There may be many destinations with nature and sights more exquisite than Bali has to offer, but this little island of the ‘Lesser Sundas’ has things that cannot be found elsewhere, one of them being its distinctive and rich culture. In Bali, dances, music and other performances and artworks are part of the culture, tradition and belief. In the old days, dances and music were only performed at the temple during a sacred religious ceremony, as part of the ritual of worship, and it wasn’t called art but ngayah ring pura, or a path of devotion to deities and the spirit of the ancestors. Some performances were created to entertain the congregation and to spread moral messages.
Arja is one such ‘medium’ in which moral messages were spread to the audience. Arja is a complex Balinese art performance as it combines dance, music, singing and elaborate monolog. The dance, unlike other dances on the island that have a series of routines to be followed, is in sync with the song sung by the dancer or in harmony with the beat of the gamelan, the Balinese traditional orchestra. The songs, called kidung or tembang, are Balinese classics that use the ‘high’ Balinese or Old Javanese (Kawi) languages, are sung with a distinctive vocal form.
It is essential for the performers to be able to sing the tembang, to dance, to act, and to recite these elaborate monologs. According to some Arja performers, the most difficult skill to master is the actual singing of the tembang. Traditionally, the Arja coveys the love story of King Panji, and the performance may take up to four to five hours to complete. Nowadays, the choreography has been shortened so it may take only 2 hours to complete this compact and meaningful story. Other than this, other changes in the modern Arjainclude some modification in term of music, story and language.
Even though the Arja is not understood by non-Balinese language , the performance still attracts a lot of attention; the style of singing intrigues many, the music is catching the ears, and the dance entertains the eyes – it is a multisensory piece of art. The PrabaJnanaLango Group from BanjarBinoh in Denpasar, performed an innovative Arja, which follows the story of a prince whose loves to hunt wildlife. I Made Sandiawan, the group coordinator, shared that it took four months for the whole group to practice before performing on the 3rd of July 2016 in the Bali Arts Festival. Some modifications and modernization are seen here and there. The language spoken during the monolog and the dialogue was a mix of Balinese, Bahasa Indonesia (national language) and some English, enough to make the western audience smile! Even an electric guitar had a little feature in the traditional Geguntangan- bamboo ensemble orchestra, adding a contemporary touch. Even though the Arja took less than 2 hours to complete, it followed the traditional segmentation and it sent a strong message about the importance of protecting nature and the benefits of nature’s conservation for human life.