During our wonderful stay in Bali, we visited Uluwatu to experience the famous traditional Balinese theatrical performance, the Kecak dance. It’s the Balinese adaptation of the Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. The venue for this performance is in a temple compound, resting on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. I will apologize beforehand if the quality of the pictures aren’t optimal, we travelled without SLR and I was having a severe fever on this day. I insisted on going because there was no way I was going to miss this after hearing all the praises about it.
The temple complex is inhabited by macaques and all visitors are reminded to always be alert. These monkeys aren’t a threat but they’ll snatch anything they find interesting; Anything is often, something that belongs to you. It adds a little excitement to an otherwise very soothing panorama. The audience is seated stadium-style, encircling a disc-shaped platform. The sun’s rays constantly teased our eyes and as the stadium fills up, an intricate, altar-like pillar is lit. It burned on as the clouds in the distance slowly moved past our stage.
The Kecak dance is unique in that it’s a theatrical performance where the acoustics consist entirely of chantings. We hear chants approaching the stage and roughly, about 50 men form a circle, throw their hands upwards and chants “Cak-cak-cak-cak”, interspersed with some leading vocals and calls by the elderly members. In-between key moments, a religious figure showed up and blessed the performers.
The men also form the backdrop to this narrative with their postures. Their outstretched hands took on the nature of tree branches, the chantings changed in pitch & tone to simulate the noises of forests, they waved their arms and mimicked the calls of the waves to signify the ocean and even rise up later to represent an army of monkeys. It’s very engaging and impossible to experience through pictures alone.
The original Ramayana is a much longer story and Kecak picks a specific arc from this sprawling epic to serve as its highlight. The epic is condensed and contained into a 2 hours dance/theatrical performance, largely without dialogue, save from an intermission by a comedic relief.
The story follows Rama and his beloved bride, Sinta as they were walking through a forest. The demon king Ravana, bore a grudge against Rama and had his eyes set on Sinta. He sent his underling to lure her, under the guise of a golden deer. Sinta was enchanted by the golden deer and requested Rama for it. Rama, unable to turn down his beloved’s request, begrudgingly left her by herself.
After this Ravana made his grand entrance and in my opinion, his was the most memorable entrance out of all the characters. One of the kecak dancers let out a roar and trailed it off with a sinister laugh; An imposing red figure stepped out of the gates. This entrance was so memorable, we were transfixed and neglected to document it digitally. His steps were heavy and forceful, his arms stretched wide and a shaft on his left protruded against his cloak.
Later, as he shoves away his cloak, you see that it’s a machete with a penis for a hilt. He wielded it exuberantly, with a grin full of teeth. Ravana came with a very impressive costume, instead of using the base body of the dancer as its silhouette, it actively changed the dancer’s silhouette. The shoulders went straight into his neck and beard, his sleeves were puffed up and he’s clad in various deep shades of red. Don’t forget to relish in the details of each costume, not just Ravana’s, they’re finely balanced and rich. The way they suit the individual characters and how harmoniously they contrast each other’s feel are just incredible.
Everything about Ravana says “overwhelming force”. For the majority of South East Asian culture, the left hand-side is assigned a negative connotation. While it’s completely natural that a right-handed wielder would store his weapon on his left hand-side, I’m sure the placement of his penis-hilted machete isn’t simply a matter of coincidence.
Next came the star of the show (and the crowd’s favorite), Hanuman, the mightiest warrior amongst the monkey clan. The Balinese Kecak separates itself from the countless depictions of Ramayana by placing Hanuman as the main star of the narrative. This difference might be caused by the fact that the venue is a temple that’s dedicated to monkeys. He made his entrance the same way the Uluwatu monkeys would if they were after your hat or glasses. There was no special music or cues to announce his presence, just gasps of the audience. He climbed over the stadium seats and hop towards the stage, making his way towards the stage. He’s a symbol of loyalty and steadfastness, here to assist Rama in rescuing Sita.
Hanuman interacted with the crowd directly, most of them with the intentions to catch us by surprise. Entertainment value aside, this was a reminder of the duality of this character. Hanuman is one of the strongest characters in the lore, he represents loyalty. A reliable good friend to Rama, yet it is also undeniable that he is also at core, an unpredictable monkey.
Each of the characters had their own set of distinct gestures, Rama’s and Sinta’s were gentle, Ravana’s maliciously boisterous and Hanuman’s was very playful yet powerful. His movements reminded me the most of my favorite Kamen Rider and sentai team shows. It’s clear that he’s the action hero of this story. His costume showed off the physique of the dancer the most, compared to the rest. These are all excellent examples of great character design, there are individual narratives in the way they’re carrying each of their own details.
The postures, arm and hand gestures are the same ones found in Buddhist statues (considering Buddhism has part of its roots in Hinduism). There is a great elegance to the strength that the postures portray. They communicate without dialogue, all of the elements are crafted to communicate purely in feeling. I think this aspect of Asian performance art have had a huge influence, from Chinese Opera to Balinese dance to Kamen Rider and Power Ranger shows.
The presentation is superb, performed right at the edge of a cliff, the sun played a part in this story. Rama and Sinta entered the forest with the sun at its brightest, it dims itself slowly as Ravana made his entrance and swayed from hues of orange and dark purple as Hanuman fights Ravana. Truly an art form that has stayed true to its nature and roots while embracing the attention of a modern, international audience.
The sky calmly settled into a deep blend of indigo, accented by fuchsias and ambers. The sun had set, the struggle between good versus evil was over and the ocean breeze signalled that it was time to head home. This photograph, unedited and taken with an iPhone is a testament to the beauty of the scene. I have several weak spots for sunsets, humanoid action heroes, monkeys and alluring traditional art; Uluwatu hit them all.
Watching this show and experiencing the venue made me think of my utmost favorite artists and narratives. It was truly food for the eyes and soul. If you ever visit Bali, be sure to make Uluwatu’s Kecak an item on your schedule.
My next post will detail my fascination with Uluwatu’s depiction of Hanuman and comparisons of it with one of my absolute favorite artists; Until then, hope you enjoyed what I had to share of Bali.