A couple of treatises called Aji Gurnita and Pra Kempa which date to the 1800s detail a number of the main types of ceremonial gamelan orchestras, explaining their instrumentation and their function. Balinese ceremonies can be divided into four categories: Dewa Yadnya (for the gods), Bhuta Yadnya (for the underworld), Pitra Yadnya (for the deceased) and Manusa Yadnya (for human beings). Certain orchestras were prescribed for specific types of ceremony. Gong gede and selonding for temple festivals; baleganjur for exorcism and purification; angklung, gambang and saron for cremations; and gender wayang for tooth filings.
At this time there were many less types of orchestras than there are in Bali today. There may have been around 20 orchestra types around 200 years ago, but at my last count as a gamelan researcher today there are around 46 different types of ensembles and people are creating new orchestras all the time.
It seems that in the older times, in one way people were stricter about which exact ensemble was needed for which ceremony; on the other hand, there was flexibility in some villages where they didn’t have say a giant orchestra for a large temple festival – this was replaced by a smaller ensemble that was considered sacred enough to fulfill the same ritual function.
Things are changing all the time though – take, for example, the catch-all use of a gong kebyar orchestra (20th century ensemble) as accompaniment for all sorts of ceremonies and dances. Traditionally, a barong or legong dance would dictate the use of a specific orchestra that suited the atmosphere of the dance; from the 20th century onwards, the standard gong kebyar was considered enough – right until this day.
© Vaughan Hatch 2018