Women and Arja

The Princess (Galuh) confiding in her Lady-in-Waiting (Condong)

Arja: theatre where women rule 

Mark Hobart & Ni Madé Pujawati 

Whatever the vicissitudes of fashion to which Balinese theatre is prone, one genre, Arja, has remained popular with audiences over the decades. Temporarily eclipsed, during the late 1970s and ‘80s, by flashier new forms which were less demanding of spectators, like Derama Gong and Séndratari, Arja enjoyed a resurgence in the nineties. This was evident for instance in the frequency and quality of televised and live performances, and from the large and appreciative audiences. So what is special about Arja? And in what might its appeal lie?  It is always easier to retrodict than to predict. This said, while Derama Gong was easily accessible to audiences with its vernacular Balinese language and popular slap-stick routines, for all its demotic trappings it reiterated a world of unquestioned hierarchy and authority, set in a timeless and imaginary past. Séndratari, the spectacular dance-dramas with their big choreographed set pieces, promoted most notably by STSI and KOKAR, were closely associated with the New Order régime (Hough 1992). The sight of an entire cast silently miming to the words of a single dalang was eerily reminiscent of the New Order's vision of culture (Hobart 2000).

Passions and predicaments 

By contrast Arja ranks among the wayah, old or mature, forms of theatre with Gambuh and Topéng. In the 1930s, De Zoete and Spies described arja as follows: 

Among the many forms of Balinese dance-drama Ardja corresponds most nearly to our idea of opera, or rather of musical comedy. It is almost entirely sung, and good voices, lively dancing, brilliant clowning, and occasionally pretty girls, make it almost the most popular of dance-forms among the Balinese. The word Ardja calls up the sound of high-pitched, wailing melodies, a peculiar swinging cadence of the speaking voice, the slow coiling dance of flower-crowned figures who droop frequently in lamentation; impassioned chidings and chastisings, but above all, alas, interminable hours of verbal clowning. 

A strongly sentimental note runs through Ardja, and sentimental situations are developed as nowhere else on the Balinese stage. There is something of the comedy of manners in its construction...the plot is more developed than in any other play. Whereas in Gamboeh a very small section of a story is ushered in and out again by an overwhelming dance ritual, and in Topeng an intense dramatic moment is set among a grand parade of dancing masks, Ardja generally shows the sequence of a play from beginning to end. The accent in Ardja is on the intrigue, on the story, on the singing, instead of the wonderful counterpoint of music and dance, which is so great a fascination in Baris and Topeng. (1938: 196-7). 

While Arja makes extensive use of similar historical and literary Javanese and Balinese sources as Gambuh and Topèng, the plots may also be more modern, including, for instance, Chinese tales. More than other older genres though, Arja dwells on the private face of public life, the personal motivations and emotional conflicts that underlie appearances. Arja plots often draw upon the Panji stories, or else use their conventions to set the scene, down to the names of the kingdoms, Kuripan, Daha, Jenggala or Singasari and their rivals Pajarakan or Metaum. While foreign scholars (and some Balinese) tend to label these as respectively ‘good' and ‘bad', performers and aficionados distinguish them differently. 

The conflict that drives Arja depends on there being at least two rival parties, one of which is, or strives to be, dharma, honest, virtuous, dutiful, of the right, tengawan. So they are 'manis', sweet, good-natured. The other is adharma: its members lack such scruples and are prepared to use whatever means serve their often dubious ends. Notably, they resort to techniques of arcane power, or sakti, associated with the left, tengébot . 

Significantly, however, they are also mad, buduh, which in Balinese has a double meaning. The denizens of Pajarakan and Metaum are both unbalanced in the sense of insane and also driven to ignore the bounds of propriety and self-awareness by their desires and impulses. The implicit links between immorality, madness and power enables actors to explore complex resonances in performance. So Arja is not just a repertoire of diverting tales about passion and predicaments, but it allows actors - depending on their skill, inclination and their sense of the audience - to reflect more philosophically upon considerations of the motivation and consequences of human action itself. 

Performing Arja 

Among the distinctive features of Arja, two perhaps deserve special mention. Singing is so central to Arja that it is usually described as ‘opera'. The plot is elaborated around songs, delivered in a range of different metres, tembang. Many of the key pieces are extrapolated from sources in kawi (the literary language used in Java and Bali , often known as ‘Old Javanese'), others are written more recently. 

