Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, August 2011)

Amandari’s Classic Bali Film Festival

Dewa Ayu Putu Henny Yusnita — mother of three month old Ida Bagus Darendra Nararya Manuaba — holding one of the spirit effigies.

Every year for the last three years the Balinese culture’s last Resort has — with France’s prestigious La Cinémathèque Françaisede la Danse — hosted a three day festival of archival and other special films on Trance and Dance and Sacred and Secret and black men tap-dancing.
Last month I was invited by photo-journalist and former Happy Valley (Kenya) ‘It’ girl La Baronne Gill Marais and  Sally Baughen, the dynamic Kiwi G.M. of the legendary Amandari, to a private screening of Basil Gelpke’s quasi-documentary “Bali: Sacred and Secret”. I say “quasi-documentary” because it’s also a poetic masterpiece, with an amazing score by Brian Burman and heart-felt narration by Malaysian-born Indian Mano Manum and I say “heart-felt” because the last big-screen Bali epic, the exhausting “11 Powers”, was narrated by Orson Welles, no less, on the condition that he did not need to know what the film was about.
Before that, it was Phillip Noyce and David Elphick for Qantas’ masterpiece “Bali – Island of the Gods” that had them doing naked cartwheels in the aisles.
So now it’s Sacred and Secret and the posh girls wanted me to compere, and to invite Balinese artists and dancers back for supper after the show at my little ethnic homestay the legendary TAMANBEBEKBALI.COM.
The compere-ing was easy; getting the Balinese to commit a date and a time and a meal was a nightmare.
But commit a few did, including the Bendesa Adat of Nyuh Kuning, Ubud and Sangeh, plus A.A. Ngurah Bagus of Puri Mandala Peliatan (the legendary Terompong dancer and fashion plate), la princesse Bonbon (Legong legend Dr. A. A. Ayu Bulantrisna and her sister A. A. Surya), rising star painter Ketut Sanna, and the film’s star the cosmic and  cozy Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa of Puri Saren in Ubud, amongst others.
200 international and Indonesian writers (Diana Darling), journalists (Kunang Helmi), film makers (Dr. Lawrence Blair), frog-dance aficionados, gurus (Rio Helmi), retail hags (Arthur Karvan) and anthropologists (Roda Bauer) filled in the seats left over from the village people WHO LOVED THE FILM. The Kedewatan village people screamed the weight of the rice being cooked during the Balinese kitchen scene, and the price of the fight cocks in baskets during the traditional Balinese courtyard scene. They all clapped wildly when the Ubud prince’s cremation tower inched up and into place, finally coming to rest atop the 21st century’s most glamorous funeral bier.
At the 90 minute film’s end local retail hags were secreting enzymes:
“The most beautiful film I’ve ever seen,” said Adi Bojokiwi from Ang Cook enterprises.
“Makes me proud to be a Balinese,” said an Ubud-ite.
Legendary documentary film-maker Dr. Lawrence “Ring me, Brenda” Blair was misty-eyed as he signed the burned bras of his constituents.

Made Jimi Wijaya of Sidakarya, at a recent cremation in Suwung Kangin.

I loved Tjokorda Raka’s comment in the film “When we Balinese do our big ceremonies we invoke something super-human.”
Director of Cinematography Julian Shori’s footage was certainly “super-human” and Brian Burman’s vaguely New Age score incredibly moving.
The film is going well under commercial release in the art house cinemas of Malaysia (one) and should open Cannes next year.
The back story to the amazing film based on Gill Marais’ amazing book of the same name is: Basil Gelpke (pronounced “Gelpay”) discovered la baronne’s book at the legendary Linda Garland estate in Nyuh Kuning while doing a documentary on edible bamboo paper panty-hose; his previous claim to fame was a documentary on oil spills called, “Crude Awakening”.
Anyway, this film is “destined to become a classic like Miguel Covarrubias’s 1936 book “Island of Bali”.

3rd June 2011: To a Brahman palace in Denpasar for a very special occasion
During the years 1974 – 1978 I shared a single bed with two young Brahmans in a rural village near Kuta (now ringed by ‘Villa People’ and urban sprawl). Gus Rai, one of the young men, was a sports star and matinee idol destined to become a big time bank manager; the other, Gus Ngurah, was less perfectly–formed but nicer, and destined, sadly, to die young of liver cancer after 20 years teaching Hindu religion at a Kuta High School.



Gus Rai married the best-looking girl in the village and they raised four perfectly formed Brahman children in horrible places with banks all over Indonesia for 30 years, before returning to Bali and building a very smart big bungalow in the ‘MAJAPAHIT Mc Mansion’ style on the outskirts of Denpasar.
Today is the wedding of Gus Rai’s eldest son and the tooth filling of all of his children, plus three others.
There are two of the island’s best gamelan bands and the island’s celebrity ‘Glam-Bram’ high priest, Pedanda Gede Made Gunung is officiating.
Liku, Bali’s most famous drag queen mask dancer is dancing and a cast of hundreds are filing teeth, serving snacks and generally looking gorgeous.

