Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Stranger in Paradise: Beauty Pageants in Paradise

Brahman aunties at Geria Tampakgangsul, 22nd January 2015: preparing for the start of
the Manah Toya Hening procession to the holy spring.
It is amazing what passes for a ceremony in New Age Bali, especially if one considers the high levels of loveliness and grace that all real Balinese ceremonies exhibit.
 New Age Bali ceremonies invariably involve hundreds of candles and a sexy person in a white sheet, wafting around, and a floral arrangement on the floor/beach. Often people are wailing and, if the event is at night, Hawaiian culture-show-type fire-dances are standard. 
One recent protest ceremony stands out from all the other New Age Bali ceremonies, as it involved ‘Superman Is Dead’, Bali’s hippest band.
I first became aware of Superman Is Dead ten years ago, when I saw their poster at ‘Rocket’, my pirate DVD and bondage outfitters in South Sanur, now a Vegan restaurant.
I thought the name brilliant, and even posted a photo of their poster in this column at the time.
Over the years their handsome, wildly popular lead drummer — I Gede Ary Astina (Jerinx) — has lent his name to various causes. The latest is the noble TOLAK REKLAMASI cause, which has seen tens of thousands of mostly young Balinese rally — for almost two years now — against environmental vandalism in the name of estate development, i.e. the filling in of half of beautiful Benoa Bay.
This climaxed last week with a mega-event at the bay’s edge, which involved Superman is Dead — Rolling-Stone-like on a floating stage —and a sinewy mate male dancer in a white sheet walking into the water in a nice Isadora Duncan/Virginia Woolf way.
Balinese in classical dance costumes flung flowers at Dewa Baruna, God of the Oceans, co-opted for the occasion, as she-males on pontoons in digga-digga-do-do jungle costumes twirled flaming batons. It was what the Indians call Caca-phoney, but with greased loins.
Meanwhile, in downtown Sanur and Denpasar, I witnessed the real deal — in the form of two ceremonies and three processions of such exquisite beauty that I was gasping for breath.
Now read on:
25th January 2015: Cremation of Ida Pedanda Gede Ngurah Karang, the family patriarch at Geria Tampak Gangsul, the glam-bram brahman house in Denpasar
Thirty years ago, at Geria Tampakgangsul, I watched as society beauty Dayu Tuttie Kompiang shed tears while praying in her family house temple as she said goodbye to her ancestors. It was part of the ceremonies leading up to her marriage to the son of the Raja Gianyar.
Well today she is back, big-time, some husbands later, with her Jakarta friends, and the Sanur rent-a-crowd as are thousands of her very extended brahman family, exquisitely dressed.
Dayu Tuttie and her family have been planning this mega-event for over a month, since her father died mid-December after a long illness.
Her mother, Pedanda Istri Karang, former tourism pioneer, has been a picture of grace during the weeks of ceremonies leading up to today’s climax. For decades a legendary society beauty, her transformation into a high priestess has been remarkable, and she has become a great addition to ceremonial Bali - always with Tuttie at her side.

Ratu Pedanda Istri Agung, widow of the deceased flanked by two of her many grandchildren at the cremation ceremonies.
Today she is like Lady Diana Cooper in The Miracle — stoic and beautiful, as courtyards of organized chaos swirl around her.
I arrive early with 68 members of Denpasar Baladika vigilante gang, who will today be conveying the funeral bier from the palace to the graveyard.
Outside, the palace forecourt is rather like the red carpet at the academy awards, but with a stately gamelan, battalions of armed forces (the deceased was a war hero), and a giant white bull, a gift from the Prince of Ubud.
Images from the Pelebon Ida Pedanda Gde Ngurah Karang, Geria Gede Tampakgangsul,
Denpasar, 25 January 2015 (Photos bottom by Luciana Fererro)
Inside is like the royal enclosure at Ascot, with people on their knees eating chicken curry.
At noon the Indonesian flag-draped coffin is conveyed out by Baladika and, after a brief military ceremony, carried up the ramp to the funeral bier (bade) by the deceased’s sons and grandsons.
And then the parade is off, pell-mell, down the main drag. Two beleganjur gamelan — positively ballistic is their theatrical clanging — and hundreds of beauties in classical gold and white Balinese dress. A pair of pedanda are riding the bade, dispensing rice and waving the gold-beaked, stuffed bird of paradise (product placement). The governor of Bali, the mayor of Badung (Denpasar) Regency, the princes of all realms are present. It is one of the greatest cremation spectacles I have ever seen — and the mood is euphoric.

