When you attend a temple festival in Bali, your ears will be filled with sweet and melodious voices of kakawin singers. The scale of ceremony in Bali can be measured by the appearance of kakawin singers group. A big scale ceremony usually use the service more than one kakawin singer group (pesantian).
By the way, what is kakawin? Kakawin is a form of old Javanese poetry with a metre originating from India. They were composed and performed in Java and Bali from the 8th century until the now (still widely performed in Bali but not in Java). A kakawin stanza consists of four lines.
Each line has a set number of syllables per line, set in patterns of long and short syllables based on Sanskrit rules of prosody. A syllable which contains a long vowel is called guru (Sanskrit for “heavy’) while a syllable which contains a short one is called laghu (Sanskrit for “light”). The term guru laghu denotes the structure of a line.
The main themes of Kakawin are love and war though many moral values and religious concepts inserted here and there by the author. The characters in the kakawin are mainly gods, heroes and demons where the affairs of the human, the divine and the demonic intersect.
The vast majority of the kakawin are derived their stories from the Mahabharata epic, particularly the adventures of the five Pandawa brothers, Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna and the twins Sahadewa and Nakula, and their battle against their cousins the Korawa. Some kakawin were based on Ramayana epic.
Later innovation brought many new stories as a resource for the kakawin, such as babad (history), Panji story, fable, and newly composed moral stories. A group of people called pesantian, nowadays, sings the kakawin in Bali. As in other Balinese form of art performance, Kakawin is sung using Kawi (old Javanese) language, a translator is provided to translate the Kawi sentence into high or middle Balinese.
At a temple festival the performance of this Pesantian is never paid, their performance is a service to the God. In a household ceremony such as marriage or cremation their service is appreciated by a set of offering called peras, again their performance is considered as service to the community. Government or private institution usually holds a kakawin singing competition (utsawa dharma gita).
There is always a competition every month in Bali especially in Bali Arts Festival. Though the there development of pesantian is increased rapidly in Bali but most of the singers are adult (over 30 years old), younger generation especially the teenagers are reluctance to join a pesantian.
The stigma “kakawin is for an old man” deeply attached in the mind of most Balinese teenagers. A lamentable situation for the continuity of the pesantian.