Thursday, 22 August 2013

Travel Diaries: Stay Calm — Head North

North Bali Style temple gate at Sembiran near Tejakula, Buleleng.

North Bali is the new Lombok — it has all the natural charms of the more popular South but also has enormous appeal for those travellers fed up with south Bali's traffic and mass tourism. It is still authentic.

Tejakula Beach fishing village.
Last month I attended the Fourth Annual Tejakula Cultural Festival and toured the delightfully scenic far northeast coast of Bali, now reachable  in under 90 minutes from Ubud via Kintamani and the new Kintamani-Tejakula  road. There are over a dozen new reasonably-priced 'boutique retreats' which feature healthy food and get fit programs. I stayed at the Gaia-Oasis above Tejakula which is set in a vast mango plantation and surveys the North Bali Sea just below. 

Hot Bondres dancer at the Tejakula Arts Festival.
Tejakula Wayang Wong dancer performing at the Tejakula Arts Festival
During my weekend on the North Coast I was lucky to catch the ‘Sabha’ festival at the BALIMULA village of Julah, a pre-Hindu village with unique architecture and traditions. I visited the nearby villages of Sembirenteng, Les and Bondalem (famous for it's ikat textiles) and discovered pockets of quite ancient architecture and friendly villagers.
For the water sports fans and nature lovers there are plenty of attractions too: the dive sites off Amed are just around the corner in Karangasem; there are many trekking guides spread through villages too.
North Bali's real attraction however is its lack of attractions: one can very easily spend hours in a hammock on a virgin beach watching fishing boats sail out from the next bay. 
Surabaya dangdut singers at the Tejakula Arts Festival.
•         •        •
Last month I also went to India for a meeting with the great-great-great-great grandson of the Zamorin (ruler) of Calicut who first ‘welcomed’ Vasco de Gama to India (Calicut) in 1498. I was ushered all over South India to look at potential campus sites.
The amazing thing about South India’s stunning new airports — Bangalore, Kochi and Chennai — is that, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the architecture and the interiors , the experience for the traveler  as he steps out of the terminal building is just the same as it was in the Dark Ages. The airport authorities have thoughtfully provided the same level of decay and chaos — rampless egresses, cracked paths, cars deserted in the middle of pick-up zones, hundreds of milling ‘extras’ — as previously existed. It’s like an obstacle course for extreme travelers!

Celebrant at St. Joseph’s Church, Kochi, Kerala on India’s Independence Day.
By chance I was in Kochi (Cochin) on Indian Independence Day and was lucky to witness all manner of processions and church services. At St. Joseph’s, Kochi, I saw a firebrand father raining verbal brimstones down on his docile flock, like you know who at the Nuremburg rally. Outside, on the street, school children processed past in the regional costumes of the Indian States, similar to Independence parades in Indonesia. Die-hards can watch the video I made:
Various Independence Day activities at St. Joseph’s.
In Chennai the next day I happened upon a different sort of ritual — a trance ceremony to celebrate the end of Tamil Nadu’s month of Aati.
Under the broad branches of a rain tree, and next to a gaily-painted temple, a brightly-clad group of villagers were being whipped into a frenzy by a five-piece band and some priests.

Chai-wallah at St. Joseph’s tuck shop.
The atmosphere was spooky but also quite clinical in the middle of an I.T. park: Brahman-bruiser aunties put the silk-clad youths through their paces, India is riddled with such surreal juxtapositions: cows in express lanes; stark bollocks naked holy men; pudding with pickles. Watch the video:

Sacred cow in I.T. park.
It is incredible, it’s but also quite exhausting. As a senior I need down time in Singapore-standard hotel rooms to get back my strength and sanity; the new Westin in Chennai is fabulous for that. It’s all neutral-colours and non-denominational. There are no cows in the lobby. The Spa technicians keep the folded towel below the knee. I feel for the young people still doing India on a shoe-string budget.

Trance-dancers waiting in the wings, Chennai.

