The History of Arja

The rival confronts Galuh and her friend

The rejected suitor confronts the heroine  in Katemu ring Tampaksiring

Introducing Arja Dance Drama to the West? 

I Wayan Dibia

Up till recently Arja, a sung dance drama (Dibia and Ballinger 2004: 84-85) integrating different elements of Balinese arts and cultures has remained an inaccessible art form for both non-Balinese and Western audiences. Partly this is because Arja traditionally enacts old stories mainly based on the Panji Romances (11-14th. centuries) and uses dialogue that is understood only by Balinese-speaking audiences. As a result, non-Balinese audiences may find this dramatic form difficult to enjoy. In my experience, with creative modifications, Arja dance drama can be staged anywhere and this dramatic form has an exciting potential to be enjoyed by audiences worldwide. 

This paper considers innovative changes in the presentation of Arja dance drama during the last two decades. By examining modernized Arja performances which enact modern Indonesian stories like Katemu Ring Tampaksiring (Meeting in Tampaksiring), first performed on 22nd. December 2004 in Singapadu, Gianyar, the paper aims to explain how Balinese performing artists have modified their Arja in order to make this dramatic form enjoyable to non-Balinese audiences, to turn Arja into a transnational theatrical form, and most importantly to keep this dramatic form alive in the changing world of Bali . 

Arja in Performance 

Arja is frequently referred to as operatic in nature (de Zoete and Spies 1972: 196) and is a form of total theatre, which holistically integrates elements of music, dance, and drama. To enact a story, Arja performers incorporate intricate vocal forms, stylized dance movements and elaborate spoken dialogue, in response to the elaborate, melodic, and dynamic gamelan music played on a chamber-like ensemble known as Gamelan Gaguntangan featuring two bamboo zithers called guntang (McPhee 1966). 

Most audiences in Bali consider Arja identical to vocal forms using traditional meters known as tembang . This is because this dramatic form is almost entirely sung and tembang is Arja's most essential element. Therefore one can say that Arja cannot exist without tembang . This also means that, to perform Arja, one must be able to sing tembang . In fact a crucial aspect of the skill of any Arja performer lies in their ability to sing tembang . 

Like the classical Gambuh dance drama, Arja has always been associated with the Panji dance drama. This is mainly because Malat or Panji Romances (from eleventh-century East Java) has been Arja's most important source of dramatic inspiration. This does not mean however that Arja confines its stories only to Panji. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, Arja began to enact stories derived from Balinese tales, Chinese and Arabic, and from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. During the last ten years, several times Arja performances have enacted Western and contemporary Indonesian stories. It is important to mention that, whatever the stories to be enacted, the episodes always revolve around a plot involving romantic intrigue and comic scenes. 

The dance movements utilized in Arja are based on, or are the simplification of, the dance vocabularies of the classical Gambuh and Lègong dances. When they appear on stage for the first time, each principal character performs a unique choreography set to a distinctive tembang. After the first entrance, during monologue and dialogue, the dance is improvised and simplified enough to underline the content as well as to convey the meanings of the tembang . 

The costumes for Arja are also based on those of the classical Gambuh and Lègong dances. All male characters wear a long split robe known as saput , and the females wear a wrap-around skirt with a long trail known as kamen makancut. The dominant colour of the costumes indicates the character type of each role who uses it: the refined or manis (sweet) characters have more green or blue, unlike their adversaries, the coarse and strong characters, collectively known as buduh (crazy), who have more red in their costumes. The headdresses also indicate both the social status and dramatic role of the character in the play. Broadly speaking, the characters wearing crown-like headdresses represent the people of higher status, the principals, and the characters with simpler headdress or headclothes represent the people of lower status, the maidservants and the buffoons. 

The foregoing indicates that Arja is a complex theatrical form. Integrating gamelan music, vocal form, story telling, dance and acting, Arja feeds the ears, eyes, and above all the minds of the onlookers. Moreover, when one watches Arja performance seriously, one may gain some understanding of the uniqueness and true complexity of Balinese performing arts. 

Innovation and Modification of Arja 

Arja, first of all, is a flexible dramatic form, in the sense that it can be adjusted and modified to meet the changing tastes and needs of audiences. This dramatic form allowsa certain amount of flexibility to the performers to introduce new ideas creatively into the performance in response to the requirements of the audience, without sacrificing the aesthetic principles of this dramatic form. 

In order to make Arja more accessible to, and understandable by, non-Balinese audiences, and to turn Arja into a transnational theatrical form, during the last twenty years Balinese artists, especially Arja performers, have creatively innovated and modified their art form. There are three main kinds of innovation among others: introducing contemporary stories, shortening the duration of the performance by condensing the play, and utilizing non-Balinese dialogue in the play. 

The historical development of Arja clearly shows that it is capable of presenting a remarkably wide range of stories from both classical and contemporary literature. As mentioned above, since the early decades of the twentieth century, Arja has enacted Chinese and Arabic stories. In the 1970s, Arja was also used to enact stories from the Ramayana. Since the early 1990s, some Arja performers have experimented with Greek plays (Phaedra by Euripides) and lately with contemporary Indonesian stories (for example Katemu Ring Tampaksiring). This strongly suggests that Arja can perform stories which originate from a diverse range of cultural traditions. It will not be too surprising therefore, if sometimes Arja is used to enact a play by Shakespeare. Besides appealing to a story whose dramatic theme is widely known to Western audiences, using Western play may in fact provide a new source of energy, life and inspiration to Arja. 

Four main scenes characterize the dramatic structure of an Arja performance. The first and the third scenes, usually serious in nature, are dedicated to the refined or alus characters (the heroine and the hero). In contrast, the second and the fourth scenes, usually full of humour and jokes, are for the strong and coarse or keras characters. These scenes indicate the importance of balance in Balinese culture. 

With its present-day performance structure, dominated by the introduction of individual characters, Arja performances may take four to five hours to complete. In this modern era, a performance of this length, which requires serious attention from the audience, can be very tiring - even for Balinese. In order to suit the needs of modern audiences therefore, Arja performance must be condensed by shortening its duration, by minimizing the repetitions of the choreographic structure, and by cutting the long solo entrances, especially of the non-leading roles. 

Perhaps the most important, but difficult, task for Balinese actors to undertake in order to make their traditional art forms accessible transnationally is to use non-Balinese dialogue - for example Bahasa Indonesia or even English - in the play. The best place to utilize languages which are immediately accessible to the audience would be in the dialogue of the maidservants and the buffoons, especially when they narrate the play and translate the High Balinese or Old Javanese (or Kawi ) language of their masters and mistresses, which is inaccessible even to many Balinese. In Balinese tradition, these characters are given great freedom to use whatever language they wish in their dialogue to explain what the play is about to the audience. So, in principle it is not problematic for these characters to utilize languages other than Balinese, including English to communicate with the audience. 


In conclusion, Arja is musically, theatrically and visually a very exciting art form. During the last twenty years, Arja performers have carefully innovated and modified their art form without losing or sacrificing its aesthetic strengths. This has been part of an attempt to make Arja enjoyable to audiences worldwide. With such innovations, perhaps it is now possible to stage Arja in such a way as to reach out to Western audiences. Because of its special place in the repertoire of Balinese performing arts, by seeing Arja in an accessible form, audiences worldwide may gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subtlety of the artistry and, most importantly, the unique quality and complexity of Balinese performing arts. 



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© Mark Hobart 2015