Saturday, December 20, 2008

NEH grant preparations & Interesting article on barong and rangda


I have been swept into other projects at the museum--Afghanistan programs, budget planning, Bhutan and Samurai exhibition planning--so my Bali posts have suffered. But over the past few weeks the curator, Natasha, our grant-writer, Dino, and I have been working on a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities to provide lead funding for the Bali exhibition. It has been fun to think again about our plans for this exhibition, which will be the first of its kind in the US, and the first of its kind at the Asian, in the sense that the performing and ephemeral arts will play major roles unlike ever before.

I enjoyed the attached article on how the Balinese distinguish between art for sacred purposes and art for commerce using the Barong and Rangda as examples. Just as the Barong and Rangda represent the polars of good and evil that are in constant flux and realignment (rituals are enacted to maintain a healthy balance), the two uses for sacred arts--ritual and commerce--may also be seen as a contiuum that the Balinese expertly keep in balance.

I was fortunate to see two Barongs enlivened, one in a temple procession and one danced on stage by professionally trained dancers (the latter in the picture above). Both experiences are etched in my memory and make me want to see the Barong again.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Leadership Limbo at Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Denpasar

Bali's national art institute, the Indonesian Arts Institute ISI, is apparently in turmoil after a dispute over who should serve as the rector of the school. I heard that students have barricaded the offices and are boycotting classes. I have only been able to find these two articles in the Jakarta Post about the struggle for the top position of the school.

"Rai re-elected despite mass opposition," by Dicky Christanto, The Jakarta Post, 8/27/2008
"ISI dispute to go to the minister," by Dicky Christanto, The Jakarta Post, 9/2/2008

In the first article it mentions that student protests included a performance of the comic shadow theater, Wayang Cenk Blonk. I am not totally clear on the meaning of "cenk blonk" as opposed to the term Wayang Kulit, which means literally "shadow" (wayang) "leather" (kulit). In the book Balinese Dance, Drama, and Music: A Guide to the Performing Arts of Bali by I Wayan Dibia and Rucina Ballinger they write about "Wayang Cengblong" which "is an anachronism for Nang Klenceng and Nang Eblong, the names of two clowns prominently featured . . ." and that there "is much more joking than in a regular Wayang show. " (p. 50). Can anyone enlighten me if these are one and the same?

There are lots of YouTube clips of Wayang Cenk Blonk, but none when I searched "Chengblong." Maybe the spelling has changed . . . Here is one of the videos I found:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Can and should the museum commission a cremation tower for its exhibition?

We had our second Bali team exhibition meeting last week and we discussed what ephemeral arts we might include. If money is no obstacle, which of course it always is, we would like to see if we could possibly commission a bade (cremation tower) to be erected in front of the museum or in Civic Center Plaza.

What issues might this raise for people? I imagine we might meet with concerns about religious art in public spaces. Might there also be discomfort from the Balinese community about having a sacred art form with a very specific funerary function commissioned for purely aesthetic and cultural education purposes? What will we do with the bade once it is dismantled? Clearly we need some input from the Balinese community on these questions.

My first step will be to reach out to local Balinese advisers and specialists, and at the same time to folks I met in Bali to see if a) this plan is even feasible and b) if it can be done without making a serious cultural gaffe. Tomorrow I will have a chance to bounce this idea off some folks with intimate knowledge of Bali, as I am attending the open house hosted by Gamelan Sekar Jaya in their new Oakland studio.

Great Photos of Bali

I have been ogling the gorgeous photos taken by one of the museum's Jade Circle members, Dennis, in Bali on the recent trip in July. These shots in particular stopped me in my tracks.

I am not sure where he took the image of people having ritual purification at the temple baths, but the image on the right was from the Royal Cremation procession in Ubud on July 15, 2008. I missed the procession as I had positioned myself at the temple so as to try to get a better view of the ceremonies there. It is great to see these images from different places along the procession route, since no one person could take in the whole event given the difficulties of moving from place to place.

Photos by Dennis Lenehan

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indonesian Pornography Bill

The Bali Times ran a rather alarming blog today entitled Fury, Incredulity in Bali over Porn Bill.

The article quotes many who are concerned about the bill, which
"criminalizes all public acts and material capable of raising sexual desires or violating 'community morality,' including poetry and music."

In a diverse, multi-cultural country like Indonesia, defining pornography and enforcing laws prohibiting the raising of sexual desires from one island to another may present quite a challenge:
"Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has said the bill fails to consider cultural diversity in a nation that stretches from the conservative Islamic province of Aceh to the animist highlands of Papua, where women go topless and men wear almost nothing but long gourds on their penises."

As regards Balinese art, the article continues: "Critics say Balinese customs threatened by the bill include the ubiquitous Hindu religious statues of Lingga and Yoni that depict male and female genitals, and the Kecak dance which is performed semi-naked."

The bill is supported by the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has rising influence in Indonesian politics. Will Indonesia be the next hot spot of religious extremism?

See also ABC News Australia's post, "Thousand of Balinese rally against anti-porn bill"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Balinese cremations on YouTube

I was searching Youtube to see what videos might have been posted about the cremation ceremony I witnessed in Ubud this past July, and found some interesting videos of the cremation of AA Gede Oka Djelantik posted by "stiffchilli" from 2007. These videos show some of the aspects that few people could see in the cremation in Ubud this year due to the sheer number of people crowding everywhere. This part shows the body carried to its nine-storey tower conveyance (bade).