Trance-medium at Siwa temple outside Chennai.
29 August 2013:
Today I am delivering a lecture on Islam-Majapahit architecture to the Australian Society for Asian Art and Architecture.
I was billed as “David Bowie’s gardener turned art historian.” They made me promise to perform my Condong Merokok, “to boost numbers”. Twenty are expected. I have been holed up all week at the University of Sydney’s fabulous Fisher Library (24 hours; open to public; pineapple donut vending machines in the basement), reading books which have along disappeared from my library in Bali.
Yesterday I was interviewed on SBS Radio Indonesia’s Culture Program. I explain how I have just about stopped making 14th century Majapahit ruinscapes — gardens I used to occasionally create for high-end hotels — as they seem to just want ‘culture neutral’ gardens these days. I told the interviewee, Miss Sri Dean, that this has not stopped my continued research into 14th Century Architecture and Gardens in Java. In fact, I explained that the creative energy I used to put into garden design is now channeled into research. The interviewer’s eyes glazed over after I said this. She paused for a second and then asked me what David Bowie was really like.
Amazingly last night at Ken’s Karate Klub in Kensington a young Javanese in the steam room recognized my voice from the radio program — I was reciting W.S. Rendra poems to the gathered gym-maryz  — and asked me, as he laid a sweaty palm on my thigh, what David Bowie was really like.
I can’t imagine what other amateur archaeologists without ex-client celebrities talk about.
•         •        •
On the whole Sydney was a refreshing break: it is still the best destination 7 hours from Jakarta, with the possible exception of Bhutan.
In Australia resident Indonesians now call themselves ‘diasporas’. I tried to explain tom my Indonesian friends in Sydney that this is a horrible bastardization of the English language. The diasporas, all told me to ‘shutta your face …….. we are Indonesians, we do things our way’.
•         •        •
It is amazing how many erudite publications about Majapahit come out of Australia versus the few little pamphlets squeezed out here. All that colonialism plunder has born fruit.

Stranger in Paradise: North Bali in the Spotlight

The main Kori Agung gate of the fabulous Pura Beji, Sangsit, Buleleng.

Buleleng regency runs along Bali’s North Coast and back up into the hills of Mt. Batur and Bedugul.
Bali studies started in Buleleng in the early 20th Century with the ground-breaking work of two Dutchmen: H.N. van der Tuuk and artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp. Together they mapped the culture of Bali as no-one had done before.
For the first four decades of the 20th Century Singaraja was the capital of Bali, and of the Lesser Sunda Islands, and the base for the Dutch East India government. Tourists  arrived by ship at Singaraja Harbour only.
During the 1930s the road to South Bali was improved and the harbor at Padang Bai, East Bali, modified to take larger vessels. Tourism shifted dramatically to South Bali. The South started to attract artists and ethnographers as never before.
Over the last 60 years, North Bali has been spared the ravages of tourism, and of accompanying unchecked commercial development; but it has also developed an inferiority complex about the South’s success.
Any conference on North Bali’s culture always starts with a litany of complaints about its marginalization. The truth is: Buleleng may be poorer, in terms of income, but the culture of the North is still rich and the natural environment unspoiled. A new airport planned for Kubutambahan may spoil that but for the moment it is the last frontier of the old Bali both architecturally (Tejakula, Kubutambahan, Banyuning and Bila villages all full of gems) and anthropologically (the Bali Mula villages of Jula and Les).

Replica of North Balinese Pura, World Exhibition Paris, 1930
Last month I attended a culture conference at the sweatbox known as Undiksha University (tropical design is an anathema to Bali’s civic architects it seems) and an exhibition curated at the equally sweaty Museum Daerah, by Prof. Hedi Hinzler of Leiden University entitled “The First Encounter: W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp and Bali”.
Buleleng-born former Tourism Minister Gede Ardika opened the conference with an enthusiastic speech about cultural tourism. I asked him how he expects cultural tourism to survive when the Governor is advocating urban tourism and water sports, as has been reported in local newspapers. I mentioned how Jakartan developers are on the warpath for “culture neutral” properties, (Real Bali culture is too ‘heathen’ for their delicate convictions it seems) and suggested that perhaps the Department of Tourism is out of step with trends on the ground. If North Bali culture is to survive — and it is arguably at risk as there’s not a lot of it — then serious conservation steps need to be taken. Corralling sun-lovers in Lovina is one solution, but preserving the unique architectural heritage and natural environment of the North Coast should be a top priority.

