Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, March 2006)



Last month I was asked to be on the design committee for the Balinese contingent’s float in the gay and lesbian Sydney Mardi Gras.
I am not homosexual – I just help them out when they’re busy.
The committee’s first meeting was held at a beachfront venue not far from The Legian – the millinary arm of Gay Rotary-famous for seniors in scanty sports-wear with lithe young (local) consorts.
It’s ever so nice but a tad non-U Hindu.
Example: I brought to the attention of a Balinese barman the ripe pair of leather grannies frolicking in black bikini bottoms in the mouth of the restaurant’s ancient temple (strictly non-U Hindu, and can lead to pestilence and plague).
The barman looked at me as if I were mad!
Boy have standards plummeted lately – it’s a bit tragic.
The meeting was a fun affair however: and first on the agenda were the tank tops (naturally).
“Who cares,” said Ketut, a perfectly formed if craggy-featured waiter from Legian. “We’re going to rip them off on the dance floor anyway.”
The Balinese are nothing if not practical.
Next a florist formerly from Foster – which is north, well north, of Sydney – described his vision of a hundred Balinese gladiators in ‘prana’ loin cloths.
“It’s prada cloth,” I said through curled lips.
“Whatever,” she hissed.
One of the expats expressed a concern, at this point, that perhaps Bali should not be represented by a lot of rice queens (foreign gentlemen with Danang-jungle fever, Ed.) but by native Balinese.
It was then my turn.
I showed them the winner in my office-wide contest to design the float for the Mardi Gras! (See diagram above right).
The group was shocked to see what a fairly representative section of straight Bali proposed for their coming mass coming-out!
Now read on ….

31st January 2006 : To North Bali for the cremation of my first sponsor, the composer and national hero Drs. I Gusti Bagus Nyoman Panji
In 1975 I journeyed out of my Balinese village in search of a visa. For most of 1974 I had been asleep on a bamboo slat platform: a small Brahmana family in the sleepy rural village of Kepaon had taken me in and I didn’t ever want to go out. I survived by coaching tennis to wealthy Denpasar Chinese and teaching English to their relatives.
I decided I was going to get a visa by teaching English at the dance academy and simultaneously fulfil my destiny as the world’s first all-man, one man and Scottish legong. In those days it was quite hard staying in Bali for any period of time. The Kantor Imigrasi in Sanglah was a terrifying place with a long counter stained with the blood of martyrs and a series of blue saloon doors behind which lurked weapons-grade redhead-bigots wielding giant ‘Get out of my country’ stamps.
Somehow I had an introduction to Drs. I Gusti Bagus Nyoman Panji, the then head of the Konservatori Karawitan (KOKAR), a legendary place near Pagan in East Denpasar, where, gathered daily, were any number of nubile dancers with perfectly formed breasts. During the 1980s busloads of tourists would arrive, everyday (that is before beach massage converted the masses to hedonism, Ed.)
Pak Panji was a kindly, gentle man and seemed to divine in me the young Australian opportunist who needed to be thrown a bone. Before too long I had my sponsorship letter and a class of sweaty brats. Everyday I went to Legong Class in the great hall and drew huge crowds. Some tourists from the 1980s are still trying to erase the memory. Every evening I hung out at Pak Panji’s little cottage in the back corner of the Dance Academy lot. Mrs. Panji was always there – a saintly woman who fed passing Australians, like most Balinese.
I worked at the dance academy for five years. This diary was started while I was still there and I made many friends in the dance and drama world who remain friends until today.
Two years ago one of Pak Panji’s grandchildren came to me for a job as an architect: his name is Gusti Bagus. He has the same gentle soul and quiet elegance as his grandfather. ‘Bagus’ has quickly become the benchmark by which I judge my own attempts to be quieter and more humble. When I’m feeling particularly spiky or pumped up, for example, I put on reading glasses and look at the ground a lot, like Gusti.
Last week Pak Panji passed away at the age of 81.
With his passing Bali has lost a hero of the arts.
Today I am off to the cremation in the village of Bungkulan , Singaraja, North Bali . With me in the car is Gung De, the son of the Prince of Sukawati, who is annoying me by answering my questions in low Balinese.
“Has your exalted highness partaken of a hot beverage this morn?” I ask.
“Yo, bro,” he answers, sort of thing.
Most annoying, and unnecessary because he speaks high Balinese to my high Balinese at the office and we Australian Wijayas are descended from chip-shop owners in Bukit Timah and are no less grand than the Sukawatis.
I hope he reads this and stops it.
Most Balinese ksatrya (princely or warrior caste – now prominent in local government and the professions) are nothing if not feudal; but not the darling Gustis of the Jero Gede Bungkulan, a clan of composers, musicians and dancers that goes back some centuries to their origins in Bangli.

