Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW Bali Magazine, April 2009 )


Semar, one of the five immortals prepares for the show.

Adventures in Classical Javanese Paradise

Ni Limbur Haus Seks

I come from a long line of theatrical performers: my grandfather danced in the Lancashire Lads with Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel before emigrating to Australia in 1919.
In 1971, I danced with the dreaded Iwan Natapraja in the Sydney University Music Department’s production of ‘The Ramayana’, before emigrating to Bali in 1973. After that ‘Ramayana’ performance I sold Soto Madura to 200 tight-fisted Java-o-philes in the Great Hall; I was so tired that I left the oven warmers on: by morning the antique cedar table-tops had horrible cracks right down the middle!!!

•     •     •

Before I fell into flesh I dreamed of being a classical ballet dancer: I spent six years at Denpasar’s prestigious dance academy—as a groupie and English teacher—perfecting my all-male, one-man Scottish Legong; and spent almost every dry season full moon during that period at Candi Prambanan’s open stage near Jogjakarta, watching the classical Javanese Ramayana.
Avid Stranger fans will recall my recent performance as ‘Ni Limbur Haus Seks – the incredible smoking Condong’ at Dr Djelantik’s memorial at Taman Ujung, Karangasem (see 2008); and even more avid fans may have caught my cameo  as Widgie Weinberg (star of the soft-porn flick ‘Beach Bum Bandit’) dancing the Joged Bumbung  (or dance of inebriated flirtation) at the P.T. Wijaya Annual Staff Party in Sanur last December.
The rest of you will have to read this and weep.

In January this year I was invited to dance with a motley crew of glamorous socialites, minor celebrities and trust fund-babes (all gorgeous) at a benefit to help the failing Bharata Purwa theatre—a sort of Cinema Paradiso for Jakarta’s Wayang Wong dance enthusiasts situated near the Capitol’s  non-historic swamp district. I was sent two dance instructors, Mr. and Mrs Soepono, from the Bharata troupe, who stayed in my Bali home for three days with frequent forays to the art markets to buy souvenirs of unspeakable ordinariness. It was their job to force my aged limbs into ridiculous attitudes. The Soepono’s visit coincided with the book launch of ‘The Best of the Stranger in Paradise, 1996 – 2008’ (now available at a bookstore near you) at the lovely Warung Enak restaurant in Ubud where they excelled at dancing a real joged with Stranger stars of last century, and a smattering of inebriated expatriates. Before they returned to Jakarta they gave me a disc of my dance moves—as Bimo, the Rambo of the Ramayana—with which I have travelled for the past month, rehearsing in hotel rooms and hotel swimming pools across the equator (I am a travelling salesman of sorts). One aquatic performance at the Hyatt Regency in Jogjakarta bought a standing ovation from the pool boys it should here be mentioned.

•     •     •

In training with the troupe’s elegant sponsor Wiwoho Basuki and choreographer Soepono

Me ‘playing the goat’ with our elegant and generous sponsor Wiwoho Basuki, my dance partner.

In costume as Bhatara Bayu, the God of Thunder.

At the production’s first dress rehearsal in Jakarta at the venerable Bharata Purwa Theatre—a Javanese-baroque triumph of stucco, gold paint and rotting floorboards—it became apparent that the music and the choreography had completely changed and that one’s fellow guest dancers were equally ill-prepared. The corps de ballet (from Solo’s venerable ISI Dance Academy) on the other hand were like a squadron of mini-Baryshnikovs on steroids.
Over the next three days—first at the Bharata Theatre  then at the National Opera House (GKJ)—we all worked intensely, getting it right; as I slowly fell in love with the entire male chorus, and the bevy of famous comics, and Javanese dance stars. By Day Two I was enraptured , once again, with  Javanese humour and extreme loveliness.
Of course one can’t judge a culture from its ballerinas...... but one can get a grip on a culture’s otherworldly delights spending three days locked in a theatre with its dance artists.....oh the refinement and wit and grace I was privileged to experience heart aches for that feeling as I sit in this cyber corner in a resort hotel in Malaysia.

