which would be taken up later has a significant derivation from the cultural entities of  New Guinea as this is clear from the masks found in New Guinea which are called the Tubuan masks which are also similar to the Balinese masks. A very interesting thing to note here is the still prevalent concept of  ‘Spirit visitation’ where dancers go into trances assumed to be the spirits who occupy them during the dance. Sanghyan dedhari where pre adolescent girls who knew nothing of dancing go into trances and perform complex dances are also often quoted in this context. This practice can be traced again to New Guinean history. At topeng performances for Odalan ceremonies the performers often enter the stage from the direction of the central Balinese mountain called Gunung agung, the ‘holy mountain’ which is also a dormant volcano that is seen towering the Balinese horizon. This mountain  provides a sense of direction and is considered to be the home for the Hindu deities who come out of it one by one during a performance. Majapahit is the Balinese history and its chronicles that are often portrayed on stage.

As the wooden hammers fall upon the brass keys a metallophonic orchestra begins to play in the background and the audience waits with baited breath for the performance which would begin anytime after that. And one by one the performer enters from behind the curtains donning the role of different characters in the form of masks like the king, hero, servant and so on. Topeng is also a form of story telling. Stories or the chronicles of the kings were once written in the courts of the Majapahit empire by the Brahmins who gloried the heritage of the ruling power. After the forces invaded the princely ruling states of Bali these stories were over a period of time incorporated into the dance forms of Bali, the topeng. Themes are also largely the Ramayana and Mahabharatha from  the ancient land of India which were Javanised in the Java courts and later after the invasion of Bali became theirs as well. Every character is given a dance sequence during the performance which he does with a different air everytime. His style, posture, movements and background melody is different from character to character. Fantastic and extraordinary characters keep surfacing from the ancient past but time and again these characters are supplanted upon by other characters in the end that are far closer to present reality. It shares the vibrance of today and the classic grandeur of the past. It connects both the worlds and frankly very few dance forms are able to achieve the same. This is the Beauty of Topeng which makes it a dance form of today unlike the wayang which will be taken up subsequently which relies on story telling, fantasies, tales and fables which gives it a dreamy repertoire and makes it to some extent unreal and slightly difficult to comprehend.

“Balinese ceremonials provide public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of Balinese culture: social inequality and status pride- Clifford Geertz” (qtd. Emigh, John in The drama review 23).

Topeng can be rightly called the “ritual of status reversal” where sudras play Brahmins on stage and Brahmins maynot be allowed to do so themselves when it comes to he performance. Most Topeng performances end with the appearance of a central priest called sidha karya. It is believed that his appearance makes the event a successful one. This is largely based on the age old belief that Sidha karya was actually an Indian Brahmin priest who came to the region and when the then king, Dalem wathurengong did not comply with one of his requests and the empire was struck by a massive famine. The king then rectified his mistake, made sidha the head priest at a temple in Denpasar, present Bali and all was well again. The appeal of this story is the format of the same where an initially destructive and vicious force is channelised into something positive and rewarding when recognition and inclusion were amongst the criteria of the rulers towards the so called intruders. These days it is common in Bali to categorize the genre of the performances as ‘secular’ where it is done for religious reasons to please the divine and the secular audience where acts of offerings are made to the deities adopting a stylish approach. This act of combining the two is called Topeng Pajegan or Topeng Wali. There is often heavy overlapping between the ritual and the theatrical forms of Topeng where an effecting surface tension is maintained between the two forms during the performances. (Emigh 1-27)