The culture is resilient and will survive, I predict.
For me, the highlight of the conference weekend was a Mebarung gamelan contest, a sort of play-off, between Denpasar and Singaraja’s finest gamelan musicians.
•         •        •
29th July 2013: Puri Kaleran Peliatan’s Big Ceremony
Once in a generation Balinese family house temples — called sanggah or merajan depending on caste — are refurbished and re-consecrated in a series of lavish rituals.
Puri Kaleran Peliatan,  the birth place of the late great Anak Agung Mandera (Gung Kak), is home to a hundred legongs. It is also the studio-workshop of two of the island’s best choreographers, A.A. Bagus and A.A. Oka Dalem, Gung Kak’s two sons.
I grew up in Bali in awe of the talents of these Peliatan dances.
In 1979 I witness Gung Bagus dance an inspiring Kebyar Duduk at  Cokorda Sukawati of Ubud’s great cremation.
During the 1980s I watched Oka Dalem as lead dancer in  spectaculars produced by Guruh Soekarnoputra and his group, Swara Mahardika, at the Senayan Convention Hall in Jakarta.
Today I watched, spellbound, as the extended royal family of present and ancient dancers, all exquisitely dressed and balanced, gently took down their ancestral gods from their shrines and ritually bathed them. The courtyard was positively swimming in ceremonial beauty.
The arca figurines representing the gods were then placed on an altar in an open pavilion to spend a night.
Amongst the exquisite votive statues was one of a Buddhist monk with Chinese features wearing a Majapahit (14th Century Java) jacket (see photo above). Another ‘power object’ was a 200 years old dancer’s headdress, called a Gelungan Panji, a family heirloom which is believed to give strength to the family for continuing its creative endeavours in the performance arts.
Presiding lovingly over the ceremonies was the priest Mangku Pande, who is descended from the pande blacksmith clan who once made weapons for the palace’s ksatria warrior princes.

Ngenteg Linggih at Puri Kaleran Peliatan, 29 July 2013
•         •        •
The next day the gods were taken down and conveyed in a three gamelan procession to the South Palace, the Puri Kelodan, the ancestral home where the gods were to sit for a night.

Puri Kaleran Peliatan, 29 July 2013. The house Baris dancers gather before the procession to Puri Kelodan, Peliatan.
For the procession the princes wore dazzling arrays of royal male peacock attire — the palace ladies struggling to keep up with the sartorial splendour! At the head  of the long line of  legong lovelies was the imperious Gusti Ayu Raka (85), Bali’s answer to Gloria Swanson, who last danced at Versailles during the Peliatan troupe’s famous tour in the 1950s, and the exquisite Ibu Siti Rai Dalem (65) Bali’s answer to Audrey Hepburn, and former doyenne of the Amandari.
I choked up as the house’s marching band struck up and swung into place behind the palanquin sit. It was all just too beautiful and nostalgia provoking.
Unperturbed by all the sentiment, glamour-granny Gusti Ayu Raka pulled back her shoulders, lifted up her chin, and swept off. The traffic stopped, the crowds parted, the Peliatan show was on the road again.
3 August 2013: MEBARUNG at Sasana Budaya Singaraja
Tonight is the finale of the festival at the Sasana Budaya Culture Centre. A  MEBARUNG face-off has been arranged between the Gong Kebyar of  Denpasar's dance academy and the Gong Kebyar of  Buleleng's finest troup the Dwi Mekar. The hall is packed and the atmosphere is electric-eclectic. Between dance numbers  there's even an appearance by Gianyar body-builder Komang Arnawa to promote TAS PASAR (non-plastic shopping bags). The normally tedious Tari Nelayan (Fishermen's Dance) is gob-smackingly gorgeous, but the true star of the night is undoubtedly the Buleleng musicians who prance and pout, shimmy and sway, Stevie Wonder-like, as they play. The two great gamelans going at each other simultaneously was like a high-class musical juice-blender.
Backstage was a seething pit of endorphins (sic) and enzyme-secretion:  hot-blooded Buleleng dancers come with built-in boyfriends. 
North Bali musicians from Dwi Mekar gamelan troupe performing at the closing night of the North Bali Culture Conference.
The last act was a Buleleng chorus line — Parisada Kristen Dharma Choir meets Busby Berkeley — which had American anthropologist  Rucina Ballinger doing Buleleng Bee-Bop  in the aisles. It was a joy to hear such great gamelan gong kebyar and watch such virtuoso performers in a smallish hall rather than on the colossal Arts Centre Abian Kapas stage. Bravo the festival organizers for putting on such a great conference.
Watch this link for the full story:
10 August 2013: The 4th Tejakula Culture Festival
Hard on the big conference I am invited to a ‘boutique’ music and dance festival at Tejakula, a village on the North East Coast famous for its Wayang Wong mask dance and its exotic quasi-colonial architecture.
This is an annual festival which I highly recommend.
The 4th Annual Tejakula Arts Festival — North Bali’s premier classical Balinese dance and music festival — was held over three days in the beginning of August.
The festival attracted dancers and musicians from all over Bali for various ‘guest artist’ appearances but the bulk of the talent and the classical Wayang Wong performance which was the highlight of the last night, was from the far-flung township itself.
It seemed like the entire village turned out for each of the morning and evening performances.
The festival sponsors included the regional government and the Yayasan Gaia-Oasis, a non-profit organization headed by Swiss-born Ibu Susanne Shattin Roziadi.

Nini Griya Cremation - Faces and Fashion, 18 August 2013