Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series by the late Rebecca Bruns on the splendors of Ubud, the fabled mountain village in Bali.
That night I celebrated by going to see the Legong dance at the Puri Ubud, the palace grounds of Ubud’s old royal family. It was the most beautiful performance I saw in Bali. A gamelan troupe in intense red and blue sat before their golden gongs and Oriental xylophones in the moonlit courtyard. Candles on the ascending plateaus of the ”candibentar”, split temple gates, flared toward the stars. A priest glided through the gate, sprinkling water on the gamelan players. With a staccato flick of the hammers, their bell-like music began, a flurry of chimes threaded with the plaintive tremble of a bamboo flute.
Out came the dancers, lithe Lolitas of 14 or less bound in green and yellow silk, fingers dilating, heads weaving side to side, flower petals flying from their hands just as the gamelan hammers struck the tossing note. Later a masked emperor and another young girl in purple launched the Legong story: a king captures a maiden, goes to war over her with her brother, meets a bird of ill omen, and is killed in combat with her brother. It’s a complex ritual ballet of good vs. evil, like all Balinese dances, and as precise as clockwork. The girls, so sure of every step, with darting eyes and painted faces so heartbreakingly fresh, were a mixture of innocence and wisdom beyond their years.
“The Balinese start to study art from a very young age,” said I. Wayan Sinti, gamelan teacher at SMKI, the highschool for the arts in Denpasar. “They come to school already knowing their art form.” Education only fine©tunes what is passed down through the family or picked up in the community. And Ubud is one of the centers where artists and performers are in high demand. A 1990 TV special by National Geographic contended that tourist interest has helped fund a revival in the island’s arts. Judging from the crowds it’s true.
Foreigners flow in by the busload to catch the popular Kechak dance at the big community hall near Ubud in Bona. The night I went, an entourage of men stripped to the waist flooded the stage uttering wild chants of “chak chaka chak” led by a sort of inspired drill sergeant. The gamelan orchestra was replaced by a frenzy of guttural calls and waving hands evoking a monkey army.
Enter the great white monkey god Hanuman. In the Kechak tale, from the Hindu Ramayana myth, Hanuman helps rescue the exiled Princess Sita and her brother Rama from the evil King Rawana, after many battles, magic transformations and close calls.
The men swayed and chanted like crazed fraternity brothers as a succession of damsels, wizards, monkeys, deer, a garuda (the mythical bird of Indonesia) and others traipsed across the stage, to that incessant “chak chaka chak”. How did the chorus so perfectly synchronize what appeared to be gibberish and animal flailing? Mass hypnosis? A trance? Somehow a whole new organism emerged, like a great vocal flower in motion, all its parts joined in one will.
An even more extraordinary trance dance followed. No sooner had the echo of the Kechak faded when a bonfire of coconut husks flared up on the stone floor. A man with closed eyes galloped out on a straw horse, skating through the flames, smearing the red©hot husks around with his feet, kicking them like autumn leaves. Sometimes the sparks flew into the audience. This went on until the bonfire dwindled to embers. Then another dancer ran out and caught the trance dancer while a priest blessed him and brought him out of the trance. He sat on the floor, dazed, while members of the audience approached to touch his feet as hard as bullhide and not even singed.
Entertainment can take the most unlikely forms. It’s not only staged for tourists but for the community’s pleasure. Temples celebrate the new moon or anniversaries every 210 days any excuse will do. One night I strolled over to a temple where, in the midst of mud and clove cigarette fumes, on a plastic tarp in a palm-fringed pavilion, something akin to Shakespearean theater had the Balinese crowd enthralled. Mobs of kids surged forward, jostling and bug eyed, to see the dragons and ghouls and white haired soothsayers they’d been seeing since babyhood but couldn’t get enough of.
As one guidebook said, “The religion is absolutely everywhere and it’s good fun! The Balinese seem to feel that religion should be an enjoyable thing, something the mortals can enjoy as well as the gods.”
If nights are devoted to performances, days are for shopping. For even the most hardened anti-consumer, shopping in Ubud is a Magical Mystery Tour of homegrown art.
Stores wake early and close late, stocked to bursting with flying frogs and cherubs with huge phalluses, bamboo windmills and toy gamelan instruments, wooden banana trees, miniatures of island nirvanas, silver geckos and earrings set with garnets and amethysts, gold and silver pinkie rings, carvings of coolies and elongated dancers. For a good introduction, wander through the Sukawati Market’s choked collection. Yes, a lot of it is whimsical trash, churned out to satisfy the tourist lust for souvenirs but dig and you may find a neglected pearl among the profusion of kitsch.
Much of the work comes from villages around Ubud, each of which has a specialty. Ubud, Penestanan and Batuan pour out decorative naïve paintings of heaven©on©earth landscapes, Hindu demons and rural life. Mas features carvings and masks. Celuk’s emporiums wink with silver jewelry. Gianyar’s factories spin superb, muted ikat fabrics, in which the abstract pattern is dyed into the threads before they’re woven. ”Batubulan’s stone temple guardians, warriors and animals, seen all over the island, line the roadside mantled in velvety mold.
These towns are no more than 45 minutes from Ubud by public vans and bemos, which constantly zip around picking up passengers. You could spend a whole day in any town, browsing the shops and bargaining. Or you can just watch artists at work, like the family of ten carvers I came on in Mas one blistering April afternoon under an awning outside their gallery, I. Made Darsana.
I ducked into the shade and watched them chiseling out ebony herons as easily as I might cut an apple. Such talents do run in the family. The Mas gallery of I. B. Sutarja, one of Bali’s most famous mask makers, not only showcases his $1,000 masterpieces but those of his children, all 12 of whom carve masks.
While crafts tend to follow traditional models, modern Balinese art straddles both convention and innovation. Paintings at the Neka Museum and the Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud range from impressionism to abstract expressionism. Most of what’s for sale, though, is a sort of magic primitivism: mythical Bali with every leaf and rosy breast aglow in hallucinogenic detail (you can find small originals for just $50). An influx of Western painters who fell in love with Bali in the 1930s actually introduced the concept of individual art, removed from the temples and palaces. Since then it has flourished in galleries all over Ubud–including the flamboyant hilltop home of Phillipines-born Antonio Blanco, shrine of his erotic art and illustrated poetry.
It’s said that the Balinese believe when they die they’ll go to a place that looks just like Bali. And the place most like Bali, most like paradise, is Ubud.
Rebecca Bruns, was a freelancer living in San Francisco, who specialized in the tropics and exotic culture. To find out more about her visit www.rebeccabruns.net.