The word ‘gambuh‘ is a play on ‘gabung‘, meaning to join, fuse, bring together. The Gambuh Dance of Batuan, Bali, is exactly this: a fusion of ancient Javanese and Balinese dance forms.
Accompanying a gambuh performance, a few long flutes play low and atonally. The result is an alien, whirring sound on which these agile beings float about on. The resulting dance is ethereal to the point of being eerie, with men – but especially girls – existing in ephemeral bubbles of Holiness.
As a fusion of ancient styles, gambuh is the piano of dance forms. Once you know gambuh – and can sing in Bahasa Kawi – everything else comes easily. Not only does it open many doors for doing cultural performances or other temple ceremonies, it also brings out the best in these kids. At a young age, to have the village elders sit under you while you turn into an ethereal being – speaking the cryptic language of royalty – watching a gambuh dance is watching the elite come into their own, watching bird-like little girls become true princesses and men at their most regal.
So while many fret the disappearance of gambuh, its function – for the small number of people with capacity for it – is vital, traditional, and not going anywhere fast.
Interested in catching a performance of gambuh? The area and Banjar of Batuan, 20 minutes from Ubud, is a safe bet. Gambuh is often performed in conjunction with full moon ceremonies, which may also offer shadow puppet performances in the interior of the temple. Make sure you dress appropriately, and bringing an offering will help you feel more welcome. It being Bali, the crowds are often scattered with foreign faces, their foreheads spotted with rice. Consult a local on what type of offering to bring, place it on the alter amongst other offerings, and bring it home with you later – for a late night snack after a night of Indonesian high art.
Ayo, gabung! Come on out and join in!