Another segment of video from stiffchilli shows the body being washed, which I think chronologically would have happened before the body is loaded into the tower. This practice is surprising from a western perspective, where we have been conditioned to be timid, if not a bit freaked out, around the dead. When I was about nine years old, my cousins dared me to touch my great grandmother at her viewing, and I felt ashamed to have been so disrespectful to have taken the dare and touched her cheek with my hand. If I had been a Balinese kid maybe it would have been OK.

Monday, September 8, 2008

village to hotel--bookending Balinese dance

Readers may recall from my July 18 post a discussion about art created for the Balinese in a village context and art created for the tourists. I have posted images from that memorable day, which included a morning visit to Asak, a village in the eastern part of the island, and an evening performance at Tandjung Sari Hotel.

Looking at the pictures, you may notice differences in place/staging/lighting, and makeup/costume. Most striking to me, although not obvious from the photos, was the difference in attitude of the dancers. At Asak, the young village women dance the way any young person participating in their community life does--with a mix of eyes-rolled obligation to family, peer bonding, and excitement of being able to dress up and fulfill a central role on the community stage. The performers at Tandjung Sari represent the budding talent of professional Balinese dance. They may also perform at their home village temple ceremonies, but their skill and training sets them apart as an elite artist with the potential to earn a relatively high status (if not particularly lucrative) living from their talent.

At yet another event in Singapadu I witnessed what seems to represent a third category of dance performance in Bali--that of professional dancers performing for a Balinese audience in a hybrid of sacred ritual and pure entertainment. The Singapadu performance featured highly trained, world-class Balinese dancers on a stage mounted in the village temple, but with rather professional lighting and staging. The stage backdrop is painted to mimic a temple gate and is set up for such special performances. The powerful, boar-headed temple barong was danced at the beginning of the evening. Everyone was dressed in formal temple costumes and the sassy boys kicking my chair and goofing for my cameras still had rice stuck to their foreheads from being blessed earlier. But judging from the anticipation of the crowd who lined up chairs in front of the stage, the dance part of the ritual clearly provided entertainment on top of whatever sacred function it served.

We had heard about this performance from the master dance teacher, scholar, and choreographer I Wayan Dibia who had danced the evening before at Singapadu. That afternoon, he arranged for us to meet the renowned, senior mask maker I Wayan Tangguh, and his son, I Ketut Kodi, a great topeng dancer. Pak Kodi was shy and distracted when we met; we had called him away from temple preparations for the evening ceremony and performance. On stage (see the bottom right image) he was like a completely different person. He reminded me of the great Shakespearean character actors, who give life, humor, and sparkle to classic tales. Even though I could not understand the dialogue, I found myself laughing at his antics, and was completely caught up in his character.

The Singapadu performance in a way evokes the state of Balinese dance today--a vessel supported by three legs: village, hotel, and academy. To survive, Balinese dance will likely have to be relevant to Balinese temple life AND tourist dollars. Although many people I spoke with bemoaned the homogenizing influence of the dance universities on Balinese dance, this institution provides needed connective tissue as village teachers die off and young people get distracted by modern life. This remains one of the most compelling debates about the future of Balinese dance--how can dancers retain their particular village traditions while training at the professional and standardized dance academies?



Top left: Asak temple dance

Top right: Tandjung Sari Hotel dancer
Bottow left: Barong dance at Singapadu
Bottom right: Pak Kodi as "The Old Man" in Singapadu

Friday, September 5, 2008

From "Visit of a Lifetime" to Exhibition Development

Now that all AAM staff members have returned from, the logistical planning of the exhibition begins. The colorful and vibrant images of art, dance, and ritual must take a back seat to the more mundane tasks of budgeting, grant-writing, event-planning, and pest management. Nevertheless, as staff begin to carry out the individual tasks that constitute our job descriptions, we will always have the intense liveliness of Bali in our minds. In this way, none of our tasks ever become lifeless.

We hope to keep you, our readers, as up to date as possible on the development of this exhibition. In order to do so without burdening Deb, more of us will be contributing to this blog. My name is Tisha, and I work in the publications division of the museum.

(Here's Chief Curator Forrest McGill enjoying the Bali experience, above left; and to the lower right, Associate Curator of Southeast Asian Art Natasha Reichle and blog author and Director of Education Deb Clearwaters join local expert Garrett Kam at his home.)

The Bali exhibition will be held in the summer of 2010, and just like Hollywood moguls, we aim for a blockbuster. We’ve been encouraged to “think big,” and so we are. Our meetings are filled with exciting phrases like “flying in the dance troupe,” or “taking over the Civic Center.” We talk of ephemeral art, of artists in residency, of video installations. We fantasize about screen projections outside the museum showing the music and dance performances taking place inside.

We also talk about pest management and visitor safety—less colorful but equally vital issues in this exhibition, which will feature very old wood sculpture, deep-fried rice-paste offerings, and towers of sticks and paper whose only ultimate purpose is the spectacular fire they create when a match is struck.

And always, we talk about the budget, and how to present the most spectacular show possible on a nonprofit’s budget. Stay tuned to learn more about our process as we begin to bring this exhibition to its vivid manifestation.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cremation Ceremony Blog and the best of YouTube

It is been too long since my last post. Returning home from Indonesia on August 1, I was slammed with backlogged work, and I am still digging out. I had about 1800 unread emails! Much was spam, but you still have to wade through them all somehow....

My other projects at work include going to lots of meetings, finalizing programs for the autumn exhibition on Afghanistan (I am very excited about the possibility of Rory Stewart coming to give a lecture, details still TBD), working on grant proposals, and trying to set up an online videocasting process for the Society for Asian Art's Friday lecture series, which begins on August 29, with our new director Jay Xu giving a talk on "Mysterious Creatures, Towering Trees and Lofty Figures in

Sacrifice: The Lost Civilization at Sanxingdui, China." One could spend a lifetime studying the various fascinating burial practices and attendant magical creatures found in the arts all across Asia.