Military send-off for Ida Pedanda Gede Ngurah Karang at Setra Badung cremation ground, 25th January 2015
(Photo by Luciana Fererro).
At the cremation ground an honour guard delivers a salvo of shots, witnessed by a grandstand of 25 high priests and priestesses.
The bull sarcophagus and coffin are burned and the family settles into coffee and cakes, and rice meals, while they await the late afternoon ashes-scattering ceremonies at Sanur Beach.
It is a fabulous farewell for one of Bali’s great cultural tourism pioneers.
(Photos by Luciana Fererro)
35 years ago, when working for the Sunday Bali Post with Rio Helmi and Sarita Newson, I first covered the legendary Baris Gede dance at Pura Dalem Kedewataan in the Brahman stronghold of North Sanur. I took some great black-and-white snaps which ended up in my Stranger in Paradise 1979-1981, a book available at a bookstore near you. At that time I remember thinking how similar were the costumes and dances to the 1930s photos of the same ceremony by Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoots in their great book Dance and Drama in Bali, so I was intrigued to go back now and see if it had changed.

My 1980 photograph of the Baris Gede Banjar Blong, Sanur
I arrived at 3.30 pm to find the magnificent temple — heritage red-brick gates and shrines, and grass courts still intact — stacked to the rafters with offerings, and decorated to within an inch of its life.
Were all the ebony-hued North Sanur ladies not dripping gold jewellery, it would have been overkill.

The overall impression was of extreme grandeur and beauty in a classic Majapahit temple setting. As I arrived in the inner court, high priest's offering trays were being conveyed through the gate that the temple shares with the vast Brahman compound to its west. The Jero Gede Brahman families of North Sanur are the royal custodians of the temple. They own the splendidly traditional Santrian hotels, Starbucks Sanur, and The Village restaurant. They have lately pulled away from the competition in the GlamBram stakes. Their house ceremonies are bigger and more opulent than Ben Hur; Geria Tampakgangsul, Denpasar's answer to Victoria's Secret, is an offshoot (see last Thursday's video).
I quickly spied my buddy and fellow photographer Luciana Fererro, who had tipped me off about the ceremony, in a gaggle of appallingly-dressed bule photographers, just as a phalanx of immaculately dressed and groomed palace aunties glided past.

