Becoming a Warrior in Bali

Bali Article (Ryan Sutherland)

 

by Ryan Sutherland

July 25th, 2015

I awoke early to prepare for the day’s festivities. In the distance, the faint echo of neighboring gamelans broke through the morning’s shadow and mixed with the eerie calls of mantra singers and the cackling cries of wakening roosters. Bu Ketut had been awake for hours. She had already been to the Baturiti market to purchase jackfruit and rice for the selametan feast, the communal meal preceding our performance. She was quickly slicing tofu and molding tuna sate onto bamboo twigs when I walked into the kitchen. After downing a glass of piping hot White Koffie, I returned to the stage to move the gamelan semar pegulingan and the gamelan angklung into their proper locations. The faint smell of incense met my nose, evidence that Bu Ketut and her sister-in-law Bu Pinti had already made ritual offerings to appease the gods and evil spirits. Last night, they had decorated the stage with intricate palm leaf adornments and ticker-tape-like streamers that twirled in the breeze, suspended from the pavilion’s ceiling.

After a very short practice session, we ate a small lunch and began to dress and apply makeup. As some of the village girls in Bu Ketut’s dance classes arrived, more and more sequined costumes emerged from the storage closet and were passed around to the performers. They shimmered pleasantly in the afternoon light. Loh Deh beckoned me, earnestly calling “Come, come. Baris. Come.” She began to apply my makeup, first covering my face with ghostly white foundation, and then arching my eyebrows sharply with a deep black pencil that she also used to accentuate my sideburns. With another brush, she applied bright pink makeup above my eyebrows that she blended like a Rothko painting with sapphire blue. She rimmed my eyes with black eyeliner, taking care to draw in upturned wings at their corners like cat eyes. She smiled as she worked, admiring the results of her efforts, and concluded by drawing a small downward facing arrow on my forehead that she dotted with white pearls of cream. She worked quickly, rapidly transforming me into Baris, the warrior of mythology.

I began to feel the power of Baris come into me with each stroke she painted on, with each layer of foundation that expunged my identity and replaced my face with Baris’. Just as Loh Deh finished, we heard Pak Ris shout, “Must go. Taksu, Taksu.” It was time to visit the Taksu temple. I had only a faint understanding of what Taksu was. From what I understood, Taksu was the designation for a temple that directly funneled the prayers of artists to the deities responsible for assuring a good performance. Thus, it was only natural that before we performed, we would meet with a Brahmin priest and pray to the gods and spirits for Taksu to inhabit our bodies, giving us the spiritual energy to become subsumed in our characters.

“….transforming me into Baris, the warrior of mythology.”

As the priest at the Taksu temple chanted mantras, Pak Made accompanied him on suling flute. We performed Panca Sembah, the Hindu ritual of “five prayers,” beginning with Sanghyang Atma, the prayer to the soul, and ending with Sangyhang Dharma Santi, a prayer giving thanks to the universe and to the many manifestations of the supreme deity. I prayed that I wouldn’t forget my dance moves, that the Baris spirit would inhabit me and take charge if I failed to remember my choreography. But more than that, I thanked the Balinese gods for their compassion, for their guidance, and for their hospitality in allowing me to spend a month in their country with their people, learning and reveling in their culture. After dousing ourselves with holy water, we emerged from the temple with rice pasted to our foreheads and flowers tucked delicately behind our ears.

The concert didn’t start for another hour. However, I was far from ready. Once we had returned to Pak Made’s compound, I raced over to Loh Deh and Bu Ketut who were busy tucking, tying, and fitting costume after costume on the performers. Next came my turn. The dance was hard enough by itself with my arms and legs unhindered, and now the daunting realization that I had to twirl and crouch and leap with 20 pounds of layered ribbons and ties strung across my torso down to my legs was almost more than I could bear. The Baris, a warrior, even had a heavy Keris (a curved sword) attached diagonally across his back. Once ribbon after ribbon were strung onto me, I felt like a mummy, like the Michelin man, a human marshmallow — I felt like I had layered for a brutal winter blizzard only to realize that the weather was incongruous with my attire; my horror was reflected by the beads of sweat pooling down my face as I trudged around under the tropical sun dressed for a Siberian winter. Each tongue of fabric was covered in sequins delicately sewn with golden thread. The undergarment was a stretchy, white cotton tunic with matching pants edged by sequins and intricately beaded bands of black velvet.

“I thanked the Balinese gods for their compassion, for their guidance, and for their hospitality in allowing me to spend a month in their country with their people, learning and reveling in their culture.”

With my makeup finished and my body completely mummified in the Baris costume, there was nothing left for me to do but wait… and worry. And I’m good at worrying. Every few minutes I snuck away to the safety and solace of my room to practice one more agam just to make sure that I remembered the right dance steps. “Right agam, step, step, step,” I muttered under my breath. At one point, I forgot the beginning of the dance. My heart stopped. In terror, I mumbled to myself, “was it right agam, turn, stomp, stomp? Or left agam, stomp, stomp, turn?” I took a deep breath, then two more. The panic soon subsided. I trusted in my body’s magic, just as I always have. I had been practicing this dance for a month, waking each morning before the sun rose, dancing until my feet blistered. Repetition after repetition cemented it in my sinews. Perhaps it was the energy of Taksu that all performance majors felt in moments when the mind froze during a recital, when some unexplainable, divine muse took control of the body and twirled it perfectly across the stage. My body hadn’t failed me yet. I trusted it now to remember. Once the familiar “ch-ch-ch-clang-clap-tap-tap-ta-ta” from the gamelan started, I trusted that my muscles would contort in the right orientation and I, a walking pom pom, would marvel in surprise as I glided across the stage without any mental input, my feet and arms dragged up and down like a marionette possessed by Taksu.

