The Balinese Pajegan Mask Dance Theatre


P1000543by Madia Patra Ismar

This review is on the Balinese Pajegan Mask Dance Theater Performance, or known as the Topeng Pajegan I witnessed as part of the Jakarta Arts Council program titled “Maestro’s of Traditions”. It was performed at the  Luwes Theatre building in the Jakarta Institute for the Arts campus  on the 5th December 2010 situated in central Jakarta, the capitol city of Indonesia .

This performance interested me because of the totality of the performance. As an oral tradition it had the elements of dance, theatre, story telling and music. Another distinction was that the performer was I Nyoman Catra, a traditional artist that has studied art since highschool at the Balinese Karawitan Conservatory, at the Indonesian Higher Education for Dance (ASTI) in Denpasar Bali until obtaining his MA, and continuing to a doctorate PhD in the USA. His educational background is important to mention because it is a additional explanation abaout the dialogue or the speech act performance of the Topeng Pajegan whichthe maestro Catra performed.

The Pajegan Mask dance theater is performed only by one actor called a Pragina. He plays a variety of masks and this performance is usually connected with religious rituals. In reality nowadays, the Topeng Pajegan performance has become an event outside of rituals with the presence of the Sidhakarya Mask at the end, to conclude the performance and to fulifil the requirements for a sacred performance.

In the Topeng Pajegan performance, ancestral figures are personified through various characterisations and faces whether simbolically or realistic. The meaning conveyed through these masks are a reflection of the ancestor’s struggles in facing life’s problems and issues. In the in the end of these struggles, an achievement of spiritual perfection is attained through the presentation of the Sidhakarya mask.

The topeng or mask performances’ structure is bounded by rules of tradition but is strengthened and coloured by the improvisational virtuosity of the dancer. All forms of improvisation in the dance, acting, dialogue and comedy is integrated to the character of the mask and used to move and bring the worn masks to life. There are 5 main mask characters, they are  Patih (noble), Keras (warrior), Topeng tua (old man), Penasar (advisor), Dalem (spiritual king) dan Bondres (clown).  The musical instruments are the Balinese gamelan ensemble in this performance was played by the Karawitan Saraswati led by maestro I. Kompyang Raka.

In the introduction of the performance called the pategak karawitan, the gamelan music is intrumental. The  tabuh pategak or the gamelan percussion is a sign that the performance is about to begin. This music is to call the audience to witness the performance, and the underlying meaning is to change the atmosphere of everyday life into the performance of art. The staging was in an arena composition, more like half an arena with the audience positioned close to the performers. The gamelan instruments were set like an upside down letter V, and in the pointed end a table stood. On it were masks that were to be used in the performance by the dancers, complet with the sacred offerings of flowers, holy water and incense and other elements. After the percussive tabuh pategak is played, the dancer maestro Catra enters the stage. Catra faces the table and puts on the first mask, thus the audience is brought into the world of the Topeng Pajegan.

In the beginning act, Catra opens it presenting the mask of the Patih Keras, or the Vizier. The dancer stand in the centre and starts with the beginning dance movements. As all Balines dances, the motifs of movement is based on basic stance of the positions of feet, body, hands and head. It is characterised by the contraction of the stomach, chest and waist, Dance movements in Balinese dance is differentiated between men (putra), women (putri), and in-between (bebancihan). The male dancers movement uses contraction in the waist so as not to produce swaying movements in the hips.  The female dancer and bebancihan torso is positioned a bit forward. Hands and arms are lifted aligned to the shoulders and is the position in all Balines dance and this position is named the agem. The legs are bent while in a standing position and also while in movement. The movements are refined but is ended in sudden stops. Through this combination of refined movements and sudden stops, the expression of the topeng  bring out the character and the feelings or rasa conveying character of goodness, evil, happines and sadness. The concept of dualism or harmony of two opposites is ingrained on the Balinese philosophy of life, that is rwa bhinedha symbolised in the colours of black and white( hitam putih ). The meaning of this philosophy is exspressed in the rasa behnd the movements of the dance.

Oral traditions are usually composed of orality synchronised with hand activity, gesture and often elaborated and stylised followed by other bodily activities such as swaying of the torso and dancing ( Ong 1982: 67 ). So oral traditions is not just orality in a verbal konteks but a modification of a total existence including the body. The bodily activities over reaches mere vocalisation and is natural. Even a still body is a strong gesture especially done in front of an audience.

