Wayang Wong: Devotion to the Creator through Arts

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Wayang wong
Illustration of wayang wong art in a cultural parade.

BALINESE community has a variety of performing arts presented as devotion to the Creator. One of them is wayang wong or human puppet. This art performance takes the theme from the story of Ramayana epics. Almost all the dancers put on masks. The accompanying gamelan in use is called batel wayang with selendro scales.

As the name suggests, wayang wong (literally means human puppet) is played by human figures that contain dialogues. Different from other traditional performing arts, in this wayang wong performance the dialogues of main characters are spoken in Old Javanese language which are then translated by the clowns into colloquial Balinese. The dialogues content are taken from the couplets of kekawin or narrative poems.

According to historians, this wayang wong dance is thought to have emerged in the mid-sixteenth century. It is said to start from the trance experienced by a confidant of Ida Bhatara or Deity who abides at the Pemaksan Temple of Tejakula, Buleleng. In that trance atmosphere, it was said that the supporting devotees of the temple were ordered to build wayang wong art to be performed at the temple and other temples at local village.

Under the direction of two artists who came to Tejakula namely I Gusti Ngurah Jelantik and I Dewa Batan, the local villagers and art figures initiated to establish a puppet art troupe. These two talented artists also made several wooden masks depicting characters in the Ramayana epic such as Rama, Laksmana, Wibisana, Sugriwa and others.

This Balinese wayang wong is considered sacred art because it is specifically performed in a temple ceremony. This sacred art is passed down from generation to generation or based on lineage. Uniquely, even though the dancers do not have the ability to dance and without the need for any learning process, when it’s time to dance they will be able to do it. Local people also call it taksu or divine inspiration.

Until these days, all the masks are still well maintained and kept sacred at Pemaksan Temple of Tejakula. So, it means to have been more than four centuries old.

Because it is sacred, the performances always takes place related to the piodalan at the temples in the Tejakula customary village area, the community can only watch the performances of wayang wong Ramayana in related to temple rituals and in limited places.

Then around the 1980s, a figure from Tejakula Village, Nyoman Tusan, initiated the making of duplicate of the wayang masks in response to the changing times. In this way, the wayang wong art can be performed outside the temple and for commercial purposes at every opportunity. Thus, it can be enjoyed by wider community, including tourists.

Since then, the art of wayang wong of Tejakula can be performed outside Tejakula and even outside Bali and abroad. More and more people favored this classical arts.

As a tribute to this classical and distinguished Balinese art, UNESCO has designated it as an intangible world cultural heritage. Probably, the pioneering artists did not think about it because they only focused on dancing or performing the arts to serve God or the Creator in accordance with the hints through trance at the temple.

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