Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, May 2004)


NATURE’S OWN ARISTOCRATS

The International Herald Tribune has run a story on becoming rich by building a big villa for rental in Bali. Now the children of my old hippy mates are returning, ‘en force’, to turn adobe gnome homes and organic cabbage patches into marvels of mincing minimalism with tension-edge pools.
In a related development, some French friends here for the tenth full moon ceremonies (4 th April this year) are horrified at the proliferation of ‘Emmanuelle in Munggu’ style villas in the island’s tabloids. In another related incident, I get into an altercation with the faux princess on the ‘Royal Something Villas’ stand inside the customs hall at Ngurah Rai Airport, (you know the one, next to the tourist police sitting splay-legged with shining badges dripping from their chests)
(Don’t go silly Susan - Ed.).

To regain focus I escape to Singapore, for the world premier of ‘I La Galigo’ at the Esplanade Concert Hall, a dance spectacular conceived by Texan ‘wunderkind’ Robert Wilson and Bali’s own Purniati Art Foundation of Batuan, Bedok and Depok.

* * *

Meanwhile, this past month saw, finally, the wedding of Stranger in Paradise perennial Ida Bagus Surya Manuaba of Kepaon, my adopted village, whose life has been chronicled in these pages over the past 23 years.
Now read on ….

12 th March, 2004 : Indonesia Shining at the regions premier theatrical venue.
The Bugis ( South Sulawesi) creation myth, I La Galigo, has been a buzzword in Eastern anthropological circles for decades. The amazing androgynous Bissu holy men and the extraordinary music and dances of the Buginese culture have long attracted the attention of dusty academics but never the attention they deserved from mainstream ethnophiles and the art world. This changed when, in 2001, talented ‘Javanese dancer-choreographer-shaker and mover’ Restu Kusumaningrum, took the idea of a dance epic, based on the Bugis myth, to her friend, famed dance artist Robert Wilson. Wilson then engaged playwright Rhoda Grauer and composer Rahayu Supanggah to develop the concept.
Tonight, the theatre world is treated to the fruits of the fabulous collaboration involving the diva, the donor, the dancer and the Italian group CHANGE, who joined the circle to make it all possible. The costumes, the music, the staging and the uniqueness of the spectacle leave a conservatorium of connoisseurs ‘entranced’ after a three hour lesson in superior mythmaking. The costumes - by designer Joaquim Herzog and with textiles by the famed Obin of Bin House - are remarkable for their subtle colours and for the ingenuity of their Bugis costume-based design.
The evening is not an unqualified success, however. Many tight-bottomed ‘Singapod’ expats, perhaps unused to the expansiveness of traditional Indonesian dance epics, find the work ‘indulgent’.
Theatre-lovers of a less cerebral mindset are transported into a wonder world of Wilsoniana; complete with signature bestial whimsy and sinewy Kabuki-like grace.
Local pundit and born again ILa Galigo-phile Diana Darling is “shocked by the Javanese bits”, and the make up; she sits too close and worries too much. From my perch, in the bleachers, I can appreciate the stadium-scale dance sculpture and lighting artistry.
All through the evening I keep thinking of the natural ‘aristocratic-ness’ of Indonesians, particularly evident tonight, both in the performance and afterwards, in the sea of sarung mandir-clad divas, including Jakartan superstars Christine Hakim and Astari Rasyid, who make up the bulk of the audience. Habitually compared with the whippet-thin Singaporeans, clad tonight, almost to the man, in black S.S. fatigues, the Indonesians swamp the foyer with their vivaciousness and flowing gestures. I spot local power broker Ong Beng Seng, looking nervous, while beating a hasty retreat through the crowd of batik silkies.
However, it is Singapore’s night too, for having the nous to stage such an exotic event and full marks to the island state’s Esplanade Company and Volkswagen Singapore.
The show now goes on the road to New York, Milan, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris, bringing Buginese, Balinese, Sumatran and Javanese artistic grace to the planet.
Bravo!
Encore!

* * *

Robert Wilson wrote in the programme:
“Often people ask me what my theatre is about: usually I say I do not know. My work is, in most cases, formal. It is not interpretative. To me interpretation is not the responsibility of the director, the author or the performer: interpretation is for the public.
I simply like to consider my theatre as the work of an artist. I have the same interest in the movement, the words, the light, the sound and the images.
What fascinates me about Sureq Galigo is its scale; the fact that is an epic poem and yet it is a simple story. Staging it brings me back to my earlier work where I always tried to create the vision and feel an epic rather than a literal translation. This epic poem is a classical in its nature, and the avant-garde is often the rediscovery of the classics.”

