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.