As six o’clock neared, my heart rate increased and I again began to panic. “What if I mess up? What will they think?” I must have looked terrified and confused because several of the members of the Baturiti men’s gamelan came up to me and patted me sympathetically on the back, encouraging me with reassurances — “Bagus” (“good”), they said, as they mimed the dance I would do on stage in less than half an hour. It was in that moment that my nerves were pacified completely — all of them knew this dance, they’d all danced it before, they didn’t care that I wasn’t a professional. They were excited to see an American make an attempt, thankful that a foreigner was so eager to partake in their cultural rituals and study their performing arts. Whatever I looked like on stage didn’t matter — I was Baris, no matter how clumsy, and that was enough to garner their praise and respect. These men had Baris in their blood, and they accepted me as an outsider, a fellow artist. And that was the greatest gift of all.

As the sun went down and the familiar evening mantras played out over the radio and village loudspeakers, it was time to begin. My dance was sixth to be performed. We first played two gamelan Angklung pieces, followed by a two-piece interlude performed by the Baturiti men’s gamelan group. Next came pandet, a dance which all of the girls executed masterfully, throwing flowers in the air with gracefully arched backs and beautifully contorted hands, kneeling at one point before exiting the stage in a serpentine line to the clangs of the gongs and the beating drum. Now it was my turn to perform.

I walked nervously to the back of the stage, to where Bu Ketut and Loh Deh were hidden behind a vibrantly decorated scrim that would conceal me from view before my entrance. The scrim looked like the entrance to a temple, intricately painted with delicate flowers and scowling dragons that looked as if they had been carved from stone. Bu Ketut adjusted my costume for the last time, making sure all of the pleats and tongues were attached and straightened. She silently took off my udeng (hat) and placed a triangular headdress atop my head, bejeweled with shells and plastic frangipani flowers that quivered as she worked it down onto my forehead. As she pulled down the neck strap, her eyes whispered “good luck” to me. I heard the drumbeat, the signal that it was time to begin, to face the fifty Balinese people in the audience who waited eagerly to see Baris, the commanding young warrior headed off to battle, a symbol of the strength and triumph of the Balinese and the masculinity of their warriors. As I swiveled my leg, dangling my naked foot beyond the painted scrim and into the eye line of the audience, I heard a collective gasp of excitement.

In that instant, I was no longer myself — I had become Baris, a transformation not merely facilitated by the costume and makeup I wore, but by spiritual inhabitation down to my core. My timid, ponderous steps at the beginning of the dance gave way to the self-assured, machismo motions of a seasoned warrior gliding into battle with confidence. I twirled and stomped, extended my arms dramatically, squinted or opened my eyes wide with intimidating vivacity all while holding my elbows aloft and my chin raised imperiously. As the music swelled, I contorted myself in different, menacingly powerful poses. As the dance came to an end, I swiveled my hip and raised my foot, bowing to the audience with my hands clasped together, upwardly pointed in prayer.

“I was Baris no matter how clumsy and that was enough to garner their praise and respect. These men had Baris in their blood, and they accepted me as an outsider, a fellow artist. And that was the greatest gift of all.”

“Thank you,” I prayed to Siva, Wishnu, and Brahma. “Thank you.” As I mapaled off stage, I was greeting by Ketut’s warm smile — joyful tears streamed down my face with the knowledge that I had done what I never thought I would in a place I never thought I’d be. Bu Ketut embraced me, congratulating me on a job well done. I heard people in the audience faintly shouting, “Taksu, Taksu!” As I hugged her, my chest filled with pride and I looked up at the ceiling and again thanked the gods above for giving me good Taksu and for deeming me worthy to have become the Baris.

After the concert concluded, I asked Benong, a close friend of mine from the village, to drive me to a local warung to buy some celebratory beers and kretek clove cigarettes. I clung to him tightly as we whipped around the sharp mountain curves on his scooter, letting the cold wind dry my tears. All of the American students stayed up late, dancing, smoking clove cigarettes, drinking Bintang, embracing our village friends, happy to have performed in a remarkable place so far away from our homes, so unlike anything we could ever have dreamed. We were saddened by the bittersweet realization that tomorrow would spell the end of this trip for many of us. As we talked and laughed, we tried not to think about how hard it would be to say goodbye to each other tomorrow morning. As more and more of us trickled off to bed, saying our penultimate goodbyes, the compound became stiller and stiller, darker and darker, finally enveloped completely by night. The evening darkness was set with a smiling moon and filled with the sound of nature’s gamelan, its rhythms lulling us to sleep.

 

Ryan Sutherland is a senior from St. Petersburg, FL, majoring in music performance (ethnomusicology) and biology. With the generous support of the Bradley Currey, Jr., Scholarship, offered by the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, he conducted ethnomusicological field research with students from Northern Illinois University in Baturiti, Bali, Indonesia, for the purpose of completing an undergraduate thesis in ethnomusicology. His thesis focuses on the influence of the gamelan — an Indonesian percussion ensemble — on the development of contemporary Western music, the establishment of the field of applied ethnomusicology, and the creation and popularization of the “world music” genre and its offshoots among global audiences. In Indonesia, he studied Central Javanese gamelan and Balinese gamelan with Pak I Made Lasmawan and Balinese dance with Bu Ketut Marni. Others cited in this article — Bu Pinti, Pak Ris, Benong, and Loh Deh — are members of Pak Made’s family. This reflection is excerpted from his field journal.

 

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