If you are interested in Balinese traditional art-forms, many of you would have heard of wayang kulit: the shadow puppet show; however, the human version of these puppets, called wayang wong, is probably less familiar.
It is not entirely clear when this art-form first appeared in Bali. Professor Made Bandem, author of Wayang Wong, presents evidence to suggest that it could have existed “…as far back as the 11th century.” The drama adopts excerpts of stories from India’s two greatest epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with the key difference in the performance being the use of masks: for a Mahabharata performance the actors don’t wear masks apart from the clowns; whereas for the Ramayana all the performers are masked.
A wayang wong troupe involves a large number of characters, which may range between around 20 to 60 depending on the story chosen. With each dancer costumed in gold-gilded cloth and leather, as well as colourful, exquisitely carved masks, the upkeep such a troupe can be a financial concern for many villages that have inherited a wayang wong tradition.
The traditional accompaniment for wayang wong are a quartet of 10-keyed gender wayang metallophones, augmented by drums and gongs, as well as a vocalist that will sing and speak for the masked dancers who cannot be heard under the wooden masks.
A wayang wong performance is presented in two languages: ancient Balinese (Kawi) and Balinese (spoken in two forms: high and everyday, depending on who is talking to whom). Characters are introduced by either the servants (for good characters) or the clowns (for evil ones) in a typically formal manner that would seem repetitive and overdone to modern audiences, but this is typical of ancient drama in Indonesia. Therefore, a performance may last for several hours. Some active wayang wong troupes are still found in Tejakula (Buleleng), Telepud (Gianyar), Tangkup (Gianyar), Mas (Gianyar), Tunjuk (Tabanan) and Sanur (recently reconstructed).
© 2015 Vaughan Hatch