Topeng Babad Today, The Living Masks of Bali: Chapter 05

Dewi Dian Reich
Dewi Dian Reich

Founder of Sawidji Artist Collective and Gallery. She serves as Director/Curator of Sawidji and Co.

The Mask Drama Dance..

It is thought that the first performance of Topeng Babad was in the 17th century during the reign of King Dalem Sagening who ruled the Kingdom of Gelgel during the years of 1580-1665. The Mask Drama Dance is a form of Balinese Dance Ritual that takes the form of a traditional theatrical performance. Balinese of all ages are familiar with this Dance.

The Dance is called ‘Topeng Babad’. ‘Topeng’ meaning ‘Mask’ which is an oval shaped object (in this instance a mask that is made of wood) is affixed to the face and covers the face of the dancer almost completely. Whereby it transforms into another form. ‘Babad’ is a literary genre from which the stories and subject of the dance is sourced, hence why this Mask Drama Dance is called ‘Topeng Babad’.

‘Babad’… an explanation

Babad is a literary genre. Especially in Javanese culture. Usually, it consists of a mixture of history, mythology as well as belief. These chronicles, as one would describe them, are mostly written in ‘Macapat’ or Poetry, but some are written in ‘Gancaran‘ or Prose Form. The Babad that is referred to in Topeng Babad is from ‘Babad Dalem‘. There were a few chronicles written in Balinese and they were written during the Gelgel Kingdom, between 1340 until 1705.

Dewa Artha (a member Sawidji AC) also noted that perhaps it will better explain what a Babad is, by sharing that it is oral history of past kings and rulers. Kings and rulers who had their prose men/writers write down their term of leadership much like a commemoration. An autobiography of sorts. So it is historical, however it may be coloured by the specific interests of said ruler. As every ruler most likely will wish to present their best side for such a recording

In general, the stories performed in Topeng Babad deals with the conflicts between good and evil. Stories that elaborate on this dualism tend to be the subject of Balinese Mask Drama Dances. It goes back to the concept of Rwa Bhineda. Rwa meaning ‘Two’ and Bhineda meaning different. This concept of all life depending on the balance between opposite forces. This was also discussed recently in our article about ‘The Checkered Cloth of Bali‘. We arrive back at this concept of dualism at the centre of Balinese life and philosophy.

In The Living Masks of Bali, we are exploring the art of Traditional Masks in Balinese Culture. Why are our articles so variable in this series? We have articles on the tools of wood carving and the process of mask making. We touch on traditional ceremonies as well as dramatic dance?

This is what is so rich and interesting about the Masks of Bali. They are not simply traditional works of art. They are functional and relevant in Balinese life today as they were for many generations. Through ritual, through social interactions, through dance and theatre. The Mask is here, alive and tangible in the present activities of Balinese culture.

Today, tourism has integrated with Balinese culture and as a result traditional dances are often performed for the guests that visit Bali Island. However, throughout this period affected by the Covid Pandemic, you see clearly the areas of Balinese culture that surpasses is very independent from tourism . The decrease in tourism activities does not make the Balinese Traditional Mask dormant. In fact, it is one of the sources that give encouragement, humor and relief to the community.

The Masks are still here. The familiar faces that guide us through good and bad, night and day.This Dualism of ‘Rwa Bhineda’ is a constant teacher for Balinese of all ages. These faces are the constants. Reliable and familiar. They humor and they teach.

Topeng Babad, also known as Sidakarya, named after the main character is one of the dances performed in Balinese Ceremonies. In fact, the characters that are part of this Dance is one that many visitors to the island have probably seen or caught a glimpse of one way or another throughout their stay. They are known in every household. ‘The Old Man Mask’ the ‘King’s Mask ‘ The Bondres Mask’ are spoken of as characters familiar to most.

This Mask Dance is performed often for social occasions as well as ceremonial. And Topeng Babad plays an important role in Balinese Ceremonies. It is the performance at the end of some ceremonies, that makes the statement ‘it is done’ ‘it is ‘complete’. So the impact of this performance is quite remarkable. That in watching this performance and knowing that it was done, give the feeling of satisfaction and assurance that everything was complete and was done rightly The enactment of the Topeng Babad give the Balinese the feeling of ‘relief and satisfaction’ that the ceremony that was held was completed and was done well.

When I first had the notion of ‘the Living Masks of Bali’ it is the faces of Topeng Babad that inspired this idea. The faces of Topeng Babad, brings together beautifully history, dance, philosophy and tradition as well as social communication. The unchanging faces through history is remarkable. That the same faces touched the lives of many generations before as they touch ours now.

I was invited to a local community ceremony recently. The ceremony was one that was administrative as well as Odalan. This is a holy day for the Village Temple. And so, there were two important events occurring. Towards the end of this ceremony, I enjoyed again the performance of Topeng Babad. It really is wonderful, how ‘normal’ it is for everyone to sit around and watch this performance. Even though they have seen it perhaps many times before.

This is a performance that is rich with history and social nuances. Yet it is not in the history books simply as a token of safeguarding heritage. It is still enjoyed and appreciated by old and young alike amongst the Balinese today. Perhaps that is a small detail, but I think its a small detail that paints a big picture.

The audience relates to this dance because during a segment of this performance there is a time when the performer, in character, engages in free dialogue with the audience. This is often a segment used as comic relief and often a commentary on social and political issues. There is certainly a channel here for messages to be delivered to the community, and at times reminiscent of ‘message from the sponsor’.

Social messages, comic relief and the ‘people’s voice’ is usually through these two characters. Who represent the common people.

Regardless of the level of influence on social and political issues, more importantly is the community engagement, and the history and teachings passed on through this Mask Drama Dance. Perhaps above all else, the entertainment, the humor and positive relief this provides is needed now more than ever.

However, despite my seeing that this dance is still very relevant and draws the engagement of the community, old and young alike some recollect a time when this was far more so. It seems that the impact on Balinese culture, the dilution of its traditional values , is evident everywhere regardless of how big or small.

The Changes of Topeng Babad

In speaking with Dewa Artha he recalls that when he was younger, the anticipation and excitement in waiting to watch this performance was far felt far more keenly than today. Perhaps the connection and bond to this performance is not gone but definitely the young generation today may not be as engaged as the previous generation.

Dewa Artha recollects a memory of his childhood. That after a Topeng Babad performance, he says there was often teasing and gossip amongst the children. For example, they could tease each other afterwards,.. who was scared by which character and so forth. There was certainly a central point of attraction for the kids back then. Perhaps the younger generation today have become a little bit harder to engage.

So the faces of Topeng Babad are like our own familiar relations, they are there, whether we listen to them or not, they are accepted and recognised much like relatives from our of town that come visit every few months.

Below are some images from a community ceremony

At the end of the day, simply said, The Mask Drama Dance is alive and a tangible part of Life in Bali. It is perhaps one of the areas of traditional arts whose future is relatively secure. When you take away the commercialisation of the Mask Drama Dance, it is a significant cultural expression and is not dependent on its commercial potential. Its value lies much more in the practice of Balinese traditional ceremonies. The change that affects Topeng Babad Today, is not directly from commercialisation but the receptiveness of the next generation to the cultural practices that have been passed to them.

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