13 th March, 2004: To the amazingly modern new church of St. Mary of the Angels in East Batok, Singapore, with Indonesian artist Teguh Ostenrik
In far-flung East Batok, a clever Catholic priest has sold high rise cremation urn plots to pensioners to fund a new church designed by Singapore’s architect du jòur Wong Man Sum. Ostenrik was commissioned by the church to install a giant 600 kilogram bronze on the cross and other religious figures. Inside the soaring spaces, the artist is proud to point out that the statues were made by 200 Muslims in the ancient East Javanese (Majapahit) village of Trowulan. The results are spectacular: Attendance is up!
Viva la difference!!!
Bravo Teguh!

27 March, 2004 : To Griya Dalem Sibang for an engagement ceremony.
I moved in on a Balinese family 29 years ago: it was a small Brahmana family in Kepaon near Kuta, consisting mainly, of 3 cousins — all unmarried, all about my age — and their parents. Over time, one cousin married a Brahmana lass from Pejeng, one married his childhood sweetheart and the other, my great friend, Ida Bagus Ngurah Susila, married a bouncy Dayu from the mountain village of Cau-Marga, near Tabanan. They all had lots of children and, in the spirit of progress, the quiet sawah-side home soon became a multi-courtyard baby factory, Tragically, the family’s pride and joy and my great friend, who had become a pillar of the Hindu community, died young, in 1999 (see ‘Angels and Ashes’, Stranger in Paradise, January 1999) and I became the wakil, or guardian, for his three lovely children.
Today the eldest son of the original cousins group, Ida Bagus Surya Manuaba, is to be engaged (meminang) to a yet unseen girl from the Brahmana stronghold of Sibang, near the Monkey Forest (I am frightened to say how lovely it is for fear of prompting a mad dash of property developers and spa consultants).


* * *

It is a beautiful day as we gather for the stampede north. Soon the Kepaon village elders and their children - plus a few distant relatives from Sanur, Sidemen and Pedungan - form a tight convoy of motor vehicles, which includes a gaily painted open-sided Baywatch-style minibus, on loan from a Kuta hotel where my family provides offerings. We process towards Sibang, with the prospective groom and his Mother at the head of the convoy in the back of my clapped-out 1983 Mercedes. Ida Bagus’ Mum has painted his already bee-stung lips with Tuesday Weld (the Inul of Burbank for my younger readers) pink lips, and Kajol-ed eyes. He is sporting a high songket head-dress and his favourite white Nehru jacket. Together, in the back seat, they inspect the two engagement rings in a heart-shaped, red velvet box. Cupids float out of the A.C. grille!
At our destination, the Griya Dalem Sibang, we lead the some 100 supporters into the future bride’s home; a simple but spacious traditional Balinese Brahmana mini-palace. Uncles and brothers from both sides of the family take up squatting positions in the beautiful high Bale Meten pavilion; polite preliminaries start.
The rest of the entourage sits on the remaining pavilion bases to watch the proceedings and to smoke. Coffee and cakes are offered, to my surprise, by Kepaon lovelies who have commandeered the kitchen within minutes of hitting alien territory.
Ida Bagus and I sit towards the back of the high pavilion, so I can lean on the back wall, my knees not being up to extended periods in the lotus position. After an hour the fiancée-to-be is led across the courtyard, drawing gasps of appreciation, so elegant is her deportment, and so large her breasts; she is also stunningly pretty and swells of pride soon overcome the dull pain in my legs. After some pledges from both sides, the wedding is set for next week. The hosts suggest than any female offspring from this union may one day marry back into the Sibang home. It is a typically Balinese gracious suggestion. The lovebirds exchange heart-shaped wicker hampers, filled with ceremonial dress, and gold rings. They are engaged. We can all eat.
Soon the audience hall atmosphere has transformed into full Balinese banquet mode. In the family house temple, the elders are swapping election photos like baseball cards. In the side passage, stud muffins with rolled sleeves entertain frittering misses in opalescent kebayas and white shoes.
Love is in the air.
The food is excellent.
Ida Bagus struts about like a prize turkey who has won the lottery, while his spectacular fiancée totters behind.




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