Masks or topeng, as they are known as in Bali, are popular crafted souvenirs sold in various forms in almost every art shop or gallery around the island. The range is diverse, from those that take on the forms of animal faces to imaginary creatures, either in the traditional or pop art sense. These topeng have developed over the years from the more classical masks that are used in Balinese dance.
In epistemology, topeng means to cover ones face in order not to be recognized by others. The covering can be made from wood, paper, cloth or other materials found within the island and used to create human and animalistic facial expressions. However, the most popular topeng in Bali are those used by dance and drama artists to portray their characters in accordance to their performance.
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Many topeng dancers take on historical characters from ancient scriptures. The figures from Balinese tales are familiar to the audience as they are not only heroic, but have also been immortalized through other traditional arts.
The topeng performance of pajegan is a complete story by a single performer that requires up to 35 different masks to be worn in sequence. The first mask to the stage is the topeng keras, which is the storyteller. Next is the topeng tua who symbolizes a frail, wise old man who has experienced much in his long life. The player follows an improvised dialogue, similar to modern theatre, with the plot and scenario varying with each performance.
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There is usually always a topeng dalem, portraying the character of a noble king who is preceded by his shrewd advisor the topeng pendeta. The general community is also represented on stage by the topeng dukuh, who comes out as a lowly worker. This particular character’s life is full of ups and downs, yet he is content enough with his simple existence.
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The topeng bondres is a humorous character whose crazy jokes and antics bring entertaining elements to each performance. The audience responds to his distorted facial expressions through the use of a cross-eyed and buck-toothed mask. Some topeng performers are natural comedians and create topical scenarios and satires that poke fun at politicians and current trends. The topeng bondres gives endless advice and tells bawdy jokes that make him the most popular character.
A topeng performance eventually concludes with the emergence of the topeng sidakarya.This character perfects the performance with his specific attributes symbolizing Wisnu Murthi, the manifestation of God, as he reinstates the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.
The topeng dance is performed to accompany ceremonies or temple festivals that are an integral part of the Balinese lifestyle. However, as pure entertainment the bondres character is often performed separately, especially at a wedding to inject some lighthearted fun for guests and villagers.
The topeng dance also functions as an educational medium to assist the development of the local people. There are numerous interpretations of this dance and the performers are obliged to maintain them in order for this unique aspect of Balinese art and culture to ultimately survive during these changing times.