Little Artists of Bali

Ayu, a small Legong dancer, at practice

David:

In the villages of Bali, everyday life is decorated with flower offerings to Hindu Gods, with carvings, ornate temple gates, the thatched roofs of family shrines behind compound walls. Almost every village has its groups of actors and dancers and an orchestra called ‘gamelan’. As Indonesia’s top painter, Affandi, said: `In Bali, everyone is a little artist’.

‘You should have been here ten years ago’, the old hands say. `Then the Legong (dance) was the Legong. Now it is shortened for tourists and is just an entertainment; then it was an experience.’

Now, there are thousands of motor-bikes, transistor radios, rock and roll, flared trousers and everything else that goes on in the world and travels by jet. Wolf-eyed agents lead sheep-eyed tourists, and business is good in the large hotels.

The traditions of Bali, in art and customs, have been handed down for centuries without notation. They come from ancient beliefs, animism and ancestor worship, and from the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Now, academies and societies face the enormous task of recording what exists.

The traditions of Bali, in art and customs, have been handed down for centuries without notation. They come from ancient beliefs, animism and ancestor worship, and from the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Now, academies and societies face the enormous task of recording what exists. In the Balinese capital, Denpasar, are the twin academies, KOKAR, the Conservatorium of Music, and ASTI, the Academy of Dance. Betty and I were invited to see the students at work.

 Betty:

We had just returned to Bali from Java, where we had spent six weeks. David had developed a lung infection and was as fragile as a leaf. Balinese friends touched him gently and exclaimed in alarm. He tottered where once he strode. So we made our way slowly to KOKAR and ASTI. The buildings stand side by side in a small street, great oblong pavilions with steep Balinese roofs and guardian stone giants at the doorways. Groups of students in sarongs and white shirts on golden skins regarded us softly as we walked between them.

We watched the gamelan and dancers in rehearsal, and I was amazed by their discipline. The leader who played the drum, the kendang, was a particularly attractive and gifted musician. He held the orchestra in the palm of his hand and, at the same time, seemed to carry on a pretty flirtation with one of the dancers. Her blushes and glances decorated the performance. In Jakarta, we had met I Made Bandem, a dancer of renown and lecturer at ASTI, Bali. Now we were able to take up his invitation to visit him at the academy.

For four years, I Made Bandem studied at the University of California, Los Angeles and graduated with his M.A. degree. In California, he became known as the Nureyev of Bali. In 1975 he toured in Australia with Indonesia’s Cultural Mission to this country but not as a dancer. He was director, organiser, and became cook as well, for the company found Australian food difficult to eat.

He is a small, slim man, vital, with a warm smile and direct manner. His training began in boyhood in his village. He told us how the boys would train their voices while they bathed in the river, how they would watch well known dancers in performance and, on the following day, practise the movements they had seen. Later, he had studied with the legendary Balinese dancer, Mario. He described for us the way in which the arts have come down through the centuries.

I was interested also in new work. Bandem talked about a new dance developed at ASTI. He described it as modern, with western influence, but still based on the traditional Cak dance, and the old, old story, the ‘Ramayana’. We had seen the Cak performed in Bona, the village of its origin. There, we had been swept into the magic and mystery of Bali. The moon and soft torch light shone on the brown bodies of a hundred men, the monkey soldiers, come to the aid of Hanuman, the monkey general.

Bandem said he would call a special rehearsal for the next day and we could be the audience. We were there promptly on time, putting our shoes amongst the others at the door. Bandem sat with us to explain the action. I Wayan Dibia, the creator of the new work was to conduct the rehearsal and dance the part of the monkey general.

About forty young men, stripped to the waist and wearing sarongs were the monkey soldiers. This was a performance without costume or lighting. Voices without accompaniment rose and fell and the voice of the dalang, the narrator, intoned the story in the old Javanese language. With shimmering hands, the dancers mimed the forest, pyramids of figures formed mountains, the wind was created in mime.

We were completely taken up by the sound and movement. ‘Cak-cak-cak-cak’, the voices said, and beside me, David’s drawing pen scratched out `cak-cak-cak-cak’ too, as he tried to capture it in drawing.

When the dance came to its abrupt end, the players received a standing ovation from both members of their audience, then, grinning widely, they clapped us.

Then Pak Banden offered an invitation…

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