Toot filing ceremony procession

Ida Bagus Jnana Putra Manuaba.

Ida Bagus Dwi Adi Bawa Praditya Manuaba, Gus Rai’s second son, after the tooth-filing

It is very moving to see the old guard, and to register how regal and refined Gus Rai’s teenage children are, despite having grown up in Papua, Timor Leste and Blitar.
I am nervous when Pedanda Gede Made Gunung comes in — as I had reported, in this column last year, something controversial he had said, and his people were a tad cross — but he playfully pokes me in the tummy and we quickly fall into gossip like old friends. He tells how legendary Bali-based designer Milo made five costume changes a day in North India during the two week Seminyak Dharma-bunny Yatra to the source of the Ganges.
“God bless him” I reply.

The Stranger and Liku do the rare ngibing K.U.D.

4th June 2011: To Kepaon village for a baby’s three month ceremony
Still in shock after the grandeur of Gus Rai’s mega-event, the family gathered today for the most loving of Balinese ceremonies, the three month ceremony, when the aunties sing their lullabies and the ancient good-will hymn “Don’t grow up like an ugly gourd.”
Today’s celebrant is the first grandson of my ‘brother’ Gus Teja who was once a shy asthmatic boy but now runs the village’s spiritual life, as Bendesa Adat. The baby’s father is a pretend movie star and the mother a great beauty from Ubud so any ceremonies involving these two are always quite grand.


Ida Bagus Ekaputra Manuaba, Dewa Ayu Putu Henny Yusnita and Ida Bagus Darendra Nararya Manuaba (son).

The Brahman mini-palace’s main courtyard is chock-a-block with relatives when I arrive at 10 a.m. to document the event (I now also do videos which can be viewed on You Tube under WijayaPilem2). There us a very jovial Santa Clause-like high priest officiating (see photo previous page) and every family member possible — from as far flung as Lombok and Singaraja and even Muslim relatives form Turtle Island (from a three generations-a-go love affair), but no-one from Gus Rai’s side.
In Bali, as elsewhere, family rifts are the hardest heal.

• • •

The principal prop in today’s exhausting medley of ceremonies is a bright blue cradle hanging from the eve of the ceremonial pavilion. It is packed with offerings, including a rather suggestive banana tree flower (one can’t have too many fertility symbols in Bali) and an old coconut frond spine bottom wrapped in yellow chequered flannel with a baby Dumbo decorative motif (very post-Majapahit).
Eventually the baby ends up in the crib, for five seconds before it is dressed like a Hindu prince and whisked in front of the pedanda priest for its first pray-in and holy water body wash (melukat).
 I join in — blessed are the meek — as have been having impure thoughts lately.

25th June 2011: The opening night of Amandari’s Film Festival at the Banjar Kedewatan
More and more near Ubud I find myself in a turban (udeng) and frock (kamen) giving a speech in broken Balinese and English in front of a hostile crowd (Ubud or Seminyak-based anthropologist or sexpats or both).
Tonight I looked out from my dimly-lit podium to a standing room only audience and there in the front row, were Rio, Kunang and Ranna Helmi — the most talented linguists on the planet with 49 languages between them and black belts in dharma— and my knees buckled.
I belted out some detail in market Malay and then quickly introduced La Baronne Gill, Ubud’s answer to Karen Blixen, who said we had to feel the film not just watch it, and curtsied, royally, which rather let me off the hook.
The faded-batik crowds mood — originally braying for blood — had shifted to republican fervor.
“Let them eat fried bananas” said la petite baronne.
Balinese artists and conservationists beamed from the front row (One “Aum Swastyastu” and they’re anyones) and soon it’s show time!
Bravo the Amandari, and France, for keeping us continually entertained.

Taman Mumbul, Sangeh: the Eight Wonder of Bali.

29th June 2011: Please God, Protect Bali from real estate developers for they know not what they do.
I receive a contingent of Malaysian-Chinese developers who have purchased a vast tract of land near two famous Balinese temples.
They have come to me for a brief on the religious significance of the temples.
They are charismatic Christians so I am careful not to mention anything too Pagan as I explain the pantheon of Gods precious to the Balinese, and the close family ties between these temple gods and the deified ancestors of the South Bali palaces.
“You mean like Feng Shui,” the boss lady queries.
“Well, not really,” I continue.
I show them photos in my Stranger in Paradise books of the same palace priests and priestesses going into trance at the temple festivals and one of the local Raja being cuddled by an adoring Muslim fan.
They can’t get out of my office fast enough — I think they’re taking their money to the Seychelles.

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