THE ANCIENT GAMBUH DANCE
There broods over Balinese dance an ancestral shade; every dance-form.. is ultimately derived from Gamboeh; all dance technique originates in its movements, all scales and melodies from its peculiar gamelan. One may indeed live a long time in Bali without once encountering this ancient fossil of Balinese dance... Yet there will come a moment, during a temple feast or cremation when one will become aware of a strange wailing of flutes and rebab, the clash of cymbals and clamor of strident voices rising above the gay contention of several gamelans and the tinkle of the Pedanda's bell.
-Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies from Dance and Drama in Bali, 1938
So vividly described by Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies in their seminal work on Balinese dance, the Gambuh dance is still a rarity much valued for the purity of its archaic form. Today, experts still consider the historical and aesthetical role of Gambuh comparable to that of Noh in Japan and Kathakali in Kerala. Esoteric and highly stylized, by turns raucous and stately, Gambuh is believed to have originated in the court of the mighty East Javanese Majapahit era (13-16th centuries) which ruled Bali as well as much of Southeast Asia at the time. With the gradual decline and collapse of the empire's center in Java, Bali became a safe haven for literati and artists of the court who according to legends migrated to the island to escape the turmoil in Java. This in part explains the glory of Bali's Golden Age in the 16th century and the strong stamp which the arts and rituals of the Majapahit Empire, closely bound with religion, made on the island.
Despite Gambuh being the source of inspiration for many forms of Balinese dance-drama including To pen g, Wayang Wong, Arja, Legong and Baris Melampahan, the modern age has threatened it with obsolescence, as young Balinese ignore its rich tradition as old fashioned and too difficult. It is poignant to witness the last of the real Gambuh experts, I Gede Geruh, aged and crippled, as he teaches a young male dancer the strong roles in Pedungan village at dusk. The feeling of the grace and the power of its ancient roots are unmistakable. Comparing to the modern tourist dance could be likened to comparing a weak cup of Nescafe to a heady cup of kopi Bali.
Gambuh belongs to the bebali or semisecular class of dances which are performed in the second courtyard of temples. Performed without masks, Bandem and deBoer state that bebali dances are inevitably connected with odalan or other important religious occasions. They are not specifically considered sacred dances but rather semi-secular. Narrative in form, the tales told take place in the palaces of medieval East Javanese kingdoms and are full of intrigue, love, tragedy and magic. The texts are either of Javanese or Balinese origin which come from the ancient palm leaf manuscripts or lontar. The most important cycle of stories is the Malat which recounts the adventures of the heroic mythical Prince Panji and his beloved Rangkesari. Panji's eternal quest for Rangkesari is the symbolic quest for male female unity within the human soul found throughout the legends and myths of the world. For a more detailed explanation , dance enthusiasts should refer to I Made Bandem and Frederick deBoer's Balinese Dance in Transition recently re-published by Oxford University Press.
If Gambuh is difficult for the Balinese, there is no denying that it is even more so for westerners used to clear boundaries between dance, drama and music. Melding all of these into an alien theater form, Gambuh requires a certain dedication and patience to be appreciated. The heart of this ravishing spectacle is not the plot unfolding but the continuous presentation of its dramatis personae, preceded and accompanied by attendants who translate the ancient Javanese court language known as Kawi into the Balinese vernacular.
These characters who appear while 4ancing are led by extraordinary gamelan orchestra whose music is underlined by a chorus of long, bamboo flutes and the caterwauling of the rebab - a Balinese bowed instrument. The dancers join the chorus in strange voices singing in Kawi, a lan- guage which they themselves may not fully comprehend, but have been taught to recite via the oral tradition which is the foundation of the Balinese arts.
While the Balinese spectators, especially the older ones, will roar with laughter and appreciation at the quips and jokes of the clown like attendants translating the Kawi, Westerners can only guess the reason for this mirth as they admire the beauty of dance, dancers and eerie, but haunting gamelan. Those without patience or interest find themselves quickly bored or frustrated if they cannot surrender themselves at least in part to this strange but beautiful art.
Today Gambuh presents a unique vision of Bali's distant past and is universally acclaimed - yet in danger of extinction. Surviving only in a few villages including Batuan, Pedungan, Padang Aji, Kedisan and Anturan, each with its own distinct style, each represents a small part of a once rich tradition. Rescuing this ancient source of all Balinese dance forms amidst financial difficulties and growing disinterest among the Balinese may yet turn into a success story thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Wianta Foundation's administrative efforts resulting in the "Gambuh Project". Much of this work was carried out through the unfailing dedication of Cristina Formaggia, an Italian dancer, who has studied Gambuh under I Made Djimat for over ten years and is now a recognized master of the Panji role. Efforts to revive Gambuh in several of these villages through the Gambuh project are beginning to bear fruit. As of August of this year, visitors can attend performances at 7 PM to 9 PM on the 1st and 15th of every month held at the Pura Desa Batuan temple in Batuan -a village which is about halfway to Ubud. Proceeds are donated to the Gambuh project to buy new costumes and repair instruments. This an opportunity no to be missed for the dance is totally authentic in length, content and setting – a rare event in Bali in the 1990’s