However the mark of really fine Arja singers is their ability to extemporise on the spot as the plot unfolds. Doing so well is peculiarly difficult, because not only is the final vowel of each line fixed, but so are the number of syllables. Also, according to other conventions, some or all other syllables may be fixed, as is their relative duration when sung. Ad libbing songs requires a prodigious familiarity with, and skill in handling simultaneously, language, metre and music, in ways which are quite different from European opera. 

A striking feature of Arja is that, nowadays at least, the cast is usually almost all female, including the romantic male lead, the prince or Mantri. From most accounts, in the 19th century arja was danced exclusively by males but, with the advent of a number of particularly fine women singer-dancers in the 1920s and ‘30s, male actors became mostly confined to the roles of the coarser servants or clowns, the Panasar and Wijil. Cross-dressing, bebancihan, however remains a distinctive part of Arja performance. For instance, an all-male troupe of students, Arja Cowok, from STSI scored a hit in 1997 with a televised performance of Siti Markonah.


Whether felicitously or not, the predominance of female actors is most appropriate because female character is differentiated and developed in Arja in a way that is unmatched anywhere else in Balinese theatre. There are five quite distinct female roles in almost all performances, comprising two servants and three royal, or leading parts.  


Katemu Condong sm

The first person out on stage is almost always the Condong. She is a low caste servant, wose role varies from Lady-in-Waiting to the nurse or nanny to the heroine, Galuh, whom she still looks after, and whose kawi she translates, just as the male servants, Panasar, and Wijil, do for the king. Actors tend to agree that the roles of Condong and Panasar are the hardest to play is suggested in the common etymology of Panasar as the person who is the dasar, base or basis. n Arja the Condong is the foundation in several senses. She is the first person on stage and must establish the background and explain what is going on. As Arja is extemporised, apart from the main songs, the actors have the task of relating to the particular audience that evening, feeling their mood and to what they respond well and badly. It falls to the Condong to lay this foundation, while the rest of the cast listens attentively backstage. Again, if there is a hiatus, the plot wanders or the audience start to get bored, the condong has to intervene. Crucially, the two key characters, the princess and prince, only sing in kawi. he task of ngartiang , ‘translating', falls to their servants, a far more complex business than simply translating, because the servants have to elaborate at length on brief sung phrases. The Condong sings mostly in the versatile metre of pangkur, which can register feelings as varied as anger and longing. 


Only in Arja is there a second, and quite distinct, kind of female servant, who waits on the senior women. Although her status is not made explicit, she is addressed as Madé Rai, and her bold behaviour is consonant with her being of aristocratic descent but by a secondary wife of lower status. Unlike the Condong, who always speaks respectfully to her mistress, the Désak is prepared to say exactly what she thinks.  

Indeed, actors compare her to the key figure of Balinese shadow theatre, Twalén, the senior servant to the Pandawa, who is the incarnation of Divinity (commonly Sang Hyang Wismaya). Like Twalén, Madé Rai speaks the truth, even if people do not want to hear it. She is licensed to rip aside the mask of manners and appearances, whether within the context of the play or within Balinese society at that moment, and tell things as they are. Perhaps to diffuse the danger in such a role, while her thinking is sharp, the Désak's speech is ngacuh, undisciplined, all over the place. Audiences have to sift out the unvarnished truth from remarks going off in all directions. The Désak sings in dangdang (see the Galuh below). 


She is a mature figure, a queen or mother, with a deep voice and a commanding presence. However, she is also strange, aéng, which is appropriate as she is often plotting something distinctly fishy. The Limbur may be either the real mother of the mad prince or princess, or else she may be the step-mother in the court of the hero or heroine. The most interesting aspect of her role however hinges on a pun, when she is a co-wife with the heroine, Galuh, and demands to be kalimburang , to be comforted and cared for by her husband to the exclusion of her co-wife. De Zoete and Spies described her as masculine to the point of wearing a man's sarong (1938: 197). However her deep voice (suara gedé) signifies age and she actually wears a woman's sarong and a short top, unique to her role. She sings in the angry and fierce (galak) metre of durma. 


