Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barong and Keris Theatre Performance (2009), and some original documents of the 1930's by Rose and Miguel Covarrubias.

Barong performance (By Gustavo Thomas. Bali, 2009)

In the summer of 2009 I recorded several performances of a large variety of Balinese Performing Arts.  Since then I've been publishing many of those videos linked with some documents, recorded in the 1930's, by Mexican Researcher Miguel Covarrubias. Today I want to retake 'the Balinese subject' with a very attractive and in some way very impressive performance of Balinese theatre: Barong, and Keris.  

I called it 'Barong and Keris theatre performance' instead of 'dance performance' because they are actually a mix (as we Westerners see Performing arts) between dance and a theatre play, which are usually not differentiated in Balinese performing arts.

The Barong is a character of Hindu-Balinese mythology, the name of a mythic Balinese lion, a divine monster. It is a very recognizable figure everywhere in Bali because of its costume, so impressive and spectacular, with its long body (similar to that of the traditional Chinese festivity lion) made with different types of palm threads, its vivid and horrid mask, and its decoration with gold and mirrors (see Covarrubias's description bellow). Every visitor to any temple or palace in Bali feels the inevitable need to stop and observe that impressive Barong costume hanging in its pedestal over the Gamelan instruments, waiting for the evening performance.

Barong costume at Ubud Royal Palace (By Gustavo Thomas. Bali, 2009)

Keris (kris or kriss), meaning 'knife' or 'dagger'  is the name of a trance dance, famous for its dancers hurting themselves with a 'keris" while they are in trance. One of the most striking photographs of a Balinese performer is that of a Keris dancer performing, published in "A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology" by Nicola Savarese.

Keris performer (A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. Nicola Savarese Archive.)


In the 1930's Covarrubias filmed one of many versions of Barong performed during a temple festivity. Here are the only 50 seconds that are known to remain from of those recordings (the voice is not part of the original):

Covarrubias also wrote in his book "Island of Bali" a comprehensive description of Barong, the character, and of its dance, including the final "Keris", a description I'd like to share with you as an introduction of the performance you are going to see:

"The witch has a contender for supremacy in a fantastic animal, a mythical "lion" called Barong. Because of an ancient feud with Rangda, he sides with human beings to thwart her evil plans, and the Balinese say that without his help humanity would be destroyed. While Rangda is a female, the magic of the "left", the Barong is the "right", the male. Rangda is the night, the darkness from which emanate illness and death. The Barong is the sun, the light, medicine, the antidote of evil.
Every community owns a set of the costumes and masks of both characters. These masks have great power in themselves and are keep out of sight in a special shed in the death temple of the village. They are put away in a basket, wrapped in a magic cloth that insulates their evil vibrations, and are uncovered only when actually in use, when the performer-medium is in trance and under control of a priest, and not before offering have been made to prevent harm to the participants. At the feasts of the death temples their masks are uncovered and exhibited in one of the shrines. It is good precaution to sprinkle these masks with holy water when someone is sick in the village.
Like the Rangda, the Barong is treated with great respect and the Balinese address him by titles such as Banaspati Radja, "Lord of the jungle", or as Djeró Gedé, "The Big One", rather than as Barong, which is only a generic name for his sort of monster.
Despite his demoniac character, the Barong materializes in a trance play in which he is made to act foolishly and to dance for the amusement of the crowd. His costume consists of a great frame covered with long hair, with a sagging back of golden scales set with little mirrors. A beautifully arched gold tail sticks out of his rump and from it hang a square mirror, a bunch of peacock feathers, and a cluster of little bells that jingle at every move. Under a high gilt crown is his red mask, too small for his body, with bulging eyes and snapping jaws. The power of the Barong is concentrated in his beard, a tuft of human hair decorated with flowers. The Barong is animated by two specially trained men who form the front and hind quarters of the animal, the man in front operating the mask with his hands.
In Penetjutan the Barong play began with a performance of djauk, a group of boys wearing grinning white masks, who danced to the delicate tunes of a legong orchestra called in this case bebarongan. After the dance the two Barong performers went under the costume that lay inanimate on two poles, the mask covered  by a white cloth. Like a circus prop-horse, the Barong danced, wiggling his hind quarters, lying down, contracting and expanding like an accordion, snapping his jaws, and in general behaving in a comic, rather than undignified manner for his awesome character. After his gay outburst of animal spirits, he began a long dance, staring around as if astounded by magic visions that filled the air. He was constantly on the alert of invisible enemies, growing more and more alarmed, clicking his teeth like castanets as the tempo of the music increased. Firecrackers began to explode at the far end of the arena, startling the Barong, and when the smoke cleared, the figure of Rangda appeared, yelling curses at the Barong, who appeared humiliated by her insults. But eventually he reacted and they usually rushed at each other, fighting and rolling on the ground until the Barong was made to bit the dust.
In the meantime a group of half-naked men sitting on a mat went into a trance. They were assistants of the Barong against Rangda. A priest consecrated some water by dipping the Barong's beard in it, and sprinkled the men, who shook al over as if an epileptic fit. With their eyes glued on the Rangda, they got up, drawing their krisses, advancing like fidgety automatons towards the witch, who awaited them ready with her white cloth, her weapon, ready in her raised hand. Suddenly she ran after them, but just then one of the priests on watch noticed something unusual in her behaviour and passed the word the she was out of control. She was caught by a group os strong men and led away, but not before she had put a spell on the entranced men by joining the thumbs of her outstretched hands and yelling a curse.
By the spell, the krisses on the hands of the men turned against them, but the magic of the Barong hardened their flesh so that, although they pushed the sharp points of the daggers with all their might against their naked chest, they were not even hurt. (...) Some leaped wildly or rolled in the dust, pressing the krisses against their breasts and crying like children, tears streaming from their eyes. Most showed dark marks where the point of the dagger bruised the skin without cutting it, but blood began to flow from the breast of one, the signal for the watchmen to disarm him by force.
(...) To take the men out of the trance, they were led, one by one, to where the Barong stood; someone sucked the bleeding chest of the wounded man and stuck a red flower in the cut. The pemangku wiped the face of each man with the beard of the Barong dipped in holy water, and gradually the hysterical men came out of the trance, dazed, simply walking away as if they did know what had happened to them."


