It takes a hardened soul indeed to remain unmoved by the depth of culture in Bali, an island just off the eastern tip of Java. Even on the surface, ritual and sound form an enchanting backdrop to kehidupan sehari-hari or daily life where whiffs of dupa harum incense cloud the morning sky and the shimmer of the gamelan can be heard on soundtrack at the print shop. Last year just over 6.5 million visitors arrived at the international airport, Ngurah Rai, to explore an area roughly the size of Greater Sydney and it’s no wonder. The Balinese are a poised people; they are as delighted by their customs as sightseers, and they live in a place steeped in majestic history with the trimmings of paradise.
This is the superficial. At its core, the island is layered with ritual and Hindu-based mysticism, to the extent even Balinese lack definitive answers for the nuances of their culture. An example: Tri hita karana sits confidently at the heart of Balinese philosophy and life; crudely the term translates as ‘three reasons for wellbeing’ but to understand its value, one requires local context. Here begins the next challenge. One friend says, “Tri means three, Hita means happiness and Karana means cows.” Another says it represents “the trinity.” The three most worshipped Gods in Bali are Siva, Vishnu and Brahama he tells me. Every community has three temples; within each temple are three mezzanines representing birth, life and death. The traditional family compound, an exquisite combination of black sandstone carving and hand-painted pavilions, houses in equal plot living rooms,garden and family temple, which is partitioned into three elevations, and on and on.
Sometimes in Bali, it can feel as though there are as many possibilities as there are palm fronds on the tree, but this is its magic of course and the arts are no different. Here, religion, culture and craft are fused together. With a preternatural onus on beauty and preservation, dancing, music, painting, mask-making and even shadowpuppetry are deemed holy practises and integral to ceremonial life; yet they are also commercial enterprises, treasured for their perpetuation of culture as much as fiscal success.
This is why in 1973 the Governor of Bali, Soekarmen, authorised dance into three lawful divisions: Wali, Bebali and Bali-Balihan. The first is a sacred form of dance ushered in at temples with gifts for the Gods; the second are semi-sacred dances consecrated in the same sites but less so and third is the streamlined form of entertainment we see as tourists. The same themes still apply – namely, God, community and nature – and even the settings are alike, but the purpose and accessibility differ, and this matters because it keeps the sacred a spectacle for Gods and not grubby tourists.
On a balmy Wednesday evening in April, Agung Bagus, revered classical dancer of the BBC documentary “Miracle of Bali” sits with legs crossed on polished wooden floors at Usada, a most exquisite yoga Shala onJalan Sugriwa in Ubud. He wears a canary yellow tailored jacket, resplendent sarong, a trifecta of gold rings representing “Vishnu, Siva and Brahma” and a wide smile that defies his age, which is 68-years-old. “Before I dance, I meditate in the cemetery,” he tells a group of enthusiasts who have paid # to meet the learned man, dine with him and watch a Bali-Balihan performance of legong at the Puri Agung theatre in his village, Peliatan.
“It is a pity this tradition is not practised so much anymore.” Such are the side effects of modernism we lament with gentle mirth. Motorbikes! Electricity! Young dancers whom fail to pay respect to their ancestors!
Peliatan is just went of Ubud and Bagus or Gung Aji as he is affectionately called, descends from a long line of performers and musicians brought up in the region. His father, whose sepia portrait hangs above the stage at the Puri Agung, toured one of the first Balinese troupes to Paris in the fifties and his mother sung the Ardja, the role of servant to the princess, with Cinderella-like humility. When his younger brother, one of twelve children by three simultaneous wives, was old enough to take to the stage – or temple as the case may be, no one dances just the Wali, Bebali or Baihan – he ran away from home to preclude the obligation, but Gung Aji was a natural.
Taught the Legong, a series of 92 steps hailing from the Royal Palace by his mother from the age of nine, he started tinkling with gongs, drums and the metallophone at around the same time. “Every day I am listening to
the gamelan,” he says of his childhood home. “I start by myself!”
Last week while researching the gamelan, an article I read claimed everyone in Bali is a musician. I promptly dismissed the point as fascicle, but slowly I have developed some sympathy for her point. Travelling to the outer
provinces, there are so many villages there seems to be no authoritative count and yet each community has at least two gamelan gong or orchestras – one for ceremonies and another for cremations – and a dance troupe. In
Ubud, this figure rises to six. “To be a musician, to be a dancer is very important. Every village, every temple,” says Gung Aji. Unlike art theory in America or Denmark say, artistry here is exercised chiefly as worship or
traditional medicine and good practice is believed to invoke the Gods.
To dance beautifully or ‘create harmony,’ as the locals say then, is considered an exalted state of being and according to Gungaji hinges on solidarity with the gamelan. “Otherwise not fit altogether. Cymbal and beat.
Then gong. One big and small. The timing should fit. Don’t miss it.” In temperament, the gamelan flickers with the sporadic grace of wind through rice paddy fields; like reeds diverging left and right, its rhythm is spontaneous and complex, and it takes an attuned performer indeed to play to its nuances while holding the technique.
“This is the hardest yoga,” says Scott Bauer, the dulcet owner of Usada. “Knees are bent, the fingers are going, the eyes are moving. The mind training to do that is on the level of martial arts.” “Need flexibility. Must start very young, for the limbs,” adds Gung Aji.
Later. After a dinner of Ikan Laut Bakar, a barbequed spiced fish picked over by a vista of paddy fields, Gung Aji and his party convoy to the Pura Agung where hospitality is a blend of familiarity and reverence. Children jostle. Instrumentalists loiter in unperturbed anticipation on the street. Even the security guards wear lax smiles, as we usher into the gracious stone ‘palace’ underwritten by President Sukarno. (“Sukarno very appreciate of dance, after that ‘bye bye” I recall Gung Aji’s earlier quip) We take our seats and at 7.25pm, the gamelan gong, with Gung Aji on the two-string violin rebab, enter through a beatifically carved door to sit stage right. There is silence, and the overture claps in like a bolt from the blue.
The Legong or ‘dance of the heavenly nymphs’ as it is known, is not the most ancient form of dance in Bali but it is said to be the most refined. Literally dreamed up by Prince Dewa Karna Agung of Sukawati in the early 19th century, the palace narratives – squabbles belying the fight between good and evil or higher and lower thought – are characterised by young slim dancers, resplendent national dress, crowns embellished with fresh flowers
and deft, precise movement. “With legong, we try to imitate Gods, beauty,” Gungaji teaches simply. To embody this ideal, he instructs pupils to start by lifting their toes to the sky; then travelling “up, up, up” so the
centre of gravity is earthed, legs are folded “like an animal,” the waist is constricted, shoulders are wide, fingers tremble “like palm leaves” and eyes flicker back and forth, unblinking, with taksu. Taksu is “powerful energy
from the Gods.” Spiritual charisma.
Thankfully, on this spangled night, taksu is in abundance and no more so than in the dazzling condong, maidservant to the princess. In Bali, drama is considered secondary to the movement so the fact that the princess never appears – she is protagonist, trying to escape the promise of a loveless marriage for genuine love– is inconsequential. The condong does a fine job of communicating her deluge – frozen in wide-eyed dread – and desires – a frantic quivering vitality – and the legong, heavenly nymphs, are on hand to help. They mark out the space with swan like hands, carving through the air and whipping their fingers into mudras with eyes closed. The message they send is ‘all will be well,’ and of course it is.
“Oh yes, she has been invited to Japan many times,” Gungaji says with typical servility about the 18-year-old codong, who is named Ang post-performance.