The Puteri (Princess or heroine) known in Arja as the Galuh is one of two characters who never speak, but only sing. Even if she is not a princess, she is sufficiently well placed to have a servant, the Condong, who paraphrases her. As the heroine, or romantic female lead, she should be beautiful, lansing lanyar , with a soft willowy figure and a sweet and renyah (fragile) voice. In order for there to be a plot, inevitably she encounters difficulties, not least the envy of other women, who compete for the attention of her beloved, the hero, or Mantri. Once again a pun lies at the heart of her role. The Galuh is the galah , opportunity or occasion, for an argument or fight. As one old Arja actor put it, whether in theatre or in life, men fight over women. And women fight for the attention of men. The Galuh usually sings in dangdang, which is sweet, drawn out, soft and gentle (luwes) and, when sung well, enchanting. 


The most diverting, eccentric, and popular character is the mad - and ugly - princess. For a skilled actress, it offers enormous range, from the vain and ridiculous to gauche vulnerability and petulant self-centredness. Unwashed, obsessively desiring the hero, and not above rolling around on the floor in a tantrum, the Liku instantiates every spoilt Balinese child. Again the hinge of many stories is when her crying and sulking over the hero's lack of interest moves her indulgent parents to use nefarious means to placate her. Indeed there is one form of what Balinese now call 'magik' known as kalikuan , designed to make someone, who previously did not care, mad about you. Unlike her servant, the Désak, whose speech is all over the place, the Liku thinks, speaks and acts confused. She sings in pangkur, which is suitably versatile for her range.  


By contrast to the rich variety of female characters, the three male roles seem quite tame and constrained. When I have asked Balinese actors about the role of the prince, they are curiously muted. It is he who wields power (ngawé wenang), whose authority is unchallenged. So he encompasses everything. What can you say about him? He permits of no comparison. He is beyond description. Appropriately therefore he only sings, mostly in kawi , the task of expatiating on what he says being left to his servants. In some plots there is a mad prince, Mantri Buduh (left), who, unlike his refined counterpart, may also speak.  

The Mantri usually sings in sinom, a tembang noted for being slow and beautifully modulated. It attracts (nudut ati) and absorbs and enchants (ngulangunin) the audience. In contrast to the sweetness of the prince's movements and singing (his soubriquet is Mantri Manis), the mad prince's gestures are violent and abrupt and, like the Limbur (often his mother), he sings in durma. 

The male servants - Panasar and Wijil

These are the servants of the prince and the only characters nowadays played by males. In Arja Prèmbon the Panasar, with his younger brother or partner Wijil, is the anchor of the play as a whole. Here the responsibility rests first and foremost with the condong. Just as she has to paraphrase, explicate and intercede between her mistress and both the other protagonists and the audience, so do the Panasar and Wijil for the princes. The Panasar conventionally sings in the fierce metre of durma, while Wijil is free to choose his tembang . 

Even this brief sketch of the main roles should give some idea of the richness, complexity and nuance of Arja plays. Like almost all Balinese theatre, up till recently it has been set in timeless world of hierarchy and authority - singularly congenial to the New Order régime - where rulers are rulers and everyone else is afraid. However, while theatre depicts and celebrates the privileged world of courts and rulers, in the more classic genres like Wayang, Gambuh and Arja, the aristocrats can only speak in registers that have little to do with the spoken language of the island. The great movers and shakers of the earth turn out to be so trapped within a recondite and remote world that it is left to ordinary folk to explicate, interpret and act on their behalf. The purer power becomes, the less it is able to articulate itself. 

The plots of Arja often reiterate a Balinese world where males, whether royal or otherwise, hold unquestioned power. As in other genres of theatre, women for the most part are supposed, as are servants and followers, to support and comfort ( ngalimburang ), their husbands, fathers and brothers, and bear the responsibility for passion and its predicaments. 

As with batik however, is it the absences which make the pattern? Closer analysis of what is actually said suggests the possibility of a more radical interpretation. In exploring the ways in which women are interpolated in structures of power, in showing how decisions are made and the public face of authority constructed, Arja invites members of the audience to reconsider idealised, and phallocentric, representations of the natural order of things. More than any other Balinese theatre Arja exposes the fragility of the workings of power itself, which turns out to be motivated by concerns it cannot acknowledge. Arja tells us, if we listen carefully, that power is a spectacle which rests upon complex motives and passions - and it is the realm that women understand and where they often rule. 


Barthes, R. 1973. Mythologies . trans. A. Lavers, London : Paladin. 

Hobart , M. 2000. After culture. In After culture - anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. Yogyakarta: Duta Wacana Press. For online version, click here.

Hough, B. 1992. Contemporary Balinese dance spectacles as national ritual . Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Working Paper 74. 

© Mark Hobart 2015