Out of the Shadows

The performing arts of Java and Bali

Candi Borobudur (Borobudur Temple), Java

Within the Indonesian archipelago, the cultures of Java and Bali are renowned for their unique developments in visual and performing arts. Java is the most populous island of the Republic of Indonesia. The Javanese are also considered a relatively hegemonic ethnic group within a nation of hundreds of ethnic groups and dialects. Central Java is home to the megalithic Mahayana Buddhist temple, Borobudur, and Hindu temple complex, Prambanan.

Candi Wisnu (Vishnu Temple), Prambanan Temple Complex, Java

It is also in Central Java that a highly sophisticated court culture emerged, wherein visual and performing arts developed and thrived.

Pura Taman Ayun (Taman Ayun Temple), Bali

The history of Bali is not unlike the rest of Indonesia in that it has localized a diverse combination of indigenous and exogenous cultural influence. However, it is exceptional in that it is the only surviving Hindu region in a majority Islamic nation. The Hindu-Buddhist and animistic Majapahit Empire of neighboring east Java fled to the island of Bali in the 16th century as Islam spread throughout the other Indonesian islands.

Ketut Wirtawan performs Topeng TuaShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Ketut Wirtawan performs Topeng Tua at Shangri La

The cultural matrices that developed and intersected in Bali and Java provided fertile ground for localized versions of the Hindu epics called the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Much of the iconography seen in the arts are derived from these epic story cycles. Wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) paired with gamelan music was one of the oldest artforms from which other styles emerged in both Java and Bali. From the highly formalized puppet movements came inspiration for wayang wong (human wayang) and wayang topeng (masked dance)’s kinetic language. Out of the shadows appeared new performance forms utilizing dance, dialogue, music, and masks.

Forest Scene from the Ramayana Forest Scene from the RamayanaShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Forest scene from the Ramayana

This Javanese batik rendered in traditional colors of black, brown, and cream (undyed cloth) depicts a theatrical scene from a wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) play. It illustrates a scene from the Hindu epic story cycle, the Ramayana. Rama, incarnation of Vishnu and one of the protagonists of the tale, and his younger brother Lakshmana are traveling with Hanuman, chief of the vanara (forest-dwellers, typically monkeys). 

As they traverse through the forest they encounter abstracted wildlife: peacocks, a lion, horse, elephant, tiger, and naga (serpentine dragon).

The heroes are on a quest to find the leader of the raksasas(demons) Rahwana's palace.They must save Rama's wife, Sita, who has been abducted by Rahwana.

Subali (or Sugriwa) Subali (or Sugriwa)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Subali (or Sugriwa)

For the Balinese, masks entail a multiplicity of meanings. They are clearly incredible works of art used in wayang performance, yet they also possess much deeper significance. Subali is
the older brother of the rivaling monkeys, Subali and Sugriwa. He is said to be
like fire; the power projecting from his intensely bulging eyes is so strong
that only a god or an incarnation of one can defeat him. According to the
Ramayana story cycle, however, Subali is cursed with an unfortunate situation.
Through a series of events, Subali becomes intertwined in an incendiary duel
involving his brother, Sugriwa, and Subali’s wife Dewi Tara. After Subali was
presumed to be dead, his brother Sugriwa claimed Dewi Tara as his own wife, catalyzing
the legendary battle between the Monkey Kings.

The younger brother Sugriwa's mask differs only slightly in color; the Subali mask's face is narrower in the chin than Sugriwa's mask.

Barong BarongShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Barong Ket

Masks, particularly sacred masks like those of Barong and Rangda, serve as points of connection between the human and divine worlds. Barong is the manifestation of benevolent forces making up the delicate balance of good and evil in the cosmos. This balance of the universe, which can be achieved after the Calonarang performance of Barong and Rangda, is referred to in Balinese as rwa bhineda. Barong is regarded as a protector who symbolizes health and fortune. 

