Just hours before playing the role of the little monkey in the wayang wong dance drama that Wednesday evening in Tunjuk village, Tabanan regency, 10-year-old Adi Wiryatama, fondly called Detu, sat among the colorful costumes.
“I’ll go take my bath first. I’ve a performance coming up,” said Detu excitedly, without any trace of nervousness in his face.
When asked whether he felt any jitters, the youngest of the Tunjuk wayang wong performers said, “No. This is just performing among the people I know. I did feel some jitters when I played for unfamiliar crowds though.”
I Nyoman Adi Saputra, the 31-year-old performer of the heroic white monkey Hanoman in that evening’s wayang wong, recalled: “I was just about his age when I played my little monkey part. The elders told me that I was still too young. But I insisted on playing [him]. When they didn’t let me play, I cried loudly.”
“At that time, I was the only youngster, while the rest of the group was several decades older. Kids were limited from playing because the use of the kawi language was considered too difficult for youngsters,” said the elementary school English teacher who now also leads the Pasak Gede Bendesa clan’s wayang wong troupe.
Every 210 days of the saka (Hindu Balinese) calendar, Tunjuk’s 90 Pasak Gede Bendesa clan families celebrate the birth of their extended family’s temple in a sacred Odalan ceremony, featuring a 45-minute-long wayang wong that unravels one of the thousands of stories in the seven episodes of the epic Ramayana.
That Wednesday night, the story was about Hanoman’s quest for a precious stone called Manik Kapuraga, which is guarded by a demonic female creature named Diah Sidarkara in the vast ocean of Tasik Kencana. The precious stone was a necessity for a Melaspas traditional ceremony to be held by King Rama in his ancient kingdom of Ayodyapura.
While little Detu played one of the monkey warriors under the leadership of Hanoman, another performer, Kadek Mahadi, 23, faced a more challenging role. He was the female demonic creature Diah Sidarkara.
Amid the rhythm of the gender (one of the instruments in a gamelan orchestra), Mahadi successfully infused the monster’s horrid character into his dances, gestures and voice. “I learned how to perform
autodidactically by watching the older people,” he said after the performance. Mahadi started performing in wayang wong in the role of one of Hanoman’s monkey soldiers.
“I started because it was cool to perform in front of my peers. Now, there’s also some pride to take part in preserving our own tradition. Who else if not us, the youth?” said Mahadi, who began performing wayang wong when he was in junior high.
He acknowledged that the use of kawi in wayang wong forced him to work extra hard.
“At first, I just memorized the lines. Then, I tried to understand the meanings. As I performed more often, I got used to using the language. But sometimes I run out of the kawi vocab, which forces me to mix it with some Balinese words. It’s better I do that than be speechless,” Mahadi said.
Balinese culture expert I Made Bandem, a professor of Balinese dance and music at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, categorizes wayang wong as a form of sacred art when it is performed for religious ceremonies at places of worship on certain significant days.
“The most crucial aspect that determines wayang wong sacredness is the use of sacred masks, which from the time of their creation from piles of wood to carved masks are always accompanied by religious rituals.”
To show respect for their sacred masks, just hours before the performance the various masks that will be worn by the performers were also prayed over in a nyambleh ceremony to ask for the power of Pasupati. Among the most sacred is the mask of the goddess of evil, Rangda.
The Ramayana wayang wong, Bandem continued, is classified as a form of semi-sacred dance drama because it is performed for the gods and can be watched by people.
“Because the Ramayana wayang wong has the nature of total theatrics, with all the elements of drama — singing, dance, gamelan and others — it is not easy for children to perform it,” said Bandem, pointing to the importance of mature appreciation of each of the characters in the stories.
“The dialogue in the performance also uses Old Javanese, which is a language difficult to learn. The manner of speech has to be spoken in the right style, similar to the wayang kulit parwa. Not every child or teen is able to perform it,” said Bandem.
Bandem listed the villages in Bali that still have well-preserved wayang wong heritage, which include not only Tunjuk but Tejakula village in Buleleng; Den Tiyis, Mas, Telepud and Madangan villages in Gianyar; Bambang village in Bangli; Kamasan village in Klungkung; Sidemen village in Karangasem; and Yeh Poh village in Jembrana.
Bandem said the preservation of wayang wong is not an easy task due to the complex theatrical substance and the sacred nature of its equipment and masks.
The clan’s elder, I Made Tiaksa, 66, a former monkey warrior performer himself, and his 76-year-old brother I Wayan Larsa, 76, were pleased that their clan’s wayang wong legacy has been preserved until today because of the presence of the younger generation.
“I have been playing the monkey soldier role since 1967 until the 90s. Being on stage was always my proudest time, but now it is time to pass the baton,” said Tiaksa, with an apparent smile of pride for his successors.
By Agnes Winarti
Photographs by Agung Parameswara
Published in Bali Daily/The Jakarta Post, Thursday, May 24, 2012
**This piece on cultural preservation was shortlisted by board of judges of the Adinegoro Journalism Award as the Winner of National Press Day award in 2013 in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia.