Can you imagine Ramayana without dialogues and music? In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state, a unique kind of Ramayana is performed. In Bali, the only Hindu majority province, the Ramayana is combined with a trance dance Kecak to give this epic a unique touch.

Every evening as the sun dips into the Bali Strait, people gather at a small open air theatre on the cliff at the Uluwatu Temple overlooking the Bali Strait.

The performance is called a ‘Kecak dance’, an onomatopoeic title for the sound of the chant. It’s based on a traditional Balinese ritual but was actually created by a German man in the 1930s and based on the Ramayana.

Kecak was originally a trance ritual accompanied by male chorus. In the 1930s, Walter Spies, a German painter and musician, became deeply interested in the ritual while living in Bali. He adapted it as a drama, based on the Ramayana and including dance, intended for performance before Western tourist audiences.

As upwards of 60 bare-chested men dressed only in sarongs (lungi of sorts), each with a red hibiscus planted behind his ear, swarm onto the circular open air stage. There are no props, no artificial backdrop, and no orchestra. There is no cymbal-clashing, gong-bashing gamelan ( Balinese percussion instrument) of the kind that accompanies older, more conventional dance forms, such as barong and legong. The focus is entirely on the circles of men sitting cross-legged, the smooth brown skin of their backs shining in the dusk sunlight.

Without warning, they commence the polyrhythmic vocal chant: “Cak, cak, cak”, an incessant, fast-moving, high-pitched murmuring broken continually by individual voices alternatively more upbeat and downbeat. The effect, after a while, is to provide a wall of dramatic sound against which the action of the play can be enacted.

The entire story of Ramayana – abduction of Sita by Ravana and the subsequent battle against him by Lord Ram and the role of Lord Hanuman – is told through the chanting of “Cak, cak, cak”.

The highlight of the performance comes at the very end – the destruction of Ravana’s Lanka. Here the man playing the character of Lord Hanuman wreaks havoc as the fire lit up in the centre of stage is kicked around by barefooted Hanuman. As the burning pieces of coal fly all around , the audience ran for cover because many of them land in the stands. After the performance, the cast mingles with audience and people take selfies with Lord Hanuman, the most popular character.

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Asif Ullah Khan

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