Bountiful offerings are presented before, during, and after the performance, which may last from three to four hours. Balinese Wayang is not an all night performance as it is in Java. Plays usually begin sometime between nine and eleven o’clock.
The Stage and Screen
The screen is a sheet of linen about nine feet wide and four feet tall. The top and bottom are bordered with bands of black. It is stretched between two vertical bamboo poles. These poles are sometimes part of a bamboo platform built specially for the event. The poles can also be tied to the pillars of an existing “Bale” (bah-lay), a cement or tile platform with a thatch or tile roof and open walls.
The top of the screen is lashed to a horizontal bamboo pole bridging the top of the verticals. The bottom of the screen is staked into a long section of trunk from a banana tree supported by shorter pieces of banana tree set perpendicular and beneath each end. The banana log is used to hold the characters upright and in place on the screen by stabbing their pointed handles firmly into the soft banana bark.
Balinese Wayang is not always in shadow. Daytime Wayang is known as Wayang Leah. In place of the screen is a horizontal string supported about a foot above the banana log by two branches from a “Dap Dap” tree mounted at the ends.
The Balinese Dalang
The Balinese Dalang is often a kind of priest, performing acts of offering and cleansing. Mantras are recited before and after the performance. A primary purpose of shadow play is for the Dalang to make holy water. The water is used for prayer and to bless the area and participants.
Holy water is prepared by adding flowers to water from a high stream and reciting mantras with incense and sprinklings of rice. There is also an abundance of offerings presented at the time of making holy water.
Many traditions are upheld by the Dalang. Wayang may only be successfully performed on an auspicious day. The Dalang must enter the area from a particular direction. Before crossing the threshold, the Dalang judges the breath in his nostrils and steps in with the side of his body which is clearest.
A Dalang is usually accompanied by two assistants who sit to his sides in performance. They assemble the screen, help prepare the characters, and maintain the lamp. The assistants must know the stories very well to be effective, anticipating the needs of the Dalang.
A meal of the finest available food is offered to the Dalang, his assistants, and musicians before they perform. Sitting music begins when the Dalang has finished eating and is discussing local events with the hosts. The actual overture begins only when the Dalang is ready and cues the players.
The Dalang’s pay for the performance is relative to the economic state of the hosting family or community. It could be only a few chickens or whatever the people can afford, or it could be a higher price. Either way, it is the responsibility of the Dalang to facilitate the religious event to the best of his ability, regardless of other factors.
The Wayang Play
The lamp is lit and the overture begins with a chiming Ginoman fanfare. The first event is the dance of the Kayon, the tree of life. Characters are then removed from the Gedog one by one. Those that will be used in the episode are placed on the banana log with their backs to the screen. Others are placed to the sides. The overture continues until all the characters have been sorted and removed from the banana log. The most prominent characters in the episode are the last to leave the screen, an indicator to the audience of which episode has been chosen.
The Tree of Life in the center of the screen awakes again to a strong wind blowing. This leads into a series of character meetings and travels which reveal the episode.
There is usually a love scene and a sad scene at some point in the story. Other events include chases, magical archery, and battle. The play ends with the Kayon planted firmly in the center of the screen with the attendants Tualen and Mergdah at it’s sides. The Gamelan plays a series of closing pieces and the Holy Water is made.
The most popular Wayang characters in Bali are from the Mahabarata, Arjuna, Bima, Yudistira, and Krishna, and their opponents, Duryodana and Karna. Others include the monkey Hanuman, and the lovers Rama and Sita from the Ramayana.
Also popular are the servants. On the good side are Tualen and his son Mergdah. Delem and his brother Sangut support the other side. Two other servants appear regularly, Bu Tua, the old lady, and Suratma, the gate keeper of heaven.
Characters on the side of good always enter the screen from the Dalang’s right. Other characters enter from the left.
Different styles of Wayang often use an entirely unique set of characters, such as Wayang Arja, and Wayang Gambuh, very old classical forms featuring the Panji stories. .
The Gedogan Shadow Box
The Dalang begins the overture with three thumps of the palm of his hand on the closed top of the wooden box which holds the characters. The characters are then removed one by one during the overture. The empty box, or Gedog (Geh-Dohg), is then used as an instrument. The vertical side of the Gedog closest to the Dalang is loosely hinged so that it produces a sound when slapped shut.
The Dalang uses small wooden mallets held between the toes of the right foot and in the left hand to strike the Gedogan in rhythm. These sounds add punctuation to speech and on screen action. They also cue the musicians to change, speed up or slow down.
Balinese Wayang of the Mahabarata, known as Wayang Parwa, and Wayang Sapu Leger, for exorcism, is accompanied by Gamelan Gender Wayang. Gender Wayang consists of two or four metallophones with ten bronze bars each played with wooden mallets.
Many styles of Gamelan may accompany other types of shadow play. For the Ramayana story, Gender Wayang is augmented by a “Batel” ensemble including drums, gongs, flute, and other instruments. Wayang Gambuh uses an ensemble of meter long flutes, drums, gongs, and cymbals. Wayang Arja is accompanied by tiny flutes, drums, cymbals, and bamboo gongs. Wayang Tantri, a newer creation by Wayan Wija, uses Gamelan Semar Pegulingan.