The origin of gambuh can be traced back to 1007 A.D. the first mention of gambuh appears in a lontar, palm leave manuscript, with a Candra Sengkala (a method of expressing time), in the year of 929 Caka or 1007 A.D. This lontar mentions that in 1007 A.D. King Udayana Warmadewa of Bali had married a Javanese princess from Daha, east Java, named Cri Gunapriya Dharmapatni. When the princess went to Bali, in her entourage she brought Javanese dancers and artist with her. According to the lontar, King Udayana was very fond of Javanese dancing and in this period developed the dance known as gambuh, here is an excerpt from the lontar:
“Sri Udayana suka angetoni wong jawa angigel iki marmane kinwang para aryeng Bali anunggalaken ring sasolahan Jawi, yata nimitani ring Bali ana Gambuh. Gambuh ngaran gabungan. Ing keratin Bali ketekang mangke ana bale pagambuhan.” (“Sri Udayana liked to see the Javanese to dance and that is why the aryas (the nobles) in Bali combined the Balinese and Javanese style of dancing into gambuh. Gambuh means combination. And from that time until now there was always been a bale pegambuhan (place where gambuh was performed) in the palace of Bali.”)
In Besakih temple there is still a bale pegambuhan, and on certain occasion Gambuh companies from several district of Bali perform gambuh performances there.
Outside the palace or temple compound, gambuh is usually played in a large palm covered rectangular space with two umbrellas at the end where the dancers enter, and two lances at the opposite end, where they sit when not in action.
The cast of gambuh is the most complex and complete of all dance drama with the prabu manis (gentle king), prabu keras (coarse and proud king), the princes, the princess, prabangsa (brothers of king), arya (nobles), patih and temenggung (minister), kadyan-kadyan (knights), condong (lady in waiting), penasar (attendants and clowns). Each of these characters has its own dance technique, expressions and musical melody. Each of noble characters (range from king to minister) usually has its own attendants or heralds characters (two up to four attendants or heralds), this makes the gambuh the most lavish and pompous drama performance known in Balinese history.
The Gambuh has an ensemble of music instruments, in which the big flutes are dominant. The other instruments are on rebab, a string instrument very much like violin; two kendang, drums; one kempur, gangsi, klenang, all percussion brass instruments; and also kucicak, gumanak, gentorak, and lukita, all small brass percussion instruments which give the rhythm in small bell-like tones. The melody is provided by the big flutes and rebab. There are also a juru tandak (reciter) and choirs of singers sit among the instruments.
The themes of the gambuh are not directly historical. They are based on romantic or mythical versions of Javanese history, and fairy tales of Arabian Nights variety. The principal themes are taken from Malat, the popular Balinese version of the Javanese Panji (romantic royal history) cycle, which contains the intricate love adventures of semi mythical prince with many mystifying impersonations; from Javanese Islamic cycle; and a few stories are taken from Tantri (fable, similar to Aesop’s fables).
Today, Gambuh is almost lost and forgotten. In Pedungan, a small village south of Denpasar, there is still a gambuh company, while in Batuan there are still three groups training the gambuh dance and sometimes performing it at temple anniversaries. In the village of Budakeling and Jungsri, there is a small little known gambuh group. Buleleng still has some gambuh dancers in the village of Anturan, a small village west of the town Singaraja, and in the village of Bedehe, but these men are already old. Tabanan is in similar position, only few gambuh dancers left.
The decline and deterriotion of the gambuh over the years is lamentable, not only because it is a magnificent Balinese dance performance, but also because it has great significance for all Balinese dance-dramas. Of all Balinese dance-dramas, the gambuh is the most highly documented and complete art of dancing.