The Topeng patih keras as other masks are made of wood and only partially cover the face. The mouth is not covered therefore the dancer is a able to speak. The dialogue or the speech act tells the story of the kings presence at a ceremonial ritual. Other topeng Pajegan loyal to the traditional story structure always refers to the Babad epic where the King is always the central figure. However withe the improvisational abilities of Catra to pull the story telling into the context of contemporary realities. He refers to the situation of the current eruption of the volcanoes and other natural disasters experienced by the people. In his telling of the wisdom in this current story of disasters lies the life philosophy of how mankind has distanced from contemplation and maintaining nature which is a gift from the Almighty. Mankind has even destroyed this gift out of a consuming greed that never ends which in turn became one of the causes of the resulting catastrophe. Human greed careless of the results caused by their actions, only interested in using nature for filling their insatiable apetite. It is as if mankind piously and dutifully fulfils the religious rituals while on the other hand does violence toward those not of the same views. This applies also to the religious groups who commit acts of violence to those not of the same group was conveyed also as a critisicm to the phenonema in a contemporary context. With this performance Topeng Pajegan as an oral tradition transforms into a contemprary act.

The orality refering to current events was transmitted to the audience using Indonesian language and sometimes in English. The words were at the right timing were twisted in meaning or had a double entrende resulting in comic satire or a dark humor. Further play of words became satire veiling the critisicm so it felt soft and not too hard so the audience could still enjoy the satire while at the same time acknowledging the truth but in a relaxed way even though they were laughing at themselves. What Catra said through the Topengs character was common knowlege and could be acknowledged for the events were recorded by the media electronic and written in newspapers. Here it can be seen how the oral traditions practitioners and audience has written knowledge and shared knowledge.

The term verbomotor used by Jousse ( in  Ong 1982: 68 ) for cultures that stressed on human interaction through visual and oral communication unites humans in groups. Activities in the Topeng Pajegan have elements of orality, sounds of the gamelan, the rythm of the sound when the Pragina foot stamps in exspressing emotions through dance movements, unites the audience and performer in a communication of rasa. In this case when Catra, the pragina performer uses his speech using speech with a contemporary context pulls the audience in a group emotion of rasa, or communality when the problems conveyed become a a cognitive of togetherness and felt as a problem felt together. This approach shows the excellence of acting ability of Catra to pull the audience into a tradional space different from the audience but through orality is able to make the audience no longer feel the differences but actually feel as if being part of and also owning the tradition in performance.

Even though Catra uses the strengths of improvisation but continually returns to utterences that reference to the Babad (epic) and King that is weighted with the preparations if ceremony. This so, we can see that the pragina is loyal to the formulaic concept of repetition and has meaning of ritual and religion, though the audience consist of different faiths of religion but by referncing to natural disasters all are pulled into the same rasa and faith through the ebstract borders of religion that is the feelings of helplessness in the face of catastrophe and the limitations of the world. Human can only surrender to the Power of Prayer so being able to identify with the king inpreperation for rituals of faith.

The utterences used in performance functions as a mnemonic device of memory, using patterns of rythnpm. The pragina uses sung vocals in Balinese tongue to return to the structure of story. Albert Lord says that though there is improvisation but there is a strength that still glues together certain themes. These themes are inherent so deep in tradition and it is that the singer in this case the pragina, soaks in these themes since the beginning of his life and career. ( Lord 2000: 98 ) and avoids heresy by still adhering and including traditional themes.

When the pragina brings theme and compostional techniques present in front of the audience and conveying his utterences in speech, he still adhers to the structure of performance that he has learned with other elements of profession. ( Lord 2000: 99). Performance of the topeng masks is built based on narrative as a performance outline in the topeng pajegan. So all elements whether the tembangs sung, utterances, dance movements and floor oatterns in the performance are always returned to the traditional structure and theme as a formula that must be followed.

The audience in the topeng pajegan performance space is present, watching, and receiving all visual, sounds, music, vocalisation, and dance movements. The pragina becomes a reciter of the oral text through vocal and bodily movements to build the audiences perception. When a text is sung or uttered in a certain style or moved in a certain style the performer does not give his own interpretation to the audience. The listeners or the audience must use their own senses to recreate and dramatise the story in their own thoughts or imagination( Sweeney 1980: 22). The audiences attention is centered on what was unfolding in the here and now. The story teller or in this case the pragina is binded by the norms and values of the traditional society. Developments of individual style is not supported, or if recieved, cannot go out of the pakem (rules) of the traditional style because the topeng pajegan with all its elements is “owned” and consumed by the communal group. The pragina or in this performance, Catra cannot deviate from the culture itself.

After performing the topeng patih keras, Catur then performs the topeng tua, penasar, dalem then bondres, each with its own characteristics and formula, which through the expertise of Catur can still be seen to adher to improvisation and has the ability to bring the audience into the perception he wants. In the end of the performance, the topeng sidakarya is presented for a sacred atmosphere that can also be felt by the audience when seeing the ritual offerings and flowers addorning the atmosphere withe their perfume, the holy water scattered in the audiences direction and the performance space. This strengthens the feeling that this topeng pajegan is part of a ceremony of sacred ritual. The magical atmosphere with olfactory senses stimulated by the perfume of insence increases the magic and unites the audience in a blend of sacred rasa.


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