May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Woman power

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Rucina Ballinger

In Bali, the world of dance and theatre accepts change more readily than society. Theatre is often a mirror of aspirations rather than realities. Luh Luwih, an all-women’s theatre and music group consisting of 30 members and based in the regency of Gianyar, is a prime example.

Gender-bending in theatre

Cross-dressing in performance has a long history in Bali. However, most of the ‘gender-bending’ has involved men playing women’s roles. Early in the twentieth century, women began performing refined male as well as female roles in classical Balinese dance-drama. By the end of the twentieth century, there were all-male arja (classical Balinese operetta) troupes and two women’s mask troupes. Today, there are all-women gamelan groups in every regency and a wave of women performers staging ‘unconventional’ theatre and dance.

Leading this gender revolution today is Luh Luwih (‘womanly woman’), a group of dedicated women performers. Luh Luwih’s name consciously extols all the positive values of being female. Luh Luwih regularly perform traditionally male dance forms: the topeng mask dance, and cak (a type of ‘mouth music’ chanting). They also perform Calonarang, a story of black magic and spurned affections.

Suarti’s story

Growing up in a poor village with few prospects, the founder of Luh Luwih, Desak Nyoman Suarti, found her freedom in dance. At 15, she went to Australia with a gamelan group and tasted what would eventually become her daily sustenance — dance. An accomplished dancer with a courageous spirit, Suarti left Bali for a new life overseas when she was 16 — begging an American to, in Suarti’s words, ‘kidnap’ her. They went to Singapore, where Suarti taught dance and performed, and later moved to New York where they married.

This remarkable woman, who never finished senior high school, now manages and designs for a successful jewellery and homewares business. She returned to Bali in 1990 with her husband and a dream for the women of her village. Why not teach them how to play music? Get out of the house, forget about domestic troubles and create something beautiful. ‘I made it to the top of the world,’ says Suarti, ‘Why shouldn’t other women have the same freedom as me?’ With her trademark long locks rolled into a topknot, her tattoos, big jewellery and revealing clothes, Suarti does not fit the image of the archetypal demure, soft-spoken Asian woman. Some Balinese respond with shock, disgust and fear, but many women admire her for her boldness.

Suarti founded Luh Luwih in 1995. The women (most of whom are over 40) consist of professional and amateur performers. Why did they join Luh Luwih? ‘So women can advance,’ says Jero Mangku Alit, a temple priestess as well as a dancer. ‘We have to be ready to sacrifice for what we really enjoy doing. We want to be able to be the same as men …most of the time.’ Yet these women still ‘know their place’ within their culture. Their husbands come first, aptly illustrated by each woman’s typical comment that her husband supports her art l00 per cent. Many say they come to rehearsals to escape domestic tensions.

The reaction of the public has generally been one of pride. The standard reaction is ‘an all-women’s troupe? Luar biasa (How extraordinary)!’ Official sponsorship is lacking, but Luh Luwih have been on local television and perform regularly at temple festivals.

Women and black magic

Suarti claims she is trying, through her own creative energies, to empower women through the arts by allowing them to discover and develop their own potential and magical power. Magic is an integral part of Balinese daily life and ‘Bali illnesses’ (ones that are said to be caused by black magic spells) are common. Usually, it is women who are accused of putting spells on others. This could be due to the belief that women are more prone to gossip and jealousy. Or it could be due to people’s fear of women’s sakti.

Magic power is the dominant theme in the Balinese dance-drama Calonarang, an eleventh century tale of witchcraft and intrigue. The story goes that Calonarang was the wife of the powerful king Airlangga and dabbled in the black arts. She was banished to the forest with her infant daughter, Ratna Manggali. When the girl grew into a beautiful young woman, no-one would marry her, as her mother was considered a witch. This enraged Calonarang, who wreaked pestilence and famine throughout the land.

The distraught king asked his trusted spiritual advisor, Empu Bharada for advice. ‘Someone must marry the daughter and discover where the power of the witch comes from,’ he told the king. So the sage sent his son, Bahula, to marry Ratna Manggali. Bahula found a sacred lontar (palm leaf manuscript) which Calonarang had been using to hone her magical powers. He confronted her and a fight ensued. But as both of their powers were equal, no-one won. In Hindu Bali it is believed that this battle between good, and that which destroys good, continues to this day.

The story of Calonarang is often performed at the temple of death, where the spirit of Calonarang as Durga, the goddess of black magic resides. This performance is a ritual in itself, one that restores balance to the community by pitting good against evil in the portrayal of the battle between Rangda the witch (Calonarang) and the Barong (a mythical lion-like creature who is the protector of the village and the manifestation of Maling Meguna, King Airlangga’s minister).

Feminising Calonarang

When the Calonarang dance-drama was first created at the end of the 1800s, all of the performers were male. Gradually, in the years leading up to Indonesia’s independence, women began playing the roles of some of the female characters as well as the role of the refined minister. Yet never had the role of Rangda been performed by a woman (with the exception of Sukmawati, Sukarno’s daughter, in the l970s for a brief spell), nor that of the Barong. In 2003 that changed, when the Luh Luwih troupe performed Calonarang for the first time at the Pura Dalem in Pengosekan. All the roles except for one were performed by women in the troupe.

In the Calonarang, one of the major issues (aside from black magic and its ills) is that of rejection. Ratna Manggali is rejected in marriage due to her mother’s reputation. No-one disputes that her mother was a witch, historically or in the play. Yet Ratna Manggali herself is not a practitioner of magic. Luh Luwih’s version attempts to show her plight from a woman’s viewpoint. The scorned woman and her maidservant discuss Ratna’s fate in a humorous banter which offers viewers insight into women’s contemporary gender concerns.

One of the most challenging things about being in an all-women’s troupe is the quest to find women’s voice — what we want to say to our audience. Most dance-dramas in Bali are performed by men and the concerns addressed are largely men’s. As women and men live in separate worlds to a great degree in Bali, this discriminates against women audience members. In Luh Luwih’s performances, women talk about women’s issues. This is not to say it is a feminist message, but at least it is beginning to embrace the concerns of women’s lives.

Rucina Ballinger ( received a masters degree in Asian studies and dance ethnology from the University of Hawai’i and has lived in Bali for more than 20 years. She has performed Balinese dance since l973, with Luh Luwih since 2001. Her book, co-written with Dr Wayan Dibia, Balinese Dance, Drama and Music was recently published by Periplus Editions in Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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