Baris Gede Banjar Blong, Sanur, January 2015 photograph of same troupe.
I recognized a few of the families making prayers, but North Sanur is quite famously aloof and I felt a tad alien. But I did manage to capture the gorgeous calm-before-the-storm atmosphere. No-one I asked was quite sure of the order of proceedings (what time are we to process to the beach to the east? etc), including Luciana — who had been here, pressing Lurex, for half an hour already. Then I heard the clangour of an approaching procession, so I sped to the temple's main gate to find, filing past, the Hotel Bali Beach's rangda, Ratu Ayu (who resides in Pura Manik Sari, the spookiest temple in Sanur, beside the hotel's pizzeria), plus a bevy of votive statues borne aloft and parasol-ed, accompanied by a troupe of pretty baris juniors, carrying gilt bows and arrows, plus a corps de ballet of rejang dewa ballerinas. They were all heading west, into the setting sun, to the old Jero Gede brahman house which I had not visited since the family high priest's padiksaan ordination three years ago (see video on Wijayapilem2/you tube. Link:
The bearer carrying Ratu Ayu's black velvet umbrella was over six feet tall, and big and black and so dashingly good-looking that my lens cap popped in pursuit.
Arriving at the Brahman palace's outer reception court people got very excited. The Pura Dalem temple gods were somehow already there in front of a magnificent gate, with the senior baris dancers in their voluminous marigold crowns, forming a welcoming committee for the arriving gods. The house gamelan played a soulful tabuh agung in the adjacent garage. I followed the procession into the palace — through court after magnificent Balinese classical court of seated Brahmans in temple dress — till we finally reached the palace’s house temple, with its fabulous limestone gedong shrine.
The house temple was packed with gods and their attendants. In one high pavilion I caught a glimpse of the family head, Ida Bagus Ngurah, with his brothers, all unravelling a big roll of white kasa cloth. I spied the ballerinas praying at the gedong shrine as I chased a gajahmina elephant-fish statue (arca) around a corner. There I suddenly found myself at the tail end of yet another procession of glittering deities, gamelan and handsome North Sanur bearers speeding out.
Swept up in the joyous jet stream, I was dragged through a few gates, and popped out into the palace's front court again where the seniors' Baris Gede performance was in full swing. My procession joined the arca of deities and rangda and a barong which had appeared from no-where.
I congratulated Ida Bagus Ngurah on the magnificence and classical beauty of his palace and asked who the architect was. “Just the family”, he replied.
I stood with the bearers and the god's standards as the palace priest offered a mat of offerings to the gathered deities, and someone bit the head off a chicken. I barely caught my breath before the now sizeable party was off again, to North Sanur beach via KFC and Dunkin Donut. I spied the wife of the supervisor of my Lembongan project garden (awol for a year now) — it seems she has taken refuge in the beard of the Bali Beach barong. She beamed as I took her photo and sent it to my supervisor with the message, "Spotted with a barong”.
The procession to the beach was quite surreal — not unlike a scene from the Ava Gardner vehicle On the Beach, set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic Melbourne. Six lanes of by-pass were held up for at least ten minutes as we all processed past. I walked with Ida Bagus Ngurah, who was conveying the long train of kasa cloth. We talked about the lack of interest in these magnificent ceremonies shown by the new mass tourists. “What to do?”, was his comment: why cast pearls before swine?. At the beach the deities lined up at the western end of a corral formed by bearers and banners. At the edges, tourists in skimpy beachwear nibbled. A gangrenous dog in a yellow BAWA gift collar sat centre-stage.
After ten minutes of soft ceremony I heard the unmistakeable bleganjur beat of an approaching barong — it was the mighty black crow-feather barong of Singgi, my old home, and I was thrilled to video its arrival. Offerings were made, and the gods and bearers walked to the beach in a stream of crisscrossing lines before heading off, pell-mell, back to the temple. (About an hour had passed since I first arrived at the temple, and my feet were raw, my DALEM KEPAON shirt soaking wet, my skirt cloth (saput) askew, and my face burning from setting sun.
Ten seconds down the road a brace of priestesses flew into trance — the silhouette of their wiggling wobbling forms like Paris catwalk models as we all processed west.
Arriving at the temple — half the procession already in trance — all hell broke loose. Yet another mat of welcoming offerings was wafted off, among much flailing and kris-dancing — and more black chicklets decapitated. I could barely move or think, pressed between rangda manes and tranced-out bearers struggling to escape the strong arms of their guards. The gods filed into the temple's inner court where the Baris Panah juniors were dancing, with extraordinary grace, forming a cloud of golden wonderment, (see interview with lead dancer in video later today). A very ancient priestess, in mild trance, danced in front of the performing and barks, making offerings of sajeng (rice wine or brem) to the ground spirits as she danced.
I sped to the nearest vendor for a Pocari. I spent about ten minutes adjusting my saput — my arms seemed to have gone numb — and then saw that the temple gates were closing as the star attraction — the Baris Gede Tombak dance — was about to begin on the grass in the outer court.

1980 photograph of trance ritual at the Baris Gede ceremonies at Pura Dalem Kedewatan, North Sanur
I filmed the first part of the dance from high up on the stairs, in the middle of a band of tall pecalang vigilantes in black safari jackets with braid and medals rampant, to recharge my batteries, then moved through the pit of photographers (Jill Gocher in Noosa beachwear) and parked myself at the feet of the gamelan drummers. This was a bit of a mistake: five minutes later the dancers, who had worked themselves into quite frenzy, suddenly charged the gamelan. For a good minute I had peacock feathers and spearheads jabbing at my face. I kept filming. In fact, the force of the advance knocked the stuffing out of me, briefly, and I rocked back, momentarily exposing my lack of undergarment. A huge cry went up from the front row of photographers opposite. Weak men fainted. And then the real show was on again. I was asked to move out of danger, but I couldn't: in a half-lotus I get pins and needles and my legs don't work. I started up an animated chat about the baris in the old days with a neighbouring priest, and I was let stay.
The rest of the dance was magnificent; with the warrior-dancers finally all in wild trance — a riot of spraying marigolds and flashing spears — until a furious final melee before they fled into the inner sanctum.
The sun set, peace was restored.