Browsing CategoryMusic

flute and basket

Betty: Meeting Alit and seeing Denpasar by night

Our hotel was a small one, in a Denpasar suburb,  nothing smart. The mattresses were a little  hard and the bathroom had just a large, square, concrete cistern of water, with a plastic dipper for dousing.

We went out to explore the town. In front of the hotel, was a grassy square where children were playing. `Hello turis!’ they called out to us and, smiling widely, reached out upturned palms. They were beautiful children, Siregar’s smiling children, against a background of green.

Small, shrill, three-wheeled trucks  with stuttering, two-stroke  engines, careered on the streets. Bemos they were called. They sat six passengers in reasonable comfort on two benches… even more with a bit of a squeeze. They followed routes as would our buses and were the usual, least expensive and most convenient public transport in Denpasar. Lithe boys stood on the hind step, hanging on,  eyes out for custom. One such boy  waved us to his bemo. We asked for the post office, because that was an Indonesian word we knew,  and he nodded vigorously. We sat close against the comfortable thighs of turbaned women who regarded us without expression.

At the cross-roads in Denpasar is a large four-faced statue, Tertagangga that looks, at the one time to North, south, east and west. The main square of the town spreads over maybe ten acres, and along one side of it are the low decorated roofs of the main Hindu temple of Denpasar..

The post office, mother substitute for tourists, squats close by, behind a wall and a carved gateway. Her grounds were deserted and her faded doors closed tight: the day was a Balinese holiday. Nevertheless, we were not alone for long. In through the carved gates sped a bicycle with a young boy astride it; he circled us three times, braked, dismounted and, speaking English, introduced himself.

`Sir, Madam,’ he said, ‘from which country do you come?  I would like to show you Denpasar and explain anything you want to know.’  We were a little taken aback; but we liked this boy immediately. ‘My name is Alit’  he said,  ‘I am not a tourist guide and I do not want money’ then softly,  ‘but I would like you to help me with my English.’

Alit wasted no time:  ‘The population of Indonesia at the last census was almost one hundred and twenty million people.’ he began. We would learn more from Alit as he would learn from us.

He suggested that we go that night to Denpasar’s great temple on the alun-alun. There would be gamelan music and shadow puppet peformances of the Mahabarata, for this was the day to honour Dewi Sariswati, the benign and beloved goddess of the arts, of learning and literature. Nobody should pick up a book to read on her day; but a new year of reading would begin with the rising of the sun.

When Alit arrived at our hotel to escort us, other tourists were quite cynical.: `They’ll always say they just want to learn English!’ they said knowingly. ‘In the end, they want your money.’

In the town centre were small, colourful  pony carts, called dokkars, drawn by pretty ponies with bells and pomp-poms on their harness. Crowds of people in bright clothing walked slowly across the grass of the alun-alun. Beside the temple walls were sellers of food and drink: turbaned women knelt behind low tables, fanned charcoal fires and sticks of sizzling pork.

Women wore bolts of cloth (kains) in batik patterns wrapped about their thighs and reaching to their ankles and bright, patterned, narrow sleeved blouses called kebayas. Men wore neat shirts over their kains,  which they had tied carefully to fall in pleats in front and  on their heads were embroidered cloths tied intricately. They were good looking people, colourful and happy. Girls walked arm in arm with girls and boys with boys.

A large, white screen for the shadow play was built high on a bamboo platform ande penyors, long tasseled bamboo decorations, curved gracefully beside the carved gates. From inside the temple came the sound of chanting. We were intrigued by what might be going on inside the temple gates. Alit thought it should be all right for us to see whatever  ceremony  was happening.  He went away for a few minutes to check, then led us into the temple grounds.

When Alit took us through a narrow doorway, we saw a crowd gathered around an open-sided pavilion. Inside, an old man sat, cross-legged at a low table, reading from a Sanskrit text. To his left another man sat, repeating each sentence, actively and artistically, giving dramatic life to the reader’s monotone. His voice rose and fell, richly resonant.

The performance was pleasing to us and even more appreciated by the Balinese spectators and participants who obviously understood every subtlety of the text. Facing the two at the table sat a group of six men, deep in meditation, perhaps even trance. One was a particularly distinctive man, dressed all in white, with his long grey hair was pulled back in a knot. I watched the graceful movement of his shapely hands with their inch long finger-nails. His eyes, in a refined face, were black and intense.

Quite suddenly, the chanting with its dramatic repetition ceased. Beautiful, slim young girls, richly dressed in glittering sarongs and kebayas (long-sleeved, fitted blouses) and embroidered sashes binding the waist, approached the pavilion, then stepped on to the dais. The girls had thick black hair, lustrous in the soft light, coiled at the neck and decorated with frangipani. They placed food  in silver bowls before the men, who first cleansed their mouths with water, then broke their fast.

David had taken out his sketch-book, and was drawing,  His concentration was intense and seemed to suggest there was not a moment to be lost.  I could only marvel at his industry. Soon he attracted the interest of others:   I looked around to see him surrounded by small boys.

I stood on a step of the dais intrigued by these new sights and sounds, but soon I had an uncomfortable feeling. I had become aware that my presence was considered an intrusion. Strangely enough, David had the same feelings at the same moment and, with one accord, without speaking, we turned to leave.

Talking later, we agreed that the feeling came from the old man, a pedanda or priest of the Brahmana cast. His appearance and gestures both fascinated me. I was watching him intently when his glance caught and held my gaze. His eyes were burning with a fierce light and I under­stood at once that we were not wanted there.  I understood why: we were a distraction and apart from that, our heads were on a higher level than that of the sitting priest.  We were ill-mannered. we had not shown proper respect, we were not wearing temple sashes and we had received a silent, Oriental admonition that we would not forget.