He is endowed with white magical power, usually centered in the mask's eyes and beard, the latter of which is made of human hair.

There are many types of Barong and each village may have its own particular type. The various kinds include: Barong Ket (mythological leonine beast), as shown here, and Barong Bangkal (wild boar). The full list of animals Barong masks may portray are: lion (singa), tiger (macan), boar (bangkal), deer (manjangan), cow (lembu), dog (asu), and elephant (gajah).

The mask of Barong is the most sacred part of the character and its locus of supernatural power; it is not worn, but rather carried in front of the face, its jaw operated by a dancer's hands. The mask's jaw makes a clapping noise characteristic of Barong who does not speak during the performance. During the dance-drama, Barong is brought to life by two dancers encased in the mask, headdress, and ornately decorated costume.

RangdaShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design


Rangda is an archetypal violent antagonist who is the fierce aspect of the Hindu goddess Durga. She is a senescent and vengeful widow whose powers encompass both protection and destruction. She is a bloodthirsty cannibal and purveyor of black magic causing terror and havoc. Her story is enacted in the Calonarang drama, but this mask can also serve as Dewi Durga in the Barong drama.

The typical mask iconography of Rangda includes: a white color base, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, fearsome fangs curving outward in a cavernous mouth complete with an elongated tongue brandishing bursts of flames. The mask's hair is usually made of horsehair.

This character is almost always danced by a specialist male dancer whose moves are characteristically crude and rough, keras, according to Balinese performance aesthetics: erratic gestures paired with a stentorian and hoarse voice. Rangda always holds a long white cloth, which contains magic drawings and also serves as a ritual casing for the mask when it is not used in performance.

Jero Luh Jero LuhShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Jero Luh

Jero Luh is a vivacious, graceful, and refined woman who represents a Chinese ancestor of the Balinese. She is the fair-skinned wife of Jero Gede. Her mask is identified by the pointed chin and forehead, small nose, and perpetual smile.

Jero Gede Jero GedeShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Jero Gede

The Jero Gede ("The Big or Great Man"), sometimes called Jero Gede Mecaling, represents a human-like Barong considered to be the male ancestor of the Balinese people of Malayo-Indian origin. His mask's appearance reflects demonic influence, but he is in fact a clown and innocuous in part because of the restraint exercised on him by his wife, Jero Luh, who represents a Chinese ancestor of the Balinese. His large protruding teeth, which he inherited from his incestuous demon father, demonstrate his power. Together, the Jero Gede and Jero Luh are paraded around the village to exorcise evil spirits in a ritual known as Barong Landung, which utilizes giant figures or puppets carried on the shoulders of performers in conjunction with the masks.

Barong Bangkai Barong BangkaiShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Barong Bangkal

This is the wild boar iteration of Barong. It symbolizes the same character as the Barong Ket seen earlier (the manifestation of benevolent forces in the cosmos), but through an alternative physical form.

It is utilized in a similar manner by the dancer, its jaws operated to make Barong's chracteristic clapping noise.

This particular Barong Bangkal mask's mane is made from horsehair.

Credits: Story

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
Honolulu, Hawai'i

Shangri La is a museum for learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, digital and educational initiatives, public tours and programs, and community partnerships.

Secondary source material:

Elliott, Inger McCabe. Batik: Fabled Cloth of Java. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1984.

Jessup, Helen I. Court Arts of Indonesia. New York: The Asia Society Galleries, 1990.

Maxwell, Robyn J. Sari to Sarong: Five Hundred Years of Indian and Indonesian Textile Exchange. Sydney: National Gallery of Australia, 2003.

Slattum, Judy. Balinese Masks: Spirits of an Ancient Drama. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2003.

Smend, Rudolf G; Brigitte K. Majlis; Harmen C. Veldhuisen; and Leo Haks. Batik: From the Courts of Java and Sumatra. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2000.

Reichle, Natasha. Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 2010.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is a program of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through the Doris Duke Foundation For Islamic Art.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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