I have been working at home to upload some of my Bali images--please take a look on my Flickr site. I will write some posts related to these sets.

Some of the most indelible memories of my time in Bali circle back to the cremation ceremony. There were 1000s of folks with cameras there besides me and many of them got great shots. There is a fascinating official press blog about the events to be found at
Of particular interest are links to some YouTube videos of such things as the artisans creating the tower (bade). You can go directly to the YouTube clip here

The other video link from the official blog is this very slick ad
promoting the cremation ceremony apparently to encourage tourism for the event. This is an interesting approach to marketing--come see us burn our dead, it's beautiful, peaceful, harmonious, sacred. Funny thing is that the video looks nothing like what I experienced. I am not saying that the actual event lacked in majesty or sacredness, in its way, but it wasn't so clean and controlled as the video characterizes. All for the better.

For a sense of the chaos and excitement of the actual event, better to look at videos such as this one posted by Schooo1980
of the bulls being carried down the main street in Ubud to the temple.

Or this one posted by putrasinggih of the flames in full force. Listen to the master of ceremonies, who switches to English and asks the crowd to calm down so that they can get the fire hose in position to dampen the flames.

Of course, these videos are only of the most public part of the cremation activities. I know that there were probably many quiet, private moments shared only by the family, quietly chatting while making offerings, praying in small groups, and the like.

To see my humble assortment of photos of the cremation, please click here
I have lots of video footage, which is less accessible to me until we upgrade our video editing station at work. But in a month or so I should have some clips of this footage that I will share on YouTube.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gamelan Sekar Jaya: Weekend Workshops in Balinese Music and Dance, Oct and Nov 2008

This posting is to pass along information about weekend workshops on Balinese music and dance in Oakland, CA in October and November presented by Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which hosts visiting Balinese master artists every year.


Learn Balinese Gamelan music & dance at Sekar Jaya’s NEW center in Oakland
Taught by renowned artists:
  • I Dewa Putu Berata – musician
  • Emiko Saraswati Susilo – dancer
Two weekends:
  • Oct. 4-5 10am-2pm each day, w/break
  • Nov. 8-9 10am-2pm each day, w/break
Either weekend can be taken independently, since each will start at the same level. Different material will be covered, for those who want to take both.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bali: one of about 17,000 Indonesia Islands

I just returned from Indonesia tonight. It is a long journey. I left Bandung at 8am Aug. 1 Java time and got into San Francisco at 8pm the same day Pacific Time. Crossing so many time zones is really surreal--it defies logic somehow.

I spent the last week in Java, the island just to the west of Bali in the massive Indonesian archipelago. I recently saw a map of Indonesia superimposed over a map of North America and it was staggering--the 17,000 islands of Indonesia stretch from Oregon to Bermuda. Superimposed over Europe Indonesia stretches from London to Moscow, With population of 220 million it is the fourth most populous country in the world and is home to more Muslims than the nations of the Middle East combined. Indonesia's Islamic culture is more evident in Java than Bali, which remains the only majority Hindu culture in Southeast Asia.

From my personal experience, narrow American stereotypes about Islamic culture are all but irrelevant to Indonesia. Sure I saw a few women in full black veils, but I also saw many women without any head covering, some wearing short sleeves or shorts, and in between these two extremes, I saw many women wearing fashionable head scarves of every color, attractive long-sleeved tunics and jeans. People of different stripes seemed to mingle easily and I found folks to be quite friendly and laid back. In Borobudur I was woken by calls to prayer, but hardly heard them in Bandung. On the outskirts of Jakarta I noticed many small mosques, for the most part humble buildings, dotting the sky line. When I asked my friend Achmad about why there were so many, he explained that they were small and needed to have many to accommodate all the local residents. I asked if they represented different sects and he said no, all practiced the same version of Islam.

I never felt any hostility towards America during my travels in Indonesia. Several people expressed excitement about Obama's candidacy.

Java and Bali share lots of cultural elements--some foods, a national language, a love for music and dance and for performances of the great epics of the Mahabarata and Ramayana in traditional puppetry and theater forms as well as on modern TV adaptations. However, although they are close physical neighbors, the islands feel to the visitor to be quite different. In my next post I will share some of my experiences in Java, and then will return to the rich range of experiences I had and people I met in Bali. And will have had time to download some pictures and video by then as well.

Friday, July 18, 2008

From village to tourist resort--Balinese dance

Yesterday we drove about 1 1/2 hours to Asak, a village in Karangasam for the "usaba sumbu" ceremony, which I understand is held once a year in honor of the rice goddess and the god of wealth. When we arrived a little after 9am about 40 (I will need to look at the photo and count) young women were already dancing. There were only a few other people at the temple, most of whom were working preparing food, testing the mic, etc. Gradually a steady stream of families arrived, with the women carrying towering offerings of food on their heads. Occassionally an entire roasted pig was carried in on a long bamboo pole, which steamed as the pig was slid off onto the offering platform in the center of the temple courtyard. Villagers prayed and were given holy water by the priests, and then people hung around and waited for the main cermony.

Most of the morning, the young women continued their dance. They stood in columns, each holding the sash of the girl behind her over her right shoulder. The dance was a few simple steps and dips, and arms sweeps with multiple colored dance sashes. They wore elaborate golden headdresses and very little makeup as compared to the dancers you see in performances intended for tourists. No one besides us payed much attention to the dancers. When I mentioned this to some Bali experts they explained this is because the dance was for the gods not necessarily people.