• • •

Within seconds of arriving, and minutes before the big procession is about to head off, I am back in the warm bosom of Pak Panji’s family and my dance academy buddies. All of the island’s dance world luminaries – Professor Bandem and his wife, the Wayan Dibias, the Bongkasa, Sedang and Sukawati theatrical dynasties – have visited Pak Panji’s home to pay their respects over the past week.
I have delicious Buleleng coffee and exquisite jaja sumping with the gathered Panji clan.
“Remember my thesis you translated in 1979,” purrs Pak Panji’s gracious eldest daughter.
(Er, No).
“Remember the time we slept on the floor in the wardrobe department,” nudges one of Pak Panji’s nephews.
(Most certainly not).
I chat to Yang Pung, the greatest dancer of his generation; he is here today with his own gamelan orchestra, a beleganjur marching band, as a token of gratitude towards his old guru. I take photos of all the babe-magnets in his band – all dressed to kill in Pemecutan (Denpasar palace) standard ikat, rembang and batik. I take a photo of one unusually ugly but young and lithe band member who is unusually propped between the back of gamelan pavilion and the courtyard wall.
“Send that snap to Flora and Fauna,” one of the band members jokes.
The courtyard collapses in mirth. In this way – in the finding of amusement in the misfortune of others (as Dame Edna Everage famously put it) – the Balinese are rather like their raucous, irreverent Southern neighbours, the Ozzies.
Aside from Yang Pung’s group, everywhere is bright Chinese-North Coast Balinese colour. I see it in the remaining Dutch-colonial architecture of the village, the traditional costumes of the gathered family and guests, and the decorations on Pak Panji’s funeral bier. Even the wreaths are more cosmic and intense than they would be in South Bali .
I am in a heightened state of awareness – enhanced by all the strong emotions and beauty.

As the gamelan strikes up on the main road, I burst into tears. It has been years since I have heard such bold and beautiful beleganjur music. I am on the asphalt in the middle of the Singaraja-Karangasem road – taking photographs furiously – surrounded by the most magnificent marching band in Bali , and the funeral bier and white bull sarcophagus of my old mentor.
Suddenly the coffin is out of the village lane and rocketing up the teragtag ramp: the procession now heads off pell-mell down the street towards the village cemetery, stopping at each crossroad so the funeral bier can be spun around three times. At the intersection the beleganjur drummers perform a roadside pas de deux worthy of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
The procession is smokin’!!.
After an energetic half hour the funeral bier turns down a village lane: the family graveyard is perched on the banks of the Aya river. A fairground of Javanese toy-vendors and ice cream men has sprouted for the occasion (how do they always know!).
As Pak Panji’s mortal remains are given the last Hindu rites, Mrs. Panji’s frail form floats into the front row. She looks composed and stoic but is obviously distressed – they were a devoted couple.
I sit with another KOKAR alumnus, my friend Pino Confessa, now Honorary Italian Consul to Bali , and the family head, Drs. I Gusti Bagus Sudhyatmaka Sugriwa, who is now director of the national radio station (RRI) in Denpasar. We discuss Bungkulan village’s artistic heritage – in particular the work of the famous sculptor I Subakta in the 1920s and 1930s.
My old wardrobe buddy, the raucous Gusti Bagus Sutarta, points out all the now retired holiday heartbreakers in his clan; in particular he points out his cousin in the angklung band who once starred with Chempaka Blanco in “Clouds Over Kintamani”.
“Barry Hardono ( Jakarta fashion icon, Ed.) used to send him a dozen roses every day!”
So ends an invigorating and enlightening excursion to the North Coast – a little Callas, a lot of day music, and a million technicolour memories.
Bring it on Bali ! We all need a shaking up!

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