We now focus our attention  to the Wayang kulit , which has two forms the one in Bali and the one in Java. It is different from Topeng as in here the predominant fixtures are not masked dancers but puppets who work from behind see through screens and create shadows. Hence the name ‘Shadow theatre’. The most venerated theatre in Bali is considered to be the shadow play. It  arrived from the island of java in centuries 11 and 14.The origins of this art have been at the debatable front for many centuries now but the most acceptable theory informs us of its origin from Javanese regions. It is believed that unlike Topang where the characters have mostly been clearly defined and human, in Wayang the initial characters started of as mystical and mythological which lateron went to become humanly. This clearly indicates its tendency to gradate from what it is. The introduction of narratives mainly from the Indian epics only added to the numbers of puppets and brought individuality to characters. Another point of difference with Topeng where the number of characters rarely  remains at the maximum a handful. This is perhaps a strong differentiating feature of Wayang from Topeng.   Though shadow theatres are present in Java and Bali, they seem to have developed separately .The puppets in Java are extremely stylish, glossy and colourful in contrast to the puppets used in Bali which are earthy, rustic, naturalistic and sturdy. They have a derivation is the ‘Wayang’ style especially seen in East Javanese temples of centuries 13 and 14. This earthy style of puppets in Bali is a strong reminder that this form of the shadow theatre in Bali belongs to the folk tradition of Bali, whereas its Javanese  counterpart is closely associated with the courts that ruled and had very little to do with the common masses. The Bali form was as a result of people and their experiences and the Java form of wayang was as a result of experts at the court who created it for the kings. (Hobart 1)

There are many forms of the Wayang. Wayang Ramayana is devoted to stories taken from the Ramayana epic while Wayang gambuh which was a court form, now obsolete depicts instances from Indonesian petry Malat. Wayang Cupak which is also close to extinction devotes itself to the Balinese Cupak story who was a rediculed clown. Wayang tantri is a relatively new concept where the object is to narrate animal fables. Here is where we are able to point differences between Wayang and Topeng. Unlike Topeng, Wayang relies a lot on story telling while Topeng has if ever minimum story telling and is more an art of actions and how you interpret what is being done on stage. Topeng is more about characters, their lives and the interpretation we draw in present day world.  Topeng is anyday more spiritual and secular as it involves headers like ‘Dieties’, ‘Spirits’ and ‘Offerings’ whereas Wayang is a simple puppet play more for the interest of the masses and their entertainment. That is primarily the reason why there is a gradual trend in Indonesia today where entertainment options like television, movies and general media do tend to steal its limelight away while Topeng has not been largely threatened by any of those as the purpose of it is not only entertainment but it is also meant for the secular chunk of people as mentioned earlier.

‘The Dimba and the dimbi’  is a form of wayang that specializes in the theme of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha and as mentioned earlier there are many subclasses to the wayang which are not really present in Topeng. Topeng at the most is subdivided into the two forms based on whether one or more than one performer is involved. On the other hand Wayang has so many subclasses based on the different themes, stories and languages involved. This could be the reason why the authenticity and interest quotient for Wayang is a few steps lower when compared to Topeng which has more or less shown originality and less subdivisions and branches like wayang. But never the less Wayang tends to have a global touch to it which is clear from the usages of Ramayan and Mahabharatha which are clearly foreign to the land of Indonesia where as Topeng’s  favourite usages are mostly if not always from within the cultural heritage of the country itself.

 (de Boer and Rajeg  76-107)

The wayang golek purwa is a form of wayang where there is a wooden rod- puppet theatre telling the Ramayana and Mahabharatha stories that are relatively popular among the sundanese speakers who live here. This is a genre that uses exquisitely craved doll puppets that dance to the orchestra. It’s a magnificient fiesta of story telling , singing and dialogue delivery with comments and questions from musicians that come in between. The interesting point to note here is that in various forms of Wayang in which the change from region to region is so obvious, Topeng is more subtle as it changes from one point in Indonesia to another. It can be accounted to the fact that Wayang is more diverse in terms of themes, stories, situations and artforms whereas Topeng though diverse follows a similar protocol more or less.