Mats were laid down and people began to sit down in what shade they could find from the archway of palm branches that were placed there for the ceremony. One side of the dance column moved over to allow more space for people to sit. The platform was now full of offerings. Finally the dance ended and anyone left standing now sat (including us). The priest performed a ritual in a small altar hut near the offerings. He was mic'd and chanted and people raised hands in prayer at various points or held up a small flower (id they had one) near their chests at others. At some points everyone joined in saying the prayers. The priests then came around with holy water which was sprinkled on heads and poured into hands for three drinks. We were off to the side, but the priest could tell we wished to be blessed as well, and with a slight roll of his eyes, gave us holy water too. Once this was complete many people collected their offerings and left the temple.

In the very same day, we experienced a very different form of Balinese dance--that of a professionally trained group that, from what I can tell, performs mostly for foreign tourists, called Tandjung Sari, who performed for a dinner party for the Jade Circle at the Tandjung Sari Hotel. These dancers were impressively well trained and performed with a fine precision. More impressive still was the young ages of the dancers, the youngest were 5 years old. The boy who performed the Baris (warrior dance) was particularly impressive. There were few Balinese watching the performance. The dancers were heavily made up, there were stage lights (which made my videotaping much easier) and had very elaborate, and fine costumes.

For me it was a wonderful demonstration of the dichotomy I have often heard about--Balinese art created for the Balinese (or more accurately perhaps, art for the gods) and art created for the tourists. I don't have time at this sitting to explore this issue further but will come back to this in future, with some suggested readings.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bali Royal Cremation Ceremony July 15, 2008

The Ubud Royal Cremation yesterday, July 15, 2008, was unbelievable. The towers were like a 10 story building, and carried by 100 or so guys, sometimes moving very fast. They had to cut down some trees beside the road and all the telephone wires were down for a few hours to allow the towers to pass. The procession started at the Ubud royal palace and traveled down the main road about 1/2 mile to the Royal Cemetery. There were ramps built at both ends to load the bodies into and out of the towers some 30 feet off the ground.

There were mobs of people--I went to the cremation ground early to try to get a good spot from which to video, but all efforts were rather futile once the throngs arrived and jockeyed for sight lines. I was often holding my camera overhead using the tripod. I had a good view of the front of the procession of the immediate family members, with two younger members dressed really finely in traditional costume and carried in palanquins.

When the towers arrived, there was a swelling of excitement in the crowd. It was so impressive to see these massive things move, you almost couldn't believe what you were seeing--like some sci-fi movie of a giant walking down the street. Bearers climbed up the ramp to bring the bodies down. There were two elegant caskets, probably TJOKORDA GDE AGUNG SUYASA, head of the Ubud Royal Family and the leader of the traditional community in Ubud since 1976 and TJOKORDA GEDE RAKA, a senior officer in the police force in Denpasar until his retirement in 1992. One person was in a plain white cloth. Perhaps this was the effigy of GUNG NIANG RAKA.

The bearers held the three bodies overhead for more than an hour while the bull sarcophagi were positioned on the cremation platform. The space was tight and there were so many people it was like threading a needle with these huge unwieldy sculptures.

Everyone, not least of which, the purple-shirted bearers, cheered loudly when they finally placed the second bull on the platform. The backs of the bulls were cut open to place the bodies inside.

The MC asked everyone to sit for the sacred ceremony, which none of us could really see or hear, but took about another hour. I did see some offerings and beautiful cloths being carefully placed on top of the deceased and heard faint singing or chanting from the platform. Some family members said final farewells from scaffolding placed adjacent to the bull openings. One man came down and was very distraught, but was immediately surrounded by others to comfort and shield him from the hundreds of cameras. Finally the top of the bull was re-attached enclosing the bodies.

The family which led the procession reemerged from the pavilion and circumambulated the cremation platform several times with offerings. Meanwhile a warrior dance was performed with live gamelan, crowds surrounding and almost moving with the spear-weilding dancers. Suddenly the naga serpent appeared, as if swimming through the sea of people, and danced around a little before it too was placed on the platform between the two bulls.

It was now almost completely dark. You could see people loading kindling and chopped firewood beneath the bulls. Then the fire was lit. It started as a small glow, then quickly grew into a roaring fire with red ashes soaring up. Hundreds of camera flashes added to the light show. I was standing about 50 yards away and could feel the heat of the fire. It was strangely comforting, not too hot or smokey as I feared it might be. The heavens seemed to be drawing all the smoke and fire upwards and away. It was stunningly beautiful. You could still make out the beautiful bulls' heads almost the whole time, at one point they seemed to be spewing steam from their mouths. Eventually both heads fell over.

As soon as the fire seemed a little out of control the fire truck waiting nearby sprung into action, spraying down areas that might pose danger to the crowds around. It was amazing to watch them control the blaze, alternately fueling it with fire accelerant hoses and diminishing it with water. It was the most finely orchestrated planned mayhem I have ever witnessed. It surely cost the royal family a mint, and one wonders how long they will be able to keep up with cremation costs, as the cost of living in Bali has greatly increased in recent years.

We had been standing for about 12 hours with little water a no food. We were completely spent, but certainly we were nowhere near as tired as any one of the participants, from the royal family members who have been sitting vigil for months, making offerings, taking care of volunteers, and visitors; to the scores of vounteer bearers, whose back-breaking work was in some ways the most moving contribution to the event. Surely they could more easily load the towers onto large trucks, like the Macy's Parade, but this would make absolutely no sense in this context, where personal effort must be expended to make the whole thing work. To show the deceased how much they were loved in life, and how much they are and will continue to be honored in death.