Now, some photographs of Barong and Keris by Rose Covarrubias (Miguel's wife) taken during their travel to Bali in the 1930's. You can notice part of the 'process' of the trance in the Keris performers:

Barong and Keris Performance (By Rose Covarrubias)

Barong and Keris Performance (By Rose Covarrubias)
Barong and Keris Performance (By Rose Covarrubias)
Barong and Keris Performance (By Rose Covarrubias)
Barong and Keris Performance (By Rose Covarrubias)


What I saw in July 2009 at Kloncing Temple (Pura Kloncing) in Ubud was undoubtedly Barong and Keris, but with a change in their original motor as a religious work, now performed like any other theatre play addressed to tourists, even though its original structure remains almost intact (as you will see it if you compare my recordings with Covarrubias's description), resulting in a spectacular and surprising performance. 

This is what the performance's program says about the story to see (some parts of it were illegible):

"The drama performed by the Truna Suka Duka troupe is drawn from an early story in the Mahabarata epic, though the opening scene of the Barong and the monkey serves only as an introduction.
The story begins once the Sisian dancers appear. The Kurowa brothers, who are the antagonist in the Mahabarata, have petitioned the goddess Durga to spread disease and destruction in Indra Pasta, the kingdom of the five heroic Pandawa brothers. The Sisian, as Durga's servants, fulfill the Kurowa's request.
Meanwhile, in the palace of the kingdom of Indra Prasta, the Pandawas are meeting to decide how to respond to the disruption of the family temple ceremony by the Sisian. (...) Kunti, the mother of the Pandawa brothers becomes possessed by one of Durga's demons and in a fit of rage demands that the Primer Minister sacrifices Sahadewa to Durga. Initially, the Prime Minister resists, but he becomes possessed and attacks Sahadewa.
Sahadewa faints while being beaten and tied up by the Prime Minister, but is visited by a High Priest while unconscious. The priest is an emanation of the god Siwa and has been sent to empower Sahadewa so Durga cannot kill him.
Durga arrives in the middle of the night, accompanied by her Buta Kala demons, intent on killing and eating Sahadewa. When Durga discovers that she cannot kill Sahadewa, she recognizes that he was blessed by her husband, the god Siwa. She then asks Sahadewa to free her from her earthly physical form so that she can be reunited with Siwa.
After killing Durga, and while on his way back to the palace, Sahadewa meets Durga's servant Kalika on the road. Kalika also requests a purifying death as a way of entering heaven, but Sahadeva refuses, knowing that Kalika's responsibility is as the guardian of the graveyard and the king of the Buta Kala demons.
Enraged Kalika challenges Sahadewa to battle, but it is not strong enough to win and turn to flee. He turns himself into a pig and the a Garuda bird to escape, but Sahadewa still pursues him. Finally, he transforms himslef into Rangda, who is an emanation of Durga. When Sahadewa becomes the Barong, an emanation of Siwa, the forces of chaos and order are rebalanced and the story concludes.
The closing event of the drama is the emotionally charged Kris trance, during which the Barong and Ragda, as representatives of Siwa and his consort Durga, reestablish equilibrium. (...)"


The following slideshow offers a comprehending view of the performance (you can see each of the 113 photographs on my flickr page, just click the link). Thanks to the possibility of taking still photographs from the video, and adding those images I couldn't take with my camera, I was able to reconstruct almost the entire line of the events of the performance.


I split the whole recording in three parts, specially to avoid making it a strenuous watching (I know real life is not the same in video), and I also cut a short musical introduction and a 5-minute offering dance, but the whole performance is there, I didn't edit anything as it was possible to record it all from the beginning to the end. The first two videos are only short looks of what happened before the performance. Take your time and enjoy it little by little:

2009-07-22th Bali Ubud Pengtegal Baris Dance Introduction from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

Indonesia and Bali: Barong Performance from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

Keris Dance Performance in Ubud, Bali from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

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