The Wayang puppets would perform until morning. We were too tired to last the distance. We returned to our hotel and wearily lay on beds covered with just one sheet. I wrestled for a while with a hard bolster, a `dutch-wife’ they call them,  and finally fell asleep.

temple near ubud lighter

Chapter 1 Our Northern Neighbour

David:

Cloud hung along Bali’s shore line: a white rim of sand, a dark line of palms. In the distance, somehow reptilian, an iron grey peak thrust its head from the cloud. ‘The plane circled low over a landscape wonderfully delicate: green light and wet rice fields shining like panes of glass, the fretted texture of dark palm trees, small clusters of thatched roofs. This was even more than we had expected of the land described as a paradise. This was the magic of Bali.

Our interest in Indonesia came from a realization that most Australian people, including Betty and me, knew very little about our nearest neighbor. Words tell us something but show nor can photographs convey the feel and fibre of a country. Even when we had studied the language, Bahasa Indonesia, eaten Indonesian food, sung Indonesian songs with people who came from Indonesia; we were not  prepared for what we night find in that island nation so close to ours. One Sumatran man told us, in his forthright, Sumatran way: “You can call us an underdeveloped nation, a developing nation or a third world nation, whatever you like;  what you will find is a green land, full of smiling children”. And that was good enough for us.

At Ngurah Rai Airport, long grass grew between the runways and an old man who wore  a conical hat and held a sickle stood still as stilland didn’t turn an eye towards the line of hot and sweaty tourists that straggled across the tarmac. ‘Selamat datang’ (‘Welcome.) the customs man said and he waved us on without inspecting our baggage. Jostling boys, who hoped to carry our baggage, assailed us, with fingers  jabbing at chests:  Me! Me!’. It was hot, we sweated in a long queue, to change crisp travellers’ cheques into wads of many soft little banknotes.  A driver pounced and almost dragged us to his taxi and, once we had paid the boy who dragged our baggage, we were on our way to Denpasar, fast, with the car’s horn blaring.

The road ran between rice fields and lines of coconut palms, through villages where, thatched family dwellings and tiny pagoda-like  temples could be seen over thatched, high walls of clay.

Farmers in rice fields guided ploughs behind pretty Balinese oxen and women walked beside the road with grace and  easy rhythm. They wore sarongs about their thighs, turbans on their heads, hair pulled back in chignons, and they balanced great baskets on their heads  Colours were muted; ochres blended with umbers and greens.   We swerved around great a pig that snuffled the road and the driver blared his horn.

To our surprise, a slight and urbane young man had slid easily into the car beside us as we left the airport. He laid a gentle hand on my arm. ` Kecak dance tonight,’ he began, ‘you will see it.  Must not miss Kecak. Tonight!  Only  3,000 rupiah each, You must see… tonight.’

‘Tonight?’

`Yes, tonight, you must see.’

‘No other night?’

‘No., tonight you must see! Three thousand rupiah. Good price! Good price.’  .

At our hotel the same young man followed us right into our room, still insisting that tonight was the night and the price was right. he wore me down, in the end, I was tired. ‘Oh well, why not? I counted out  twice three thousand rupiahs.

That was when Amos, the hotel manager, arrived. He, a small, slim, gentle man, bowed politely, took hold of my elbow in a kindly way ‘Tuan, is “rip¬off” an expression you have heard?’ The seller of tickets vanished, like Balinese magic. We had arrived.

Compact Discintroduction to Indonesian musicIn 1975, Betty and I were lucky enough to be awarded a travel grant by the Literature Board of The Australia Council (an innovation of the Whitlam era). We went, wide eyed with innocence and curiosity, to explore the islands of Bali and Java.

We had no definite objective, no planned publications, we would just allow, even encourage, things to happen and then work out what to do. We had learned as much of the Indonesian language as we could, enough to get by, and of course we would be forced to learn quickly as we went on our way. We had no very clear picture of what we would find, photographs and books give you only a vague overview.
There was one description, however, that remained clear in our minds: A Sumatran gentleman we met at a party for Indonesian students told us, a little defensively, ‘You can call us a third world country, a developing country, whatever you like; what you will find is a green land full of smiling children.’
Because Betty is a composer and a pianist and I am a story teller and illustrator, we were naturally drawn to the arts of Indonesia and as we encountered those arts and the artists who created them, a strong desire developed to tell our own countrymen about the riches Spice-and-magic-book-coverwe were discovering. In Jakarta the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture made things easier for us by supplying us with letters of introduction to some of the leading Indonesian artists, but then plain luck led us to other fine creators and led also into some very good friendships.

We shall always be grateful to the Literature Board of The Australia Council and to The Schools Commission, who commissioned a music drama for children. We went back, quite a few times to Indonesia, and we did achieve results: Betty set to music the work of several of Indonesia’s leading poets and also wrote much orchestral and instrumental music using Indonesian themes and scales; together we wrote a music drama for children, THE RAJA WHO MARRIED AN ANGEL (Playlab Press, Australia) set in Bali; I wrote and illustrated two children’s picture books, MISS BUNKLE’S UMBRELLA, set in Java, (The Bodley Head, UK, and Crown Books, USA) and AYU AND THE PERFECT MOON set in Bali (The Bodley Head, UK, Curtis Brown, USA, Walker Books, Australia).
As I go on with this blog, I will refer to the work that came from this research, especially our travel book SPICE AND MAGIC (Boolarong Press), and a compact disc, MUSIC AND MUSICIANS IN BALI AND JAVA (Beath-Cox Art Enterprises). Both of these works are obtainable from Beath-Cox Art Enterprises.

Ayu and the Perfect Moon
AYU AND THE PERFECT MOON,  Published by Walker Books, Australia