Getting familiar with Kecak, a Balinese Hindu dance swaddled with musical drama was much like slipping into an extravagant state of trance. In fact, every time I crawl back to the memory, a sweet nostalgia of repetitive rhythms begins to fill my mind. When I first arrived at Batubulan dance stadium, I expected the evening to amuse me with yet another musical version of Ramayana, the famed Hindu epic. Least, did I expect this minimalist-sounding venture to turn into inducing hypnosis over the next few hours! The show was scheduled to start at 6.30 PM, so I swiftly grasped my IDR 100,000 ticket before paving my way to the platform stage.
It was a short walk from the main counter to the theatrical grandstand. However, the left side of this path was marked by the presence of a small patch of forest. Since the plot of Ramayana revolves around its characters spending a great amount of time in a forested surrounding; catching a glimpse of a spotted fawn eating grass, instantly set the stage for me. The main venue is an open stage without a proscenium. It projects into the audience and is encircled by them on three sides. Shortly, the invisible curtain opened to an evocative setting. Dressed in traditional outfits, more than fifty men appeared on the stage and sat in a circle. As many as, 150 men are said to participate in this chanting spectacle.
At 6.30 PM, the drama begins to unfold. Sitting in concentric circles around a traditional Balinese lamp; the bare-chested Balinese performers start chanting melodic phrases that distinctly built a musical monologue. These men wearing checkered loincloths represent Prince Ram’s troop of apes and giants. Rhythmically, they rallying-call Chak-Ke-Chak by moving their upper bodies and hands from left to right. Gradually the speed of the rhythm increases and the entire surrounding echoes with the sounds of Kecak. One of these men maintains the beat by chanting Po-Po-Po. The leader of the chorus yowls vocals such as Chiaaat, Deeh, etc. Wherein, one man sings in a melodious tone during the chanting. Throughout the performance, one person narrates the story in both Balinese and Sanskrit.
Pronounced Kechak, this musical dance drama made headway in the 1930s. Unlike the traditional orchestra, this unique dance involves no musical instrument or artificial backdrop. It was only performed by men until 2006, after which women were also, introduced to this art form. The plot of this theatrical performance revolves around Ramayana, the reason why it is, performed across Bali’s prominent temples. Alternatively, the plot is also known as the Ramayana monkey chant. Certain segments of this theatrical, draw a picture of the trance rituals, as during the portrayal of Hanuman burning the castle. Here, the character of Hanuman receives blessings from a priest after which he enters a state of trance followed by the fire dance. Hanuman is deprived of pain as he is in a half-conscious state sketched by the absence of external stimuli.
The recital portrays the battle of Ramayana, where prince Ram fights the demon, King Ravana, with the help of a monkey army led by Hanuman. This sunset show begins with unfurling the story of a damsel in distress and ends with the act of a mischievous monkey. The first scene opens to Ram and Sita’s self-imposed exile in the forests of Panchavati. While Ram, Sita, and Laxman (Ram’s brother) were implying seclusion from worldly affairs as an implication of enforced isolation, Ravana disrupted their solace by taking Sita as a hostage. As the Kecak chanters sing in line with the milieu of the story; the presentation re-enacts the meandering of the Golden Deer, Sita’s kidnapping, the collision between Ravana and Jatayu, Hanuman searching for the Sita, and ultimately the battle fought between Ram and Ravana.
In a nutshell, King Ravana had sent his first minister Mareecha to alienate Sita so that he could kidnap her. To do so, Mareecha used his magical powers and metamorphosed himself into a golden deer, and set foot in the forest. Sita was filled with delight when she saw the golden deer and requested prince Ram to capture and bring it back to her. To please Sita, Ram went chasing after the deer. However, he left behind his brother Lakshman to protect Sita. In a short time, Sita heard a cry for help from Ram and enforced Lakshman to go after. After much reluctance, Lakshman went after Ram but, before leaving, he drew a magical line (Lakshman Rekha) on the ground and asked Sita to not cross it under any circumstance.
Ravana used this opportunity to trick Sita and disguised himself as a priest. He then arrived at the hut and earnestly asked Sita for food. She fell for his trick and stepped outside the line to offer him food. King Ravana then abducted her and took her to his palace. Thereafter, King Ravan attempted everything to win Sita’s heart but failed to do so. Soon, Hanuman appeared in the castle, met Sita, and showed her Ram’s ring to prove that he was visiting on his behalf. In return, Sita gave Hanuman her hairpin so that Ram knows that she’s alive and comes to rescue her. Ram and Lakshman are joined by the king of monkeys, Sugriwa, and his army to help rescue Sita. In the end, Ram wins the battle against Ravana and successfully escapes with Sita to a safe place.
In a ring of unswerving cantillation, this complicated plot is played with many twists and turns. Predominantly, the narrative shows the trail of hurdles Ram and Laxman faced in an attempt to rescue Sita. When the sun sets and the sky goes dark in the backdrop, Kecak dance unveils its dramatic climax illustrating the impish monkey setting the castle on fire. The theatrical ends with orange and red flames smouldering, in the centre of the stage. With its roots imbibed in Sanghyang, Kecak is a trance-inducing, exorcism ritual, that originated in the early nineteenth century. In 1930, German artist Walter Spies adapted this ritual adapted in a theatrical drama that could appeal the Western audience. He closely worked with the Indonesian dancer, Wayan Limbak, to popularize the dance by arranging international tours.
On the whole, Kecak is a dance that epitomizes bravery, beauty, battle strategy, and a strong moral message. This dance represents, what we call, a modern art-culture system induced with outlying cultural elements. The traditional Kecak Dance is an artistic masterpiece, that will dazzle you with brilliance.