Thursday, 22 August 2013

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.
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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
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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.