Most of all I miss the goings-on in the orchestra pit, where the gamelan musicians spent hours cajoling poor Pak Seto (a very effeminate Solo albino with Tourette’s Syndrome) to the extreme amusement of the stars of National Television’s Comedy Central).
For most of the three days, the Solo dancers chain-smoked, pruned and preened, ephemerally, in front of the well-stretched socialites—all secreting enzymes over Arjuna and Abimanyu, as they fired of off text messages across Jakarta.
Then came the production’s opening night.
Once on stage it became apparent that all of us ‘arrivistes’ where just part of the set design, to be mocked and played with by the stars as would a cat with a dead mouse. Stricken with first night nerves, we were prodded and pulled by the clever little classicists dancing around us, as the audience rolled in the aisles.
It was immensely enjoyable and only slightly terrifying.
Back in the dressing room Indonesia’s most famous bakso vendor Bp. Widyanto, SB (of ‘Bakso Lapangan Tembak Senayan’ or ‘Meatball Soup from the Senayan Shooting Range’ fame) held court with the dwarfs and thugees undressing him.
“All the world’s a theatre” he said, “and humour was invented backstage.”

•     •     •

The next day I caught a flight from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur and went straight from the airport to a building site in town. There I found an aesthetically challenged Chinese construction manager barking at a Javanese stone mason (‘Indons’, they are called in Malaysia and Australia now) as if the hard-working Javanese were a slave.
My heart sank.
One day the ‘Indons’ in Malaysia will rise against these cruel overlords!!!

Sunday, 8th March 2009: A break in the monsoon weather delivers a stunning sunny surprise
Today, as I drive to Ubud, the rains stop and the glossy gardens and red brick temple gates of  East Denpasar suddenly appear to sparkle in the intense  March sunshine. I have to stop.
I never get to Ubud but spend the next three hours , camera in hand, spotty ankles exposed beneath  gossamer thin sarong, trolling the lanes and back roads of Kesiman and Kedaton and Lebah the ancient Majapahit Era suburbs of East Denpasar―an area forgotten by the tourism rat race and MTV culture.
No one questions me as I wander into temples and family courtyards so polite and welcoming are the Balinese.
I get scores of quite remarkable photographs of ancient gates and shrines framed by verdure on the edge of fecundity. All my garden and Hindu temple-loving G-spots are tweaked.
I am in architectural historian heaven.

•     •     •

Majapahit architecture of Denpasar.

I have lately joined a team of experts exploring the architecture of ancient Majapahit in Trowulan, East Java—the last and mightiest of Javanese Kingdoms during Java’s classical era, and the ancestor of the temple and palace architecture of South Bali today. For the past few months I have been visiting the candi monuments of East and Central Java on a regular basis and today, suddenly, my eyes are fully opened to the incredible wealth of Majapahit heritage still to be found in Bali—cultural, architectural and spiritual. It only took 35 years of fairly intense observation, and a lot of luck, but I feel I am nearing a threshold of understanding. Most scholars research either Java or Bali: very few have become experts in any aspect of both. The photos on the opposite page are not remarkable, but they do prove a link between the presumed style of the architecture of 15th Century Majapahit (now all gone) and the architecture of Denpasar today.
Despite the ghastly cabarets in Nusa Dua where demented Nancy-boy, right- wing Christian, Spanish choreographers kick Majapahit offerings off the stage as near-naked schoolgirls writhe on the dance floor in mockeries of Majapahit Era Hindu gestures; despite everything Jakarta developers are doing to reduce coastal Kuta to a sleazy mall-scape...........the real Bali from the real Java is still there, in East Denpasar, to be appreciated, in form, in attitude, and in grace.

Interior views of the elegant Biku Tea Rooms and Book Shop (by Ganesha).

11 March 2009: To Jalan Petitenget for a literary lunch
My friend Jero Asri, an Australian who married into the Ubud Palace in 1973, has opened a tea room cum book store in fashionable North Seminyak, with her dashing photographer son Max.
Asri’s husband, Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa is now the bendesa head of Ubud’s religious community so the tea room is aptly named ‘Biku’ (a Buddhist priest). The tea room itself is a large Javanese joglo structure, decked out with colonial era furniture and bowls of billowing white moon orchids.......the staff are attractive, courteous and efficient.
Today I find Asri surrounded by women refugees from the writers’ festival, all diving into tiered trays of cakes and scones. In the café’s side courtyard I find my old chum Australian Artist Stephen Little busy finishing a 20 metre-long mural wall—a lively trompe l'oeil complete with temple vistas and birds from famed Australian artist Donald Friend’s  book on Bali  ‘Bird’s from the Magic Mountain’.
The books in the Ganesha gallery include some vintage titles— mostly on Bali and Java—and a good selection of the best books on Balinese culture and cooking and the arts.
From the ‘Biku’ I go next door (well just up the road) to Bonita Spa for their Vegemite and Paw-paw scrub—the perfect finish to a West Coast afternoon of indulgence.

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