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The Origin of Balinese Opera  

by on Tuesday, 11 September 2007No Comment | 2,804 views

In 1825, I Dewa Agung Gede Kusamba of Klungkung, the highest in the rank of Balinese princes, died at the end of a fifty-year reign. His cremation ceremony was said to be one of the most magnificent in Balinese history. Lower ranked monarchs from all other Balinese kingdoms attended the ceremonies and contributed generously to the rites. Although the King had quarreled incessantly with his nominally subordinate neighbors, the King of Badung and Gianyar, they nevertheless dispatched court Gambuh dancers and musicians to participate in the ceremony. The combined group created a special new performance for the cremation.

Gambuh performance on The 28th Annual Bali Arts Festival 2006

The innovation was called Dadap after the two dadap trees, traditionally associated with funeral rites on the island, which were planted at the opposite ends of the stage. The all- male company of dancers surprised and delighted the public by singing the dialogue of the play, as in Western opera. Dadap was a great success and thereafter performing groups were established in most of the court centres.

Gambuh performance on The 28th Annual Bali Arts Festival 2006

The new form came to be known as Arja and proved to be very popular among the general population. By the early twentieth century, it had spread all over the island, sponsored by villages and kin groups.

Unlike other Balinese dramas, Arja puts great emphasis on the vocal music, especially after 1920s when women replaced male performers in the principal roles. At the same time, the archaic Kawi language was replaced by Balinese, yielding a more popular and accessible medium. The introduction of female singer-dancers also inspired a new enthusiasm for Arja, for to Balinese ear, women’s voices are better suited to singing the tembang, or songs. The audience was also impressed by the beauty of the young female performers.

Arja performance on The 28th Annual Bali Arts Festival 2006

Arja is technically very demanding. Not only must the performer sing beautifully, but she must be able to dance well at the same time. She must coordinate the phrasing of the vocal line with the phrasing of the gesture, and fit both precisely to the musical accompaniment. Moreover, although the melodic patterns sung are pre-established, much of the content of the play is improvised during the performance. Long training and great inherent talent are therefore required.

Arja performance on The 28th Annual Bali Arts Festival 2006

A special feature of Arja performances is the humor and clowning. No fewer than eight clowns appear among the standard characters. Even the original Dadap, the prototype of Arja, produced for the cremation of I Dewa Agung Gede Kusamba contained an important satirical dimension. King Kusamba had two wives, one a beautiful princess from Badung, and other a stout matron from Karangasem. The second wife was as strong-willed and powerful as she was unattractive, and she was heartily disliked especially in Badung. The story chosen for Dadap performance at the cremation of the deceased was ‘Kasayang Limbur’ (Loves of the Ugly Queen); in it, the deceased King and his wife were discreetly satirized. Limbur who parodied the Queen of Karangasem, became a favorite type-character in Arja, along with her three comic attendants.

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