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    What is Wayang Wong Part II

    According to Prof. R.M Moerdowo’s book, Reflections on Balinese Traditional and Modern Arts, wayang wong as we know it today was once referred to as Barong Blasan or Barong Kedingkling. Between 1775 and 1825, the King of Klungkung, I Dewa Agung Sakti “ordered the establishment of a dance group consisting of thirty-six people, half of which were to play the role of the simian army of Rama, and the other half was to act the role of Rawana’s army of giants…this barong became very popular, not only in the puris but also in the villages…”

    Dutch occupation meant that the palaces lost their power and many court art-forms, including wayang wong, were left to the villages carry on. In a few villages it was sanctified and subsequently well preserved, presented at temple ceremonies in the outer courtyard as an offering to the gods.  However due to the sheer size of the troupe, there are still a number of villages that have dormant traditions.

    A wayang wong performance is completely different from the tourist Ramayana performances which you can see in most hotels in Bali, as it is not copied directly from the Javanese Ramayana tourist performance you find in Prambanan and other parts of Java. The dance movements, adopted from Gambuh and wayang kulit, are also highly stylised with the characters introduced slowly with much reverence by their servants.

    In the Ramayana version, the characters all wear masks, thus their utterances are not clear. The Balinese have dealt with this performance issue by added a narrator, called a ‘juru tandak’ who not only speaks for the characters, but also narrates the story in a typical Balinese singing style.

    What is particularly attractive about the Ramayana version of wayang wong is the brightly coloured, delicately carved masks that transform the human dancers into other worldly beings. Add to this the musical dimension of the lighter sounding gender wayang and bebatelan gamelan accompaniment, the tourist version that employs a regular, noisier gong kebyar gamelan orchestra pales in comparison, with less dramatic spirit and atmosphere.

    Unfortunately, these copy-cat performances are what are generally on offer to your average tourist. In fact, in the 1970s, the explosion of Ramayana ‘sendratari’ performances in the the tourism industry in Bali sadly led to the destruction of many beautiful court gamelan sets, such as semara pagulingan, pelegongan and bebarongan, as they were melted down to become gong kebyar ‘Ramayana’ gamelan orchestras. All this in spite of the fact that a traditional wayang wong performance presents much more of a Balinese twist on these wonderful epics.

    © 2012 Vaughan Hatch

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