I have yet to download pictures, but when I do, I will post them. Please check back for some images and video footage.

--posted from Marco Polo Business Center internet cafe in Ubud

Saturday, July 12, 2008

countdown to Bali

In less than 24 hours I will be boarding a plane to Bali. It is a long journey and I am tight on carry on space so I have to decide what to bring to read. I may have to hit the bookstore at the airport if it is still open at 11pm.

Here is one of Dennis L's latest photos from the Jade Circle trip. Soon my own eyes will see such gorgeous scenes. Dennis is quite the photographer. I will soon try to compete with him using my new Canon Rebel XTi 400D.

I have to work tomorrow, we have a tea program, but I am mostly packed. Someone remind me to bring my passport, OK?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bali in the words of Margaret Mead

My colleage Natasha emailed me this evocative quote by Margaret Mead with the remark "a bit objectifying, but..."

Upon the hundreds of stone altars of Bali, there lay not merely a fruit and a flower, placed as visible offering to the many gods, but hundreds of finely wrought and elaborately conceived offerings made of palm leaf and flowers, twisted, folded, stitched, embroidered, brocaded into myriad traditional forms and fancies. There were flowers made of sugar and combined into representations of the rainbow, and swords and spears cut from the snow-white fat of sacrificial pigs. The whole world was patterned, from the hillsides elaborately terraced to give the maximum rice yield, to the air which was shot through with music, the temple gates festooned with temporary palm-leaf arras over their permanent carved façade, to the crowds of people who, as they lounged, watching an opera or clustered around two fighting cocks, composed themselves into a frieze…Their lives were packed in intricate and formal delights

Preparing to visit Bali

It has been a while since my last post. I have been swamped getting ready for my 3 weeks in Indonesia--getting camera equipment, batteries, gifts, summer clothes, sunscreen, and trying to talk to lots of people about whom we should meet, and what performances we should see and document.

Some members of the Jade Circle Bali trip have already arrived and have posted some images, such as these gorgeous shots by Dennis L.

Even though planning for the Asian Art Museum's Bali exhibition is the main reason for my visit to Indonesia, I felt compelled to add a detour to Java. I will visit Borobudur and will also meet up with my San Francisco-based Sundanese dance teacher and his master teacher in Bandung, Pak Achmad Farmis.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

personal account of a cremation ceremony

Those of us non-Balinese fortunate to be in Bali for the upcoming royal cremation may experience the event as an overwhelming, exotic spectacle.

With the road in front of the Palace now closed, Ubud’s traffic is starting to slow to a snail’s pace. There is a feeling of excitement in the air, of a great event about to happen. There is no denying Ubud is the cultural center of Bali; a title of which we are proud but one that has been upheld through a consistent commitment to the religion and the people.

And on July 15, with the royal white bulls leading the way, followed by more than sixty black bulls and red tigers racing down Jl. Raya to their respective cemeteries, you are guaranteed to be filled with emotion. This is the culmination of a thousand or more hours of work.

This quote comes from a blog post "Ubud busily prepares for a royal cremation" by Janet Deneefe, which also chronicles her personal experience of preparing for the cremation ceremonies of her parents. Janet's moving essay makes real the long days of preparation, the survivors' sacrifice of money, time, comfort, and sleep, and the coming together of community support to ensure that the dead are celebrated in death like they never could have been in life.

She also provides some helpful details about what to expect on July 15. I will post what images I can from Bali and will surely set up a Flickr set about the ceremony after my return on August 1.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What to wear to a Balinese Temple

The group going to Bali from the Asian Art Museum talked about appropriate wear for visiting a Balinese temple. I will have to buy my temple outfit when I arrive, but I have a simple cotton batik kain or kamben (often mistakenly called a sarong by us Westerners). The difference is that a true sarong is a tube of fabric which you step into, and gather around the waist. As I understand, it is more informal than a kamben, which a long rectangle of fabric that is wrapped around the waist and tied. I have no idea of the proper way to tie these, and hope someone knowledgeable in Bali will help me.

I found two helpful descriptions of Balinese dress online at:

and some photos of people wearing it

Balinese girls in sarong and kebaya
Photo by Nick O'Neill

Ubud Banten
Photo by Damian White

Monday, June 30, 2008

A few pictures from Gadung Kasturi's performance at the Ethnic Dance Festival June 28

I was not supposed to take these pictures (check them out on my Flickr site), but took just a couple of snaps without flash to give a sense of the Balinese dance performance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Saturday evening, June 28, 2008. It is late, so I wont write much now, save to say, I was mesmerized by the performance as a whole. Having studied a tiny little bit of dance myself, I have total respect for the six dancers who wore masks (likely meaning that they could not see anything), and had to dance as a unified group, mirroring each other when the choreography had them facing each other, weaving between each other, walking in typical Balinese dance fashion with knees lifting, shoulders up, fingers flexed and twitching, heads tilting left and right with the beat. Just stand up from your computer and try it yourself, and you will know that this is difficult stuff to do in unison, much less as a solo. The live gamelan was wonderful. All in all, this was an impressive performance.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More on Balinese Royal Cremation Ceremonies

I am trying to find out more about "bade," the pagoda-like structures used to convey the body of the person to be cremated to the cremation grounds. What are they made out of and by whom? How long does one for a royal personage take to make? Are the artisans full time bade makers or do they make art for other uses? I am waiting for a book on Balinese offerings to arrive from Singapore that I hope will answer some of my questions.

