Topèng and Bondrès - Masks

Below are several sets of masks used for different theatre genres.


Wood spirit sm


A wood sprite - Contemporary mask by I Madé Redha


About Topèng

Topèng, masked dance-drama, is one of Bali's most important genres, as it is used both for religious ceremonies and for the re-enactment of historical chronicles. The history of Topèng is, however, rather obscure. There are texts from the neighbouring island of Java and from Bali itself which indicate that masks of some kind have been used in theatre for hundreds of years. However, the texts they are supposed to have enacted, Babad, now turn out to be much more recent than previously supposed, dating to the latter half of the nineteenth century or twentieth century, where they were probably retrospective claims to territory and people. So we cannot be too sure what Topèng looked like in the pre-colonial period. 

Two forms of Topèng are particularly important. These are Topèng Pajegan, where an entire story is performed by one actor, who changes masks to impersonate the various characters of the story. Topèng Pajegan is usually performed for rites, while a Balinese high priest, Padanda, presents offerings and prepares holy water. Topèng Pajegan is distinctive for the last mask to appear: Sida Karya, the Completion of the Work, a wild-looking character (see attached set). Another is Topèng Panca, ‘five masks' in which five men play the various roles from the refined king and the strong minister to Topèng Tua, an old man who remembers his youth when he was still vigorous, this last being a wonderful opportunity for expressive dancing. A genre which has flourished recently is Bondrès, clown masks, of which there are a great variety and which permit more modern demotic stories to be told. 

These Topèng comprise full masks. So the characters cannot speak. This task is left to their servants, Panasar, who are normally elder and younger brothers, distinguished as kelihan or simply Panasar and cenikan or Wijil. Although the servants are low caste (as in the shadow theatre, Wayang Kulit) and notionally inferior to their aristocratic masters, they play a pivotal role which includes advising their lords and masters. They also frame the plot, comment on events within the play and in real life, and speak direct to the audience. The servants, Panasar, have become more or less standard fixtures in contemporary Balinese theatre from Arja to Derama Gong.

© Mark Hobart 2015