Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2008 )



Last month the rain came down on tinsel town and almost washed everyone away.

The Balinese took refuge from the deluge in a variety of ways: those not playing Nintendo were fashioning offerings for the January outbreak of ritual activity which seized the land.

For my part, I arranged two big dance performances for international high-rollers and experienced the joy of once again working with dancers and musicians on the Island of the Gods.

11 th December 2007 : to the glorious Villa Ombak in Batu Belig for the 50th birthday party of a Sydney friend.
During the years when I worked as a bouncer at the Dance Academy in Denpasar (1979 - 85), I learned a lot about gamelan and Balinese dance. Since that time I have had various ‘gigs’ involving the contacts I made way back then.

Most famously, I arranged for Yang Pung, the Mikhail Baryshnikov of his generation, to teach actor John Lone the complicated Terompong dance, for his role in the 80s film ‘Love As Long As Your Visa Lasts’ (Cinta Seumur Visa), directed by Philip Noyce.
Over the ensuing decades I staged dance evenings for the likes of Sir Hardy Amies, David Attenborough, la barone Cecile de Rothschild and for the Qantas film ‘Bali – Island of the Gods’ during which academy award-winning cinematographer Russell Boyd filmed the great Gung Geg Suryani – dancing the Oleg dance of flirtation – smouldering, like Rita Hayworth, for the Maestro’s lens. Some months ago at a Sukawati cremation, I discovered a brand new band of dancers – led by child-star Komang Win.

Tonight is their first commercial gig on the west coast, for a gaggle of Australian Bali-o-philes and musicologists who have been primed about the ‘specialness’ of tonight’s performance. My team has worked overtime setting up a stage befitting the occasion: strands of blue party nights – flown in from Central Java – have been woven into the palm frond decorations (penjor).

one of the Baris Tekok Jago junior dancers at the special events in Sanur and Batu Belig.

At 6 pm the dancers are given tea by the foreshore and the musicians slugs of arak (the grass is wet) under the shade of a Coolabah tree.

At seven pm the show starts and the stars shine!

Komang Win’s spirited Baris Tekok Jago brings tears to my eyes; the Legong dance performance is equally amazing.

The miniature Condong dancer in the Legong Keraton dance has the gathered guests’ eyes on sticks – so amazing and virtuoso is her performance. It turns out that her teacher is a student of my old dance academy buddy A.A. Susilawati, from Sibang, the greatest dancer of the Condong (lady-in-waiting) of her generation.
“Are you making some statement about class distinctions?” intones columnist Kadek Khrisna Adidharma – the event’s logistical supporter – when I gush about the connection.
At the end of the performance the event’s host gives the dancers and gamelan musicians a giant tip, we wrap up the precious blue lights and go home – to watch CSI Miami.

14 th December 2007 : A band of Indian Brahmins descend on Sanur for a birthday bash
Priya Paul is India’s classiest hotelier: she regularly ropes in the likes of Jasper Conran and this writer to fix up her Park Hotels in India, (Park Hotels is a member of the prestigious Design Hotel Group, as are The Legian and the two Alila hotels in Bali).

Priya and her family love Bali – indeed last year saw floods of inspired Indians arriving at the start of the monsoon – and she asked me to put on a ceremony for her husband Sethu’s 40 th birthday.

Sensibly they were staying in one of my old gardens – the Wantilan Lama in Batujimbar in Sanur (recently spoiled by revisionists, but still gorgeous).

A high priest distributes holy water to the birthday boy Sethu (40) as his wife, Priya Paul and children look on.

The Oton (Balinese Birthday) ceremony is performed in front of a Siwa-ite garden shrine I built 30 years ago (!). The gathered TamBrams (Tamil Brahmins) are entranced by the Vedic incantations and ‘Kerala style’ costume of the officiating high priest. As Priya Paul puts in a bid for Lower Sanur, Sethu goes down on his knees to ask for some holy water from the high priest at the end of the ceremony.

It used to be that the homeland Hindus regarded the Balinese version as ‘arrivistes’: “Chinkies ringing bells,” one pundit once called them!

Now they queue up for Bali’s brand of tirta amerta, the elixir of life!

11 January 2008 : to ARMA Art Gallery for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by the late Dr. A.A. Made Djelantik from his book ‘Against All Odds’ (with Idanna Pucci)
Tonight’s event is organised and sponsored by the Walter Spies Foundation – an organisation dedicated to the preservation of the Balinese culture and to the memory of the great German Artist Walter Spies, who lived and worked in Bali before the second World War.

Dr. Djelantik had a unique link to Walter Spies: it was Walter Spies’ friend, and biographer, Hans Rhodius, who sheltered Dr. Djelantik and his wife from the Nazis in occupied Holland during the last World War.

When Dr. Djelantik finally came home, he became a keen promoter of Balinese culture; in 1981, he co-founded the Bali Chapter of the Walter Spies Foundation with his old chum Hans Rhodius.

Tonight the Spies Foundation is honouring its biggest Balinese supporter with an exhibition of Dr. Djelantik’s unique watercolours – painted after his stroke at age 75 – which depict his extraordinary childhood, growing up in the Raja’s palace in Karangasem, through his school years in Denpasar and Central Java and before he left for Amsterdam to become Bali’s first ever medical student abroad.
I arrive at the exhibition hall just as a high priest is ‘opening’ the show with Vedic incantations and the wafting of the essence over a table-load of offerings.

One of Dr. Djelantik’s spirited water colours

At the northern end of the table is Dr. Djelantik’s violin, his famous keris (borrowed, recently, by the President to win the election (See Stranger in Paradise, October 2005 for the story) and his dragon-headed walking stick.
Mulling nearby are his daughters Dr. A. A. Bulantrisna Djelantik and A. A. Surya Djelantik both now back living together in the family home in Renon.

My old chum Gung Bagus, son of legendary musician ‘Gung Kak Mandera’, is carrying a book on the amazing Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931 and the history of the Balinese dances (from Peliatan) abroad.
Gung Bagus is in great form as he chats animatedly to Bulantrisna and Surya about both of their father’s great legacy.
The gathered guests include gallery owners Suteja Neka and Nyoman Gunarsa, photographer Rio Helmi, dancer A. A. Bagus from Peliatan and Horst Jordt from the Bali Chapter of the Walter Spies Foundation.

14 January 2008 : my old Ubud-based anthropologist and writer buddy Jean Couteau sends me his latest book BALI 2DAY II – a collection of essays on Balinese life for review.
Not since Covarrubias’ ‘ Island of Bali’ (1937) have we had in a writer so incredibly in touch with village life. With his latest book BALI 2DAY II, Jean Couteau casts a wry eye on Balinese village life.
From his single plank at Mrs. Soprong’s tea stall the ultimate egalitarian has for 20 years taken notes on the Balinese character . He observes in the French tradition of, say, D aumier, the great 19 th century c haricaturist, who noticed things that other people missed, and then magnified them. Like any Frenchman, however, he is at his best writing about matters of the heart. Like a voyeur, Couteau shines his torch on Balinese courtship rituals, his favourite subject, and comes up with stories about the ‘God of Love stare’. He then goes on to ponder, like a true philosopher, about wether “Cosmic love" is "giving way to global sex!"

I find myself thinking about Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful comic book ‘ Persepolis’ while admiring Couteau’s gentle prose. His ‘cultural encounters’ are almost autobiographical as he crawls into the skin of the kidnapped maidens and young ‘gallants’.
A must read for anyone who wants to know the real truth about the Balinese character.

Members of the Semar Pegulingan orchestra from Sukawati


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