Meanwhile, in searching "google" I came across a blog (on the third page into my google search) bemoaning the lack of educational content coming out of a google search on Balinese flower offerings,( The poster complained about all the adds including one for 1-800-Flowers to which one commenter suggested doing a search on instead.

There was a royal cremation for Tjokorde Istri Putri and Tjokorde Istri Inten from Puri Mas and Puri Anyar in 2006, about which there is an interesting photo-blog by ablteam at

Image source:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Royal Cremation Ceremony in Bali July 15, 2008

According to the website of the Ministry Of Culture And Tourism, Republic Of Indonesia (
the Ubud Royal Family will hold a royal cremation ceremony on July 15, 2008 (the day after I arrive in Bali) for the bodies of two prominent elders and effigy of one member of the family, who was cremated in December soon after her death:

TJOKORDA GDE AGUNG SUYASA, head of the Ubud Royal Family and the leader of the traditional community in Ubud since 1976
, a senior officer in the police force in Denpasar until his retirement in 1992
GUNG NIANG RAKA, whose body was cremated in a smaller ceremony in December soon after she died, will also now be given a full cremation ceremony

My experience of funerals in the United States have been somber family affairs. A stranger to the family would never dream of intruding. According to what I've heard, death rituals are much more public in Bali, and the Indonesian Ministry of Culture has issued an open invitation to tourists to attend the grand cremation ceremony in Bali next month.

The following description of the ceremony is adapted from the Ministry of Culture website. I have added pictures, links for more information, and italics to non-English words:

"The cremation procession and associated ceremonies are important rituals in the [Balinese] Hindu rites of passage. The bodies of the deceased will be carried through the streets of Ubud by thousands of local people on top of a nine-tiered tower called bade.

The procession will be accompanied by an elaborately decorated and venerated bull effigy (Lembu) and a mythical dragon-like creature (Naga Banda), with a five meter-long tail. The naga is reserved for only the elders of the Royal family and is thus seldom seen in cremation ceremonies.

Ngaben is the principle funeral rite in Bali's Hindu society which aims to return the remains of the deceased to the elements from which all living things are created and to release the soul from all ties to this life.

Ngaben is comprised of many rituals, culminating in the burning of the corpse in an animal-shaped sarcophagus, as well as the burning of the cremation tower (bade) whose sole purpose is to transport the corpse from home to the cremation grounds.

The Ngaben is not a sad event, it can even be happy, it is a way to make the spirit of the dead happy, and to avoid disturbing him by crying. However it requires an enormous amount of time, energy, and money! All of the relatives and friends share the cost but often months, or even years, will be required to gather enough money and to make the mountains of offerings involved. One solution is for ordinary community members to join the funerals of wealthier individuals of high caste, or to organize ngaben massal (mass cremation) among the villagers, to reduce the costs.

In Ubud, such 'mass' cremations are held only every 3-5 years. On 15 July, 2oo8 three members of the Royal Family of Ubud will be cremated along with approximately 70 other deceased from the local community.

This ceremony is very much a public one and visitors are welcome but everyone is reminded to dress appropriately, with legs and arms covered, and to abide by any instructions and announcements."

Video of a cremation ceremony


Top: Image: "Bade," the pagoda-like tower in which to body of the deceased is processed to the cremation ground. Photo courtesy of Sidarta Wijaya (

Bull effigy or "lembu." Photo courtesy of I Wayan Wardika's Flickr site (

Bottom: The serpent deity or "Naga Banda." Photo courtesy of Jelantik's Flickr site (

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dinner and Gamelan FAQs

A Lovely Dinner
Tonight I was very fortunate to be included in a dinner hosted by the Consul General of Indonesia in San Francisco, Mr. Yudhistiranto Sungadi and his wife Mrs. Nenny Yudhistiranto. The dinner was to give a send-off to the members of the museum's Jade Circle who are going to Bali on a 10-day study tour led by the museum's Chief Curator, Forrest McGill. The Jade Circle raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support the museum in its educational mission. They are an amazing group of individuals from all different fields and backgrounds. Many have lived or do business in Asia, some collect art, some are docents, some are board members, all are avid supporters of the museum and give their time and money to support our many outreach programs. The Consul General and his wife treated us to a lively and warm evening, and a delicious Indonesian meal in their gorgeous 1905 Pacific Heights home that was featured in a few San Francisco movies, including Sudden Fear (1952) starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. The Yudhistiranto's couldn't have been nicer to our group.

Gamelan FAQs
On a totally different note, I have been reading other blogs about Bali and came across one ( that mentioned an interesting website created by a group in Washington, DC, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma, providing frequently asked questions about gamelan music. I found it helpful, myself knowing very little about gamelan other than the most basic information. The page provides some answers to the following questions that gamelan musicians often hear from their friends and families:

1. Gamelan? What the heck's that deal?
2. What instrument do you play? 3. Where is Bali?
4. How do you learn how to play?
5. Is there musical notation?
6. Are you all Indonesian?

From what I understand, gamelan is the musical accompaniment to virtually every Balinese dance, with very few exceptions, such as the Kecak dance, which is accompanied by chanting (see historical photo at left from Cornell University.

