By Yusuf Susilo Hartono
JAKARTA (JP): The Balinese traditional mask dance is far from extinction, on the contrary, it is very much alive and on the rise.
Despite the onslaught of popular art through various channels of culture, especially via communications and audio-visual media, the Balinese people are still able to preserve and even further develop one of their own cultural properties: the hundreds-of years-old mask dance.
Arts observer Wayan Dibia, also director of the Indonesian Arts Institute (STSI) in Denpasar, recorded that in the past 10 years, he had seen the emergence of a new genre in the Balinese traditional mask dance, called Topeng Bondres (Bondres Mask) by the locals.
It has acquired this appropriate name due to the rich content of humor and jokes.
In comparison, the other three mask dances -- Topeng Prajekan, Topeng Arja and Topeng Prembon, which are deeply rooted in Balinese culture and society -- do not feature humor and jokes as major elements.
In Topeng Bondres, humor and jokes play a foremost role, or in other words are not used as mere interludes, but as ""the main product sold in the business"".
It is interesting to observe that the rise of Topeng Bondres is in line with and in the same era of the growth of comedy programs broadcast by television stations throughout Indonesia.
The question is, whether these comedy programs, like Srimulat, the late Lenong Rumpi and the latest Ketoprak Humor have triggered and spurred Topeng Bondres or whether each has flourished simultaneously but in different places.
Dibia tends to emphasize the latter.
""In parallel with the growth and development of Bondres, we can see the increasing quantity of television programs that contain comedy and humor. I think there is a certain correlation with the public need for such entertainment, as today's trend indicates the public's greater interest and preference for anything with humor and jokes,"" he commented, during the recent performance of Topeng Prembon Bon Bali at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta.
In one of the program's dance numbers, he performed Topeng Dalem with refined and deeply touching movements.
The past 10 years have witnessed a befuddled and unsettling situation in the nation, with members of society experiencing heavy stress and needing an outlet. Probably the performing arts and entertainment, heavily loaded with humor, can act as the release valve for the stresses of everyday living, albeit momentarily.
Dibia cited another example of a traditional performing art, which is highly entertaining for the relevant locals: Mamanda from East Kalimantan. Just like Topeng Bondres to the Balinese, or Srimulat and Ketoprak Humor to Jakartans and the Javanese, Mamanda is filled with ripples of laughter from end to end.
However, if we have not come across popular comedians from Bali or East Kalimantan -- aside from Si Yon, a Manadonese, that is another matter.
Present facts show that current kings of comedy are still dominated by Javanese, for example Asmuni, who is from Jombang, and Tarzan, Gogon, Bagito, Jojon up to Topan and Leysus. The rising popularity of Topeng Bondres in Bali has not hampered the blossoming of previous traditional mask dances.
According to Dibia's observations, the other three mask dances also indicate significant developments made possible by the involvement of new and young dance arrangers. Another triggering factor in the lively increase of mask dances is the activities related to religious rituals, at temples or at homes, as well as tourism. In the case of Topeng Bondres, which is currently enjoying the highest peak of popularity, it is performed almost everywhere.
""Today, a program at most homes, however small, includes Topeng Bondres,"" was Dibia's comment on today's reality in Bali.
Up to now, however, no specific, detailed data has been collected in relation to the total number of performances of Topeng Bondres or its audience. But, according to Dibia, one can very well imagine how the Balinese are having the laughter of their life amid the political squabbles of the elite in Jakarta.
The flexible Prembon
While Topeng Bondres relies heavily on humor, the mainstay of Topeng Prembon is in its flexibility in blending the ancient Balinese traditions - hundreds of years old and imbedded in Balinese local culture.
Topeng Prembon is described as flexible due to its mixture of Arja and mask dance and that is why its wide range of flexibility encompasses almost anything. Thus, a character is not a primary factor, but rather the synchronization of available players renders it more flexible. As one could see from the performance of Topeng Prembon Bon Bali at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta, male dancers, Topeng dancers and Legong dancers were all wrapped into one whole Prembon performance, still incorporating humorous segments.
The word bon (borrow) has been added, hence the term Topeng Prembon Bon Bali, as most of the cast has been borrowed from various sources and included names like I Gusti Ngurah Windia (from Topeng Tugek Carangsari), Ida Bagus Gede Mambal, I Wayan Gerja, I Nyoman Wija, Jero Ratna, Jero Murniasih and Ni Wayan Tirta, as well as guest-starring Balinese dance maestros I Wayan Dibia and I Made Jimat.
The main drama Kraton Penatih was preceded by the enchanting performance of I Nyoman Dibia in his dance number Tarian Topeng Dalem, followed by a Puspi Wresti dance, and a Gesuri dance brought by Sekehe Gong Bon Jakarta under the coordination of IGB Adi Perbawa, head of sub-directorate in the Department of Culture and Tourism.
""The inclusion of humor in Topeng Prembon is highly possible, just like when we do so in Indonesian theatrical performances in general. It is all right to use jokes from the 21st century in a drama set in the 16th century.
""To me, dramas set in the past can always be relived in now-and-today's actualities, and not looked upon as ancient relics but very much alive, although only their reflections,"" Dibia asserted.
So what we see is not a story of the past, but today's stories set against the previous age or period. The flow might be of the past, but the content and its expressions are connected to today, he asserted. Viewed from the Western theatrical concept, this might be regarded as a shortcoming, because of the lack of time and space.
But let Eastern and Western concepts each live on their own merits, just as the Eastern theatrical concept stands on its own unique principle, like having no rigid classification or grouping, which thus makes it non-linear.
Finally, the rising popularity of Topeng Bondres with its outright humor and the enduring Topeng Prembon, due to its flexibility, make us fully conscious that traditions are really never static. It is inherent in the traditions that the ongoing renovation efforts are in tune with the latest and newest challenges of the current era.