Kecak (pronounced [ˈketʃaʔ] (“kechak”), alternate spellings: kechak and ketjak), known in Indonesian as tari kecak, is a form of Balinese hindu dance and music drama that was developed in the 1930s in Bali, Indonesia. Since its creation it has been performed primarily by men, with the very first women’s kecak group starting in 2006. The dance is based on the story of the Ramayana and is traditionally performed in temples and villages across Bali..
Also known as the Ramayana monkey chant, the dance is performed by a circle of as many as 150 performers wearing checked cloths around their waists, percussively chanting “chak” and moving their hands and arms.
The performance depicts a battle from the Ramayana, in which the monkey-like Vanaras, led by Hanuman, help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance.
Kecak was originally a trance ritual accompanied by a 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 Hindu Ramayana and including dance, intended for performance before Western tourist audiences.
Walter Spies worked with Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak, who popularized the dance by arranging internationally touring performances by Balinese groups. These tours helped make the kecak internationally known.
This is an example of what James Clifford describes as part of the “modern art-culture system” in which “the West or the central power adopts, transforms, and consumes non-Western or peripheral cultural elements, while making ‘art,’ which was once embedded in the culture as a whole, into a separate entity”.
I Wayan Dibia, a performer, choreographer and scholar, suggests, by contrast, that the Balinese were already developing this form when Spies arrived on the island. For example, during the 1920s, Limbak had incorporated baris movements into the cak leader role. “Spies liked this innovation,” and he suggested that Limbak “devise a spectacle based on the Ramayana,” accompanied by cak chorus rather than gamelan, as would have been usual.
The kecak dance is typically performed by about fifty to one hundred men wearing only loincloths; their upper bodies are left bare. They form concentric circles, in the middle of which is a traditional Balinese coconut oil lamp. First they move their bodies rhythmically to the left and to the right, chanting the words “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak” continuously, in slow rhythm.
Gradually the rhythm speeds up and by turns they lift their hands, trembling, into the air. The kecak dance is performed for dance-dramas and the story presented is taken from the Ramayana Hindu epic. The bare-chested male kecak chanters play the role of Rama’s troops of Vanaras (apes) and Ravana’s troops of Rakshasas (giants).
The duration of the performance is around an hour. The story of the Ramayana is depicted, beginning with Sita and Rama’s exile in the jungle of Dandaka. The performance reenacts the appearance of the Golden Deer, the abduction of Sita by Ravana, the battle between Ravana and Jatayu, the search for Sita by Hanuman, and ends with the battle between Rama and Ravana. The kecak chanters chant and sing in accordance with the mood and milieu of the story.
Kecak dance performances in Bali usually take place daily in the evening (6 pm) at Balinese Hindu temples such as Uluwatu Temple and Tanah Lot. There are also dance stages used exclusively for kecak performances in Ubud, Garuda Wisnu Kencana, Batu Bulan, Pandawa beach and other places in Bali.
Kecak performances also take place on other occasions, such as for cultural and entertainment displays.
Dancers usually come from local villagers of the surrounding area of the performance; they usually have a main job other than dancing which they finish before performing the kecak dance. The dancers’ income from the dance usually comes from tickets sold to the spectators. The most popular destination for kechak dance performances is Uluwatu Temple.
The dancers consist of two types: the kecak male-chanters and the main Ramayana dancers who play the roles of Sita, Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana, Hanuman, Jatayu, etc.
Some of the kecak male-chanters who chant chak-chak-chak have their own tasks during the performance. One individual is responsible for maintaining the beat of the chant by chanting “po-po-po-po”. Another man serves as the leader of the chorus, instructing them to stop or start the chanting by yelling command vocals such as “Diih!”, “Chiaaat!”, etc.
There is also a man whose job is to sing during the chanting; he sings in a melodious or rhythmic tone according to the situation of the dance with vocalizations such as “Shiiir-yang-ngger-yang-nggur-yang-nggeer”. Another man, known as the dalang, narrates the story during the dance, usually in Balinese and Sanskrit. The men chosen for these tasks are usually the senior male dancers. The remaining chanters chant “chak-chak-chak” continuously and simultaneously with harmony.
The dancers who represent the core Ramayana characters are considered an essential part of the dance. Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and the Golden Deer, whose movements are gentle and smooth, are sometimes played by female dancers who are trained in such styles of movement. Men play muscular characters such as Ravan, Hanuman, Sugriv, etc.
Trance rituals often accompany certain sections of the kecak dance, such as during the portrayal of the burning of Hanuman. Here, the dancer playing Hanuman is blessed by a priest and enters a trance state for the fire kicking dance which follows. The dancer does not feel any pain from the fire because he is in a state of trance.