Whilst on the outset Balinese art-forms may look similar on a ‘stage’, much has changed: both in the performers and in the audience. Starting with a gamelan orchestra that you see in a tourist setting, say a gong kebyar – the performance position of these large orchestras has changed a lot. Formations were never split as we see at tourist performances at places like Ubud palace with the half the set to the left and half to the right of the gate where the dancers emerge. An orchestra actually works best when it is not separated, both for communication and for quality of sound: this is why perhaps the heart of a gamelan, the gong, was placed at the front, as one sees in the old photos.
Musicians never sat on stools as they do today, in keeping with the egalitarian concept of gamelan playing. Musicians dressed differently too. Most were topless for a start – at most, they brought their outer sarong (saput) up to chest level and tied it up with a sash. Head-cloths (udeng) were tied in an individualistic wayward way that is starting to becoming trendy now a century later.
Groups didn’t wear uniforms either: the ‘communist look’ perhaps came about when groups started to tour overseas or at least with the onset of intense competitions in North Bali. Trend-setters of the early 20th century, the ‘Buleleng boys’ were the ones who also started donning jackets with Shanghai –style collars.
Until the early 20th century, musicians played with little expression – movements of excitement again started in North Bali with a famous kebyar drummer called Gede Manik. Over the decades this developed into the exaggerated movements one sees today where even the gong player twirls his mallet before he belts out the final thunderous tone. Now to many older Balinese, these movements seem over the top and unnecessary – they bemoan that gamelan no longer ‘sing’ but seem to be just for outward show.
© 2015 Vaughan Hatch