And The Gong Goes to – Balinese Women
More and more women are gaining prominence in the performing and visual arts of Bali.
Slowly but surely, women are changing the face of Balinese performing arts, which, in the past had always been dominated by men, while women played only minor roles; mainly as dancers. Particularly in the ‘kingdom era’, they were powerless human beings and often given negative images as objects of sexual desire. They could be forced by kings to entertain their guests with little or no chance to refuse.
Recently, however, more and more women are appearing in the Balinese arts world with more prominent roles. No longer are they only dancers but also as players in the traditional Balinese orchestra; gamelan. In addition to this, Balinese women are also proving themselves as stage directors, choreographers, music directors, and puppeteers (dalang).
Many female names also appear in the world of visual arts; particularly painting. These arenas used to be the exclusive territory of men but the women are steadily moving in. This phenomenon changes the position of women in the performing arts from being merely objects to becoming subjects and this has also put the image of female dancers on a higher and more respected level.
The emergence of women in the performing arts is caused by a combination of factors between the growing discourse on gender equality, the rising number of women taking further education in tertiary arts institutions and the Bali Arts Festival, which has been held annual since 1978. Taking art education makes it possible for women not only to become professional artists or academics but also to become musicians, choreographers and directors.
In the last two decades, the number of female choreographers has increased and includes Swasthi Bandem, Alit Arini and Nyoman Wiratini, whose creations have been performed in the Bali Arts Festival and on many other occasions. These names are now well known along with male choreographers including Made Bandem, Wayan Dibia and the late Mario.
The Bali Arts Festival has also encouraged the establishment of women’s gamelan groups throughout Bali. They make exhibition performances in the Bali Arts Festival as well as attending competitions between women’s groups representing each of the nine districts of Bali. In most cases, the founding of women’s gamelan groups has been mediated by the already existing organisations of government officers’ wives or in the village communites (banjar).
The women’s gamelan group of Denpasar municipality, for example, has been very active in performing both on television and social occasions because of the enthusiasm of Mrs. Bintang Puspayoga, the wife of the incumbent Denpasar Mayor. She was not only instrumental in establishing of the group but is also a member and the chief player. Her move was then enthusiastically supported by wives of other officers in the municipality.
Similar things happened in other districts and government institutions; including in one of the state universities. In the Faculty of Letters at the University of Udayana, the women’s gamelan group is led by Professor Sutjiati Beratha, lecturer, wife of the Faculty Dean and daughter of well-known Balinese gamelan player Wayan Beratha. These groups always give a performance on graduation days, campus anniversaries and for other celebrations at the university.
Like most artists in Balinese arts, women’s gamelan groups do not play for fame or to earn an income but rather more for fun and for social as well as religious activities (ngayah).
There is an interesting aspect of the establishment of women’s gamelan groups when looked at from the view of a competitive discourse on gender identity: at around the same time as the emergence of the women’s groups, the Balinese performing arts also witnessed the phenomenon of the establishment of male-only arja opera (arja cowok).
Arja had always had a mixture of male and female artists, but uniquely key characters including male characters played by female dancers. Against this reality, an arja group with male only dancers was formed and has subsequently gained great success and popularity for its uniqueness and humour. Both male only arja and women’s gamelan groups continue to attract public attention and mark a distinct aspect of the struggle for gender equality in the Balinese performing arts.
Learning and playing Balinese gamelan requires a significant number of dedicated players and is often time consuming. One proper orchestra requires no less than 20 people to play particular sets with equally important precision; the absence of one or two players could distract regular practice in mastering a piece.
Considering the traditional burdens of women in social and domestic affairs and the length of time required to practice, the women’s orchestras might be expected to be less accomplished than those of the men but this is not necessarily so. The widespread appearance of women’s gamelan groups now marks a significant change in Balinese performing arts and the position of women in it.
source: Hello Bali Magazine, July 2005
Text and photo by Darma Putra