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Social Functions of Balinese Traditional Performing Arts  

by on Wednesday, 10 September 20082 Comments | 5,215 views

Here is an interesting article in relation with the social function of traditional of Balinese performing art. This interesting article is an excerpt that is taken from a paper entitled “Creating Modern Traditions in Balinese Performing Arts” by Ivana Askovic. Ivana Askovic is a Ph.D. candidate in Asian Theater and an acting instructor at the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research interests focus mainly on Indonesian performing arts. Without further ado here is excerpt.

baris presi

Throughout its history Balinese theater has had two main social functions: one religious and one political. Even though the early twentieth century saw the introduction of an element of self-conscious art which was not “art-in-service” of something but rather an artistic expression of an individual, this tendency never became fully integrated in the Balinese artistic tradition. Rather, the performing arts are still considered to be (as they have been throughout history) a communal, collective obligation to create beauty in service to society and religion.


The religious function of the performing arts is evident in the religious ceremonies in the temples, and in the private ceremonies most often concerned with the various rites of passage (birth, wedding, tooth-filing, etc.). In both instances, the dances, dance-dramas, or other theater forms presented are regarded as both individual and communal offerings to the gods. Together with food offerings and prayers, these performances are given for the enjoyment and entertainment of the divinities and ancestral souls as a sign of loyalty and devotion to this invisible realm whose protection is indispensable for the well-being of the community. In doing so, the performers and those who commission the performances are serving a specific religious function in constantly preserving the “symbolic universe” of the Balinese people.

The political function of Balinese theater is similar to its religious function. From the ninth or tenth century until the early twentieth century the Balinese courts played a primary role in the development of performing arts. It did so through the training of dancers and musicians, the organizing and financing of performances, and the creating of new performing styles as well as new norms for their execution. Although court performances always followed the religious calendar and thus served religious functions as well, their content and form reflected their political purpose in showing the strength and splendor of the kingdom and legitimizing the rule of a particular dynasty by showing its links to old kingdoms of the “golden era” of Balinese history (Majapahit or Gelgel) and, indirectly, its links to the gods.


The vast range of performing art forms in Bali have always had this dual function of preserving the symbolic (religious) universe of the Balinese people and legitimizing an image of a social and political order of a particular kingdom or dynasty. These two functions have always been inseparable in that a particular king or dynasty could only legitimize their rule by showing themselves as perfect embodiments of traditional values, norms, and regulations that were codified in the religious universe. In this way, the political reality constantly strengthened the symbolic one, for only a strong symbolic reality could give confer legitimacy on any given political reality.

These two functions have been singled out because they are the pillars on which the performing arts tradition of Bali is based. They are the key factors which make a Balinese dance, dance-drama, or a wayang performance recognizable as Balinese even when a specific form is penetrated by foreign (usually Western) influences. They maintain strong ties between social life, the political structure and religion on the one hand, and performing arts on the other. Just as the Balinese have managed to preserve their religion more or less intact through the centuries, they have guarded their traditional arts with the same enthusiasm to assure that they remain “Balinese” regardless of the continually changing social context.

topeng pajegan

Three main challenges emerged in the twentieth century. The first was the process of modernization of Balinese performing arts which started in the 1920s with the expansion of tourism. Western artists and scholars from this period introduced the idea of a self-conscious art that functions as an artistic expression of an individual. This idea triggered a new fashion among the Balinese artists who turned to creating new dance forms by looking toward Western models. Just as a number of Western scholars and Balinese artists began to fear that the traditional Balinese arts were in serious danger of washed away by the tide of rapid modernization, a second challenge appeared: the commercialization of the arts. This commercialization actually prevented the decline of traditional arts, for the authorities (first Dutch, then Indonesian) launched organized efforts to preserve the traditional art forms as economic commodities for the tourist market. Many traditional art forms were preserved as a result, although this preservation often entailed serious threats to the arts in the form of standardizing, categorizing, and museumizing a large part of a living tradition within Balinese theater. Many traditional forms were taken from the villages and temples, recontextualized for the tourist market, and then assimilated back into the villages and temples. The third challenge chronologically overlapped with the first two: the demise of the courts and the decline in power of most of the Balinese nobility who were the major patrons of the performing arts. This problem was successfully ameliorated, if not entirely solved, by the foundation of two major government sponsored performing art schools in Bali: The College of Indonesian Arts and The High School of Indonesian Music in Denpasar. These institutions took over the role of preserving the traditional art forms, a role formerly exercised by the courts.


From the perspective of the 1990s, one may conclude that Balinese theater does not seem to be any less Balinese than it does in earlier descriptions in the writings of Miguel Covarrubias, Walter Spies, or Margaret Mead. Nevertheless, Balinese theater did undergo significant changes. In this essay I will argue that what makes these changes less apparent are the two functions that the performing arts play in society, the religious and political. These functions keep the theatrical tradition inseparable from its religious and political contexts. In serving these two functions, the Balinese performing art tradition appears to be virtually the same as it was centuries ago. The demands of Balinese social organization (the basis of which has also remained more or less intact through the centuries) placed upon the artists (themselves part of that organization) have likewise contributed to the resilience of the performing arts, both socially and aesthetically.

Whether they are in service of politics, religion, or economy, the performing arts of Bali may be categorized as applied arts, or arts-in-service. The fact that the Balinese do not have the word for “art” supports this theory. Artistic creativity in Bali has always been subordinate to the demands of its social and political order.

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