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  The Clowns

No temple ceremony, wedding celebration, or dance-drama is complete without a clown or two to liven up the performance.

Just as the Javanese venerate their clownish panakawan, the Balinese believe there is a strong connection between the comic and the divine. The laughter is a kind of offering, making the tales' morals more memorable. It also keeps the classics from becoming too ossified.

The clowns and courtiers deal with themes of topical interest and practical value. For example, to dispel some of the tension generated by insensitive tourists, clowns have even invented a caricature of a tourist. He is a disruptive, bad-mannered, wooden-nosed buffoon wearing a ridiculous trench coat and galoshes, with a swinging camera on his shoulder.

Immensely popular, this character helps the Balinese preserve their dignity. By dramatizing and satirizing contemporary problems and lampooning historical chronicles and heroes, these wily bands of sacred merrymakers establish a continuity between past and present that reassures the Balinese in their attempts to cope with a bewilderingly changing world.

As mass tourism and commercial development poise to destroy traditional Bali, the clowns show the people how foolish they can be. All the laughter and self-mockery serves as a catharsis. For all these reasons, the Balinese clown is looked upon not only as an entertainer but also as a highly respected spiritual guide, filling a special role in Balinese and national culture.

Political parties use clowns to address prickly issues and woo voters. During Balinese political rallies, opponents often mimic the clown's absurd, singsong tonal alterations. In his wonderful book Subversive Laughter (Free Press, 1994), the theater historian Ron Jenkins writes, "Claiming the margin as center, the clown is the personification of cultural resistance."

Bebanyolan undergo rigorous physical and intellectual training. From childhood they receive instruction in voice and dance, as well as in the religious literature and historical chronicles of the island. Their mastery of the old religious texts equals that of Balinese priests.

The clowns are master linguists as well as superlative comedians, singing their parts in ancient Kawi, modern Indonesian, and Balinese. The Bebanyolan improvisational skills are masterful. Not having to adhere to a rigid script, they constantly improvise, a fact that renders their verbal proficiency even more startling.

If the play is before a group of tourists, smart-alecky phrases in English pepper the performance. The clowns' talents can best be appreciated viewing the masked Topeng Theater, a highly charged and still popular Wayang form on Bali.

Royal characters speaking the higher literary verse are usually accompanied by a comic servant speaking the common idiom. Except for a few expressions, most Balinese don't know the old language. Consequently, the clowns play the same role of plot commentator as Shakespearean fools do.

The clown, of course, falls prey to all the temptations that the princely character spurns, and when he performs a classical dance there is always something a little bit wrong or uncoordinated with each gesture, all of which sends the audience into hysterics.

Few realize that this subtle burlesque requires a higher degree of technique and muscular control than the proper dance.

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