Topeng Dalem Truth of a King is part of the Living Masks of Bali. Our series of articles explore and celebrate the art of Balinese traditional masks. In this chapter, we meet Topeng Dalem, otherwise known as The King’s Mask. A conversation with dancer and mask maker Kadek Sudiasa of Mas Ubud.
In the dance of Topeng Pajegan or otherwise known as Topeng Wali, there are five characters that tell a story of a kingdom. This mask dance is a performance enacted at the end of a ceremony and marks the completion of that ceremony. It is not simply a dance for entertainment but is considered sacred and is rich with moral and ethical teachings that are passed down from generation to generation.
The various characters which make up Topeng Pajegan have the responsibility to tell a story. We have met with Topeng Keras and Topeng Tua in our previous articles. After which the character of Ratu Dalem, the King will appear. For a brief summary of Topeng Pajegan and the story of Sidhakarya that it presents, you can visit this link.
Topeng Dalem. The King, the Mask and the Dance.
Topeng Dalem represents the King, Dalem Waturenggon, associated with the Golden Age of Balinese Kingdom of Gelgel during the 16th century. He is known within this narrative as loving, benevolent and wise. A compassionate King. That is why, according to Kadek Sudiasa, in order to carve and capture the essence of Topeng Dalem is difficult. To capture the calm and gentleness of this King, with what he describes as having a particular softness around the eyes. It is this very subtlety within his character that makes it difficult to capture. He lacks the obvious characteristics that are embodied in Topeng Keras or Topeng Tua.
To be able to express the character of Topeng Dalem for me is the most difficult. To capture the expression of the loving, wise leader is not easy..Kadek Sudiasa
“It is about feeling. you have to be able to feel it first, it has to enter you first.. when you can feel the character in your heart then you can translate it to your mask.. so maybe it has been difficult up till now because I still have too much hardness. Or perhaps I lack calm and maybe that is why it is not easy for me to capture this character.“
A Mask Maker and a Dancers’ Observations
I find that I learn to understand the character from many sources. It may be from reading or simply observing someone from a distance. Sometimes you look towards contemporary leaders and observe how they walk and carry themselves. Leaders often walk gently, but firmly. They do not tend to have excessive gestures with any overreactions. They sit calmly. I will also read our old texts. It helps me understand how a King loves his people. This is also a guide for me to understand the character of Topeng Dalem.
The Dance That Is ‘In-Between’?
Not all mask dancers can dance the Topeng Dalem. I think this may be because his character is in the middle. It is by gesture and expression (in the context of the dance) between the movements of man and that of woman. The Dance of Topeng Dalem is both masculine and feminine at once. To embody this character in the middle is the most difficult. As dancers, we have our character. In the instance they perform Topeng Dalem, if he comes across too hard, it does not capture the essence of this dance. We have to be gentle. Firm and dignified with gentle movements and gestures. That is the complexity of Topeng Dalem. Making the mask is difficult. To dance the dance is difficult.
When we discussed the process of capturing the essence of Topeng Keras and Topeng Tua, together with the nature of the dance that embodies their character, it is a study and dedication to strength and age. I pondered that perhaps Topeng Dalem is different because the essence of his character is most uncommon. We can relate to the Hard Mask or the Old Mask. Everyone may be hard and assertive, but everyone can relate and have a relationship with age. But not everyone may be a King.
How do you connect to this character of Topeng Dalem?
It is by getting swept away in the music. The gamelan music is soft and dignified… For me, it is the music that carries me and helps me to connect to the character of Topeng Dalem.Kadek Sudiasa
Reflections on Leadership
As a leader.. do you think the character of Dalem exists today?
In the past Dalem is an ancestral legacy.. he is trained from a young age to look after, to lead to be protector.. he is born to be king.. the leaders today have different backgrounds.. they may be from the military, political or may be the biggest difference between the leadership characteristics from before and those of today.
Do you think Dalem is still a good example of a leader today?
Kadek says matter of factly there are still Kings today, in answer to my question. I purport, that blood and lineage do not determine what makes a good leader. A prince may be born to be King but he is not automatically born a good one.
In the past, a King is an absolute, his word is law. Today that is not the same. Before, the word of the king is the law. Today the law system is what has replaced the autonomy of the king’s word. Though the King’s word in the past may not be challenged, today even the law can be challenged.
Totalitarian power has an incredible amount of risk whether in the past or the present. The Kings word is law so whoever wishes to oppose would need to build their own power base to challenge, often resulting in war. Through our governing systems today there are channels of public protest to challenge. There are also negotiations so there is a higher likelihood of avoiding conflict, one should hope.
Idealism of Leadership
Topeng Dalem is perhaps an ideal and perfect representation of leadership. That of a King, armoured by absolute power, yet is tempered by wisdom, strength and benevolence. It occurred for a moment, whether this is realistic, or was this the illustrated embodiment of the collective ideal and what society hopes for in a leader. Regardless of whether the compassionate benevolence of Topeng Dalem is historically true or not, the embodiment of his Spirit is proof that our collective ideal of leadership is universal enough. That in itself weighs in strongly that this ideal representation of leadership is a plausible one.
Topeng Dalem, the Truth of a King
Most poignantly, whether it is Kadeks’ observations on the difficulty of embodying the character of Dalem himself whether through the subtleties of his facial features in the carving of the mask. Or if it is mastering the character of the King in the movements of the dance, in both areas, the complexity lies in the ‘in between’. The smile that is not full, the posture that is not fully male or female. Topeng Dalem being an ideal of leadership, quite simply remarks that ideal leadership epitomises perfect balance, that ‘in-between’. A gentle reminder perhaps that the pursuit of balance is a human endeavour worthy of the noblest Kings.
Learn more about the art of Traditional Masks of Bali in our Living Masks of Bali Articles. Through conversations of shared experiences with the artists and dancers whose lives are centred on their wonder and power.