Topeng Dance | The Wars And Intrigues Of Balinese History

The most popular afternoon (matinee) entertainment, especially with the more serious type of men is  Topeng Dance, a masked play dealing with the exploits of local kings and warriors, episodes of the wars and intrigues of Balinese history (babad) . Two or three actors, usually aged men, play all the parts and impersonate all sorts of characters with great skill, from the halfwitted servants and petulant prime ministers, to the heroic kings and cultured young princes.

It was like magic to see an old man transform himself into a graceful young prince simply by putting on a mask and dancing with delicacy, only to come out again as a lisping and idiotic clown. There is a curious variety of Topeng, the padjegan, played by a single actor who impersonates all the characters. For this the usual curtain booth for the actors’ changes is erected at one end of the ” stage,” while the orchestra plays at the other end.

The actor sits inside’the booth, already in costume but not yet wearing a mask; there he prays, making an offering to the characters about to be played. He lights a stick of incense, dedicates the small offering be has brought with him, and decapitates a small chicken, spilling the blood on the ground. The gamelan begins to play. The masks are arranged in the required order on a basket, each wrapped in a piece of cloth.

The actor takes the first mask, puts it on, still wrapped, holding it with his teeth by a wooden knob, or a leather strap, fixed to the back of the mask. Before uncovering it, he stiffens and seems to go into a sort of trance, ” to enter into the character,” making dancing gestures with his head and hands. Suddenly he tears off the cloth, gets up, and after dancing for a short while behind the curtain, makes his appearance. This is done for each character, and each mask is carefully wrapped and put away after it is used.

This is not for showmanship since it is always done inside the booth and out of sight of the public. As the play develops, the various characters are introduced, starting with the usual clowns, the servants of the prime ministers of the kings involved. Only the clowns speak in topeng performances and they wear half-masks that leave the mouth free, while the finer characters use pantomime. The absurd clowns are clumsy, with stiff wild hair and bulbous noses: one is a shy little man with eyes bulging, who lisps and moves with birdlike gestures; the other is a coarse character with terrifying hollow eyes, large holes in his mask, through which the- actor’s own eyes can be seen.

He has an unkempt moustache:and a monstrous -hare-lip. After them appear the refined old men with red faces and masses of white hair, high-tempered prime ministers, and young princes with smiling, delicate white features. The personality of each character is sharply defined, with peculiar mannerisms expressed in stylized acting and through extremely realistic masks. But the curious part of the performance comes at the close.

Children in the front ranks begin to show alarm and, when the play is about to end, some get up and leave. The gamelan plays a special melody and the curtains part again. This time the pengedjokan appears; be wears the white mask of a grinning old man with protruding teeth, a mysterious smile, friendly and terrifying at the same time. He shakes constantly with laughter and shows a large roll of kepeng, pennies, with which be tries to lure the children, who all run as if for their lives.

He goes after them, chasing them far into the road, and if he captures one, carries him back to the dancing-place and gives the money to his frightened victim. I asked repeatedly for the significance of this curious character, but I never received a satisfactory explanation. The pengedjokan’s other names are Djero Dalam Pegek and Djero Dalam Truna (truna: bachelor), perhaps derived from some authentic character, a bachelor king of legend who liked children, but frightened them because of his appearance.

To be a bachelor after middle age is considered abnormal in Bali. The mask is very holy, or rather has magic power, and no one would dream of selling it. In general a good set of topeng masks is a treasure, since only the bests sculptors can make them. Learned Balinese have a high regard for the topeng as an art.

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