This particular dance has an interesting history, which is partly told in the Wikipedia article about Kecak. More on this topic later.....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bali Arts Festival Images on Flickr

Originally uploaded by Farl
Some wonderful photos of people from the opening parade of the Bali Arts Festival that opened this weekend are on "Farl's" Flickr site.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bali Art Festival 2008 opens tomorrow in Denpasar

Sidarta Wijaya blogs about the Bali Art Festival
Tomorrow, Saturday (6/14/08) Bali Art Festival, a month-long festival participated by all regencies in the province of Bali and from other provinces in Indonesia and several foreign participants, like USA, Korea, Japan, Australia, will be opened with a grand opening ceremony that involve 3000 artist from all over the paradise island of Bali. This opening ceremony will be held in front of the Monumen Perjuangan Rakyat Bali (Bali People Struggle Monument, at Renon Square Denpasar. The main attractions of this opening ceremony is the parade various art performances and cultural treasures from each participants of Bali Art Festival that usually involve thousands of artists.

The Bali Art Festival 2008 will be held from June 14 until July 12 in Bali Art Center Werdhi Budaya at Jalan Nusa Indah Denpasar. The theme of Bali Art Festival 2008 as the cultural event overall is “Citta Wretti Nirodha—Self Restrain toward Balance and Harmony”.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

West Javanese Dance Performance in SF June 21

I know this is a blog about Balinese art, but I can't help but share that the West Javanese dance company that I study with, Harsanari, will be performing Sundanese dance in a free folk festival at City College of San Francisco on Saturday June 21. So if you cannot get tickets to the Ethnic Dance Festival (or can't afford them) there is this free event you might find fun.

Bali and Java are close neighbors both artistically and geographically--they were joined by a land bridge in the last ice age, and there have been mass migrations from Java to Bali in past times. Many of the same dance dramas are performed on both islands, but the styles and music of each are quite distinct.

For details about the Festival on June 21 at City College, please visit
and for more information about Harsanari, please visit,

Image information: Harsanari at Indonesia Day 2007 at Union Square. I'm in the back, center.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Balinese dance at Ethnic Dance Festival

I thought I would share some of what I have been able to find out about the performance by Gadung Kasturi on June 28-29 at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The group will perform Tari Topeng Telek. Topeng means "to press against the face" and is often translated as "mask" in English. Telek are the white-faced temple guardians who must battle the usually red-faced, destructive Jauk characters in an ongoing balancing of good and evil. Their battle precedes a confrontation between Barong, the protector and Rangda, the demonic destroyer (remember Rangda from my first post?) This work is traditional, and has been arranged by the group's artistic director Kompiang Metri-Davies. The Contra Costa Times interviewed Metri-Davies this week; she commented: "('Tari Topeng Telek') symbolizes that there's always a fight between good and bad." Neither side ever really wins, but balance must be maintained through regular sacred offerings including dance performances.

The origin of this work and other classic Balinese dances are impossible to pin-point as made unsettlingly clear in Mark Hobart's article, "Rethinking Balinese Dance" in Indonesia and the Malay World, 35:101, (London: Routledge, June 2007) pp. 107 - 128. [This interesting article is unfortunately not online, but may be available through your public library's JSTOR online journal search]. He writes, "Retrojection, anachronism, partisan claims, plain invention and simple muddle are the hallmarks of the written history of Balinese dance."

Where does that leave us? Well for the present, we leave our questions about history aside, we go and observe the product of countless hours of study and practice on stage at the festival by this stellar cast of artists including guest master musician I Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana. According to the program notes:
The music is also traditional and it is completely united with the dance. Changes in its dynamics, accent, and musical structure are tightly synchronized to the dancers' hand, foot, and eye gestures, as both dancers and musicians give and follow cues.
Apparently you can see either the Telek or Jauk dance without their opponent, but according to Sidarta Wijaya, "I have never encountered a solo Telek; Telek can be categorized as a rare piece of Balinese dance." In other words, you might see solo Jauk performances, but Telek are usually danced as a group. Images of a Telek and Jauk performances in Bali can be seen on YouTube, such as in this clip:

As well as on the following websites:

Following is a vivid description of a Jauk performance:
The harsh stare of the eyes, the thick, black mustache, and frozen smile give the masked Jauk dancer an uncanny effect of being from another world. . . . He wears a high, tasseled crown covering a thick mass of tangled hair, and gloves with long transparent fingernails that flitter incessantly to the music. As a mask dance, Jauk is considered a high art to execute well. The dancer's aim is to express . . . a strong, forceful personality. . . . [because they are wearing a mask] a Jauk performer cannot rely on powerful facial expressions to convey feeling.

He can dart his artificial looks here and there, but he is obliged to express his demonic exuberance through his gestures alone. (The round, protruding eyes and tentacle-like fingernails are the marks of identification for a demon.) . . . . He peers out to his audience like a crouching cat ready to leap upon its prey.

Suddenly he lunges, the music becomes frenetic with loud, clashing sounds, he spins to reach the perimeter of the stage, then stops, precise and controlled--only the constant shimmering of the tassels and fingernails mirror his intensity. Slowly, he retreats, as if preoccupied by dark, treacherous thoughts. And if his audience in the first rows are little children, they breathe a sigh of relief.

--excerpted from

What a rare treat indeed to see traditional Balinese dance with live musical accompaniment in San Francisco, not so rare in Bali of course. I will be watching intently for the cues back and forth between dancer and musician, and trying to imagine how it feels to don such a mask.

Monday, June 9, 2008

What makes it authentic?

The interplay between sacred and profane performance is part of the dynamic repertoire of Balinese performance culture, which, from the early 1920s until the present, has evolved in relation to the international tourist economy.
--from the liner notes of the DVD Legong: Dance of the Virgins by Peter J. Bloom and Katherine J. Hagedorn
(full text available at

As we begin thinking about performing arts programming for the Bali exhibition coming to the Asian Art Museum in Summer 2010, we will have many questions about how best to present Balinese music and dance in the secular space of the art museum. (Incidentally, I realize many museum goers report having spiritual experiences in the galleries and at programs, and much of the art housed in the Asian Art Museum is sacred, so for some people it may feel like a sacred space, even though in legal terms the museum is a secular institution.)

