When I began research in Bali on the masked dance-drama topeng, I was learning, performing and discussing with men only. Masked topeng is traditionally performed exclusively by men. From 1997 things changed. Some women, mainly performers of arja (classical Balinese operetta), encouraged by all-women gamelan groups and the presence of expatriate performers, began to perform topeng wearing masks.
Between 2003 and 2004, these women were attempting to cross gender and spiritual boundaries ingrained over centuries. They had to overcome not only the traditional association of men with this sacred performance – and women with everyday life — but also their own sense of inadequacy in relation to their male peers.
As a result, women artists still see men as the authorities on topeng. Most women I interviewed made light of the obvious talent which has granted them access to a men’s arts domain.
There are several types of topeng. In all types, one or more performers wears a series of masks to portray characters from Bali’s ancient past, telling their stories and linking past and present through contemporary humour. Topeng Sidhakarya is performed to ensure the success of Hindu Bali ceremonies. Performed by men only, the masked character of Sidhakarya completes the ceremony. In topeng prembon, which is a mix of topeng and the sung dance-drama arja, women perform without masks.
The need to be ‘as good as men’ seems to be the primary challenge for women involved in masked topeng performance. Cok Agung Istri, a famous arja performer from the village of Singapadu, explains: ‘Being exactly like a man is the difficulty. I am pessimistic about the possibility of performing topeng like a man.’ This pessimism is striking considering she regularly performs with masks. Other women agree. Arja performer Wayan Candri explains that ‘a woman’s movements seem weak, even if she tries her best she cannot be like a man.’
Even performers with a positive outlook believe women need to overcome feminine characteristics to be successful. Nyoman Candri, an arja performer who is also a dalang (puppeteer), considers portraying the masked characters ‘like a man’ to be fundamental. This can only be achieved through practice.
It seems what’s required is technique and time to rehearse. But many women report great difficulties juggling their performing activities with demanding domestic duties and ceremonial obligations. Things get worse during Bali’s ceremony seasons when, on top of their usual activities, women receive increased requests to perform just when they are burdened with the task of preparing huge quantities of offerings.
Multi-talented performer Wayan Sekariani sees women’s attitudes as the real obstacle to performing successfully with the mask. Sekariani explains that many women still think their place is in the kitchen, being a housewife: ‘It is as if they have conceded defeat even before the war has begun.’ Dayu Diastini thinks this is due to a long history in which women were secluded and not allowed to dance: ‘Now it’s customary for women not to be bold, to be hesitant about playing unconventional roles’.
In spite of the difficulties, most people support women performers as long as they do not perform the sacred topeng Sidhakarya. The figure of Sidhakarya, whose name means ‘the one who completes the task’ plays a key role in most Hindu ceremonies. Most male performers and audience members I interviewed politely but explicitly opposed women performing Sidhakarya. The combination of women and topeng Sidhakarya is considered dangerous: it crosses a forbidden boundary. Why should this be so?
Women report a seemingly insurmountable impediment. Arja performer and dalang, Wayan Latri explains ‘We don’t even think of performing with it [the Sidhakarya mask], we’re not even allowed to touch it during menstruation! Balinese consider women who are menstruating to be leteh (impure) and they are not allowed to do anything sacred, especially regarding the ceremonies.’ But women themselves also play a role in perpetuating these views. As Latri observes, ‘it is the way we feel more than anything else.’ Sekariani asks, ‘I often wonder why women are considered dirty. Perhaps as women we have to find the answer together.’
Women performers are striving to acquire technical mastery of topeng form. And Sekariani’s words suggest that some are beginning to question the boundaries of the sacred that exclude women.
Carmencita Palermo (email@example.com) is PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania and a practising topeng performer.