What is Arja?

Two servants: Condong (Lady-in-Waiting) and Wijil (Manservant)

Arja is one of Bali's many genres of dance drama and has proven one of the most popular and adaptable. Originally danced by males, by the 1920s women started to take on major parts. Women are so suited to Arja roles that gradually they also took over the refined male characters as well, making it in significant part theatre about and by women, to the point that in the 1990s all-male troupes of Arja performers re-emerged. Arja is singularly versatile. It may use Topèng masks (a version called Prèmbon). It is suited to historical or contemporary dramas, love stories (Indonesian, Chinese and Arabic), and even Greek tragedy.

For these reasons, while other genres have come into vogue and gone, Arja has continued to draw Balinese audiences for nearly a hundred years. Another reason is that it is total theatre. The music is simple, elegant (and very difficult to play). It requires great acting and dancing skills, not least because plots are extemporized on stage for up to five hours. The emotional repertoire is demanding as it runs from slapstick farce to sharp political jokes to romance and tragedy. And finally, Arja is operatic. All the main characters sing arias in a range of different Balinese metred verse forms, tembang, each with its distinctive emotional register - the professionals being so skilled that they can ad lib during performance as the plot twists and turns. Arja is so demanding and takes so long to learn that there are relatively few recognized top professionals. Indeed senior figures now worry for the future of Arja because young people are attracted to the easier dance roles popular with international audiences.

What Westerners know as Balinese dance is almost always the kebyar repertoire designed for the tourist market, not what Balinese themselves watch. The most consistently popular genre is Arja, which is the Balinese equivalent to Western classical ballet and opera rolled into one. Arja utilizes a range of classical metres, tembang , which give performance a distinctive and unforgettable tone. Arja is also extremely demanding, because performers must be first class dancers, singers and actors at the same time. Most of Bali 's great dancers were trained in Arja – Balinese say this is because, if you can dance Arja, you can dance anything! 

Arja is extremely versatile and used for classical and popular stories. It has a well-developed cast of characters. What is distinctive is that the hero and heroine only sing, they are translated and interpreted throughout by servants, who therefore play many of the key roles. Arja is also interesting for other reasons. Most of the central roles – male or female – are conventionally played by women. And many of the plots of Arja are about the private side of public life and stress the personal rather then the public, dynastic and official accounts of other genres. 

One of Balinesedance's initiatives has been to make Arja relevant both to contemporary Indonesians and to non-Indonesian audiences. The first stage was to use contemporary stories. For example in 2005 an all-star cast performed a modern short story, ‘They met in Tampaksiring' (Katemu ring Tampaksiring) at the International Bali Arts Festival (available on VCD from Bali Records. For a short clip, click here). On a US tours in 2006, Professor I Wayan Dibia and Ni Madé Pujawati worked on an Arja version of Oedipus Rex with the arias in English. In the future, they plan to use contemporary dress as well.


The History of Arja

Women and Arja

© Mark Hobart 2015