In 1983, a living legend of Balinese dance created a theatrical performance titled Stri Asadhu. A section of this fine performance highlights the daily activities of shepherds, but the plot thickens. The story begins with the shepherds busily working, when a lady comes asking for milk. A shepherd agrees to give the milk to the lady but only with the condition that the lady must marry him first.

Gopala (1)

Then the lady, who is actually a goddess in disguise, Kali, the wife of Lord Shiva, went back and brought the milk to Lord Shiva. She told her husband that a shepherd gave it to her for free. Shiva was angered by this, as in truth, it was he himself disguised as the shepherd who gave the goddess milk in order to test her honesty. The dance however, does not narrate the whole mythology, rather it illustrates the joy of the quiet shepherds and their everyday lives.

Later on I Nyoman Suarsa, another dance choreographer, further developed this part of the performance and created a new choreography titled Gopala. Gopala is an ancient Javanese word, in the Kawi language, meaning shepherd. A group consisting of four to eight male dancers, usually kids or teens performs the Gopala dance. The dance depicts the activities of a group of shepherds who are watching their herds in the pasture.

Gopala (2)

Therefore the dance routines are slow, relaxed, showing the casual behaviour of the shepherds playing with one another and keeping their herds together. Each routine tells a story: when the dancers’ right hand moves up and down, as if they are really cutting the grass to feed the cows or when they’re carrying grass upon their shoulder. They also move around the stage, performing a sequence of movements as if they are running freely chasing each other within a prairie.

The routines are taken from the basic routines of the dances of Bali. Some basic moves like agem, the basic pose where a dancer stand stills with both arms lifted; and tandang, the basic walking gesture. These two still dominate the whole performance. Through the way the dancers perform these basic routines, the audience are able to appraise the ability and skill of each dancer.

I recently watched this dance at Pura Dalem Ubud, a temple located at the heart of the island’s cultural village. The Jegog, a harmonious bamboo orchestra originating from Jembrana Regency, West Bali, accompanied the dance performed by Yowana Swara dance troupe. This group of dancing teens were skilful, really ‘living’ the dance. Like actors they portrayed their characters well, their facial expressions changing from routine to routine. Through their talents, one could actually feel the very scene they were illustrating, bright happiness on a sunny day, despite the fact the performance was done at night.