While we don't want any programs to come off as proselytizing one faith over another, we do want to strive for authenticity--itself a loaded concept. Most traditional Balinese performing arts were, and many still are, carried out in a sacred context, often on the temple grounds, sometimes involving a trance state for the dancers. Many are accompanied by elaborate rituals before, during and after a performance to ensure that the ever present polars of good and evil remain in balance, and that none of the dancers is harmed or overtaken by the bad spirits. As I understand it, these sacred rituals represent a synthesis of Balinese Hinduism and pre-Hindu animist practices.

The reality in present-day Bali, and indeed since travelers from the West first started seeking out an ideal of paradise there in the early 1900s, is that Balinese dance, in particular, has been streamlined for a shorter attention spans, and adapted to serve as exotic entertainment, not just for Western tourists anymore, but for people from all over the world. No one blames the Balinese for wanting to delight their many visitors, and for seeing a business opportunity, especially in the 1930s when a lot of folks were very poor. Today, tourism is still Bali's greatest economic engine. It is impossible to think these visitors and returning Balinese ex-pats are not continuing to shape the arts in Bali today. I don't mean to sound overly nostalgic or negative about these changes. It is my feeling that no culture should stagnate or stay impervious to the outside world. It just makes my job as an educator a lot more challenging and interesting.

How can the museum represent "authentic" Balinese performance, or for that matter, even know for sure what that is? These are the questions I hope to come closer to having answers to this time next year. How will I tackle these questions? Reading, seeing lots of Balinese performance with my own eyes, here, in Bali, and even on YouTube, and talking to lots of people who know more than I do. (If you know of someone I should talk to, please comment to this post).

Image "Follow Me," taken Oct. 30, 2004 showing "Young Balinese girls in Ubud were practising for the night performance. " courtesy of Riza Nugraha.
License information at

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Balinese dance in San Francisco June 28-29, 2008

You don't have to travel all the way to Indonesia to see fine Balinese dance. If you live in the Bay Area and have never been to the Ethnic Dance Festival, you are missing the year's most uplifting and gorgeous pageant of ethnic dance.

This year the Balinese group Gadung Kasturi ("Fragrance of the Gadung flower") is performing a masked dance, Tari Topeng Telek, on weekend four of the festival, June 28-29, 2008. They will be accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra featuring visiting master musician I Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana. This performance presents a battle between white masked temple guardians ("the good guys") and angry, red-faced demons ("the bad guys").

For more information about the festival visit
For more information about Gadung Kasturi visit

Photo by R J Muna

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bali as remembered by composer Colin McPhee (1960-64)

One of the themes of the museum's Bali exhibition, which is being curated by Natasha Reichle, is "Paradise Created: Bali in the Western imagination; the West in Balinese eyes." One of Bali's early fans from North America was the Canadian born composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964). I am currently reading his sweet and fascinating memoir A House in Bali (published in 1947), which painted one of the earliest portraits of the island for readers of English. McPhee lived in Bali for nearly 10 years in the 1930s and was obsessed by the gamelan music he reports having heard practically 24 hours a day there. McPhee taught at UCLA from 1960 until his death in 1964, and his archives are held there in the Ethnomusicology department.

According to their website ( McPhee wrote two major orchestral works inspired by Balinese music, Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936) and Symphony No. 2 (1957). McPhee also took many photographs and there is a slideshow of his lovely black and white images accompanied by music recorded by McPhee in the 1930s, among other video and audio clips that I look forward to exploring. I wonder if we can get a local symphony to present some of McPhee's compositions in conjunction with the exhibition . . . that would be amazing.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Balinese art - the journey begins

I am starting this blog to give a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into developing a major art exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco on Balinese art. I am the education director at the museum, and will visit Bali with two of my colleagues this summer to conduct research, take video and photos, and meet with artists we might invite to present programs when the exhibition is on view in 2010.

I have been reading about Balinese dance and offering making--expressions that are a daily practice for many Balinese. These ephemeral arts will comprise two integral parts of the 2010 exhibition, which, of course, also features the richly textured visual arts of Bali. This approach embraces the fact that Balinese music, performance, and visual art usually work in concert together, rarely in isolation. For example, shadow puppets are seen in the context of a puppet play with live music, narration of the puppet master, and audience reaction. Although the puppets have strong aesthetic power on their own, when seen in a play by lamplight in a Balinese village they transport the viewer to another world.

The witch Rangda (see image) may often be seen performed in dance dramas in Bali by a person (I think usually by a man) wearing a terrific costume, with padded, comically pendulous breasts, vicious fangs, wild, matted hair, and claw-like nails. To read more about Rangda in dance, see


Image Information:

The witch Rangda, approx. 1800–1900
Indonesia, Bali
Painted wood
Gift of Thomas Murray in memory of his father Eugene T. Murray

Asian Art Museum, 2000.37

In Balinese mythology, Rangda is a powerful, frightening witch associated with the warlike Hindu goddess Durga.

Rangda appears in one of the best-known Balinese ritual dance-dramas as the black magic–wielding opponent of the lion-monster barong ketet. The costume representing Rangda, like this sculpture, emphasizes her shaggy hair, bulging eyes, curving fangs, pendulous breasts, and extremely long fingernails.