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    What is Wayang Wong Part I

    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. These instruments are played with wooden mallets called panggul using a difficult two-handed technique, and are tuned to a 5-tone scale called selendro, which is fairly even tempered compared with the other tuning system in Bali called pelog. There are two mid range instruments called gender gede or gender pemade and two higher instruments which play another octave up called kantilan. The quartet is augmented by drums and gongs, including kendang kerumpungan wadon (female drum) and kendang kerumpungan lanang (male drum), kajar (boss-less handheld gong), kelenang, kempur (main hanging gong at medium pitch) and gentorag (bell tree). Sometimes a flute (suling) is added for the fast fight scenes called batel.

    A vocalist singer called a juru tandak sings and speaks for the masked dancers who cannot be heard under the wooden masks. In modern performances he will be well equipped with a microphone (which is often at a higher volume than the rest of the ensemble).

    A wayang wong performance is presented in multiple languages (Bandem, 2001): Sanskrit, ancient Balinese (Kawi) and different levels of Balinese high, medium and every day, 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).

    © 2012 Vaughan Hatch

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