It was earlier discussed that Wayang unlike Topeng is less exorcist, spiritual and divine. However there can be an exception to this and that is what is called Kala. The origin of Kala( Murwa kala) is a stage exhibition of exorcism carrie out in the western part of java to realease people from the harm the demonic character named Kala might inflict. This sort of a public performance always has a nail biting touch to it because of this element. Kala is not a specific entity confined to this form of Wayang in this part of the world. In reality there have been claims that it is in fact a ‘demonic principle’ which is percieved by different people in different cultures as different. But you could say that it has a similar theme of the devil. Again many cultures as far away as in the south of India have their different ways of dealing with Kala and avoiding its harm on them. The Indians have a river purification process for the same just as how the Indonesians deal with it differently. (Foley 1-58)

Because of the blurring effect that has been hovering over Wayang as an art form, there is increased momentum from scholars who want to preserve the tradition and make it accessible to the coming generations. An example of this is the ceremony named rebo legi (sweet Wednesday)  in the home of Ki Anom Surata a famous Solonese puppeteer where the host invites various other puppeteers on the pretext of say something like a successful pilgrimage to Mecca. He is also a member of Golkar which is a political vehicle of the government. The point to note here is that unlike Topeng, in this form of Wayang  the authorization lies in the hands of only muslims and the indonesian government. Again this form of wayang has many deviations from norm in terms of new words, phrases, broken rules and trial of new styles. Perhaps what can summarize all this is the word ‘change’ that seems to be the lifeline of wayang unlike Topeng as earlier stated follows a fixed protocol more or less. (Sears 122-140)


In the search for cultural and traditional satisfaction, through out the sands of time mankind has addressed and depicted issues on stage that he has found difficult to express. What is fascinating about these art forms is perhaps the way they are accepted, questioned and carried out. It is arts like these that transcend the borders of colour, race, caste, sex and creed and keep the blueprints of cultures travelling across the DNA pools from generation to generation. In my quest to uncover details about these cultural gemstones I have learnt more than I can express. Wayang and Topeng are perhaps different from each other in many ways. But what is eventually common about them is the fact that they were both man’s subconscious efforts towards unity in diversity.

                                         Works Cited And Referred to

Emigh, John. “Playing with the past: Visitation and illusion in the mask theatre of Bali.”

              The Drama Review: TDR, Vol 23, No2 (1979):11-36

Foley, Kathy; Sedana, I Nyoman. “Perspective of a master artist: I Ketut Kodi on Topeng”

             The Drama review, Vol 23, No.2(June 1979): 37-48

Foley, Kathy “The dancer and the danced: Trance Dance and Theatrical Performance In West Java”

             Asian Theatre Journal, Vol2, No.1(Spring 1985):28-29

Suanda, Endo “Cirebonese Topeng and Wayang Of The Present Day”

             Asia Music, Vol.16, No.2(spring-summer, 1985): 84-120

Foley, Kathy “My Bodies: The Performer In West Java”

             TDR, Vol. 34, No.2(Summer, 1990): 62-80

Bakungan, Endo;  Suanda “Dancing In Cirebonese Topeng”

             Journal Of The American Gamelan Institute Vol3, No.5(Dec 1988): 7-15

deBoer, Fredrick E; Rajeg, I Nyoman “The Dimba and Dimbi of I Nyoman Rajeg: A Balinese shadow play”

          Asian Theatre Journal, Vol.4, No.1(Spring, 1987): 76-107

Sunarya,Abah; I Harja Giri, Gamelan; Foley, Kathy “The Origin of Kala: A Sundanese Wayang Golek Purwa Play by Abah Sunarya and Gamelan Giri Harja I”

          Asian Theatre Journal, Vol.18, No.1,(Spring, 2001):1-58

SearsLobell, Laurie “Asethetic Displacement In Javanese Shadow Theatre: Three Contemporary Performance Styles”

          The Drama Review, Vol.33, No.3 (Autumn, 1989): 122-140


Cite this Comparison And Contrast Between Javanese and Balinese form of theatre arts

Comparison And Contrast Between Javanese and Balinese form of theatre arts. (2016, Sep 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comparison-and-contrast-between-javanese-and-balinese-form-of-theatre-arts/

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