Posts in: MU222
This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was definitely a night to remember. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!
After weeks of rehearsal and preparation, the class finished this music class about as fittingly as one can–with a gamelan and dance performance for the whole community. Surprisingly, despite the atmosphere of excitement behind the performance itself, I found the costume and make-up preparation to be one of the most memorable parts of the day. As someone with no experience in the performing arts, dressing up to the extent we did (seen to the right) was completely new territory for me. However, after being able to perform in costume, the appeal completely makes sense to me. On one level, one take-away from class was how performers would hang masks by their beds before shows to absorb their power. Covered in make-up, warrior garb, and later a demon mask, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis is put on costume’s transformative powers in Bali. For me, putting on all the layers of costume seemed to project responsibility away from me and onto the character. Thus, while it feels a little silly for Normal Mark to perform a baris dance in cargo shorts and a Nike T-shirt, a Warrior Mark outfitted with armor, weapons, and a mustache to boot couldn’t be more in his element. In a similar vein, an old college adage states that the best way to stay awake in class is to wear a suit to the classroom; in theory, it’s the sense of maturity and professionalism that’s so closely related to the suit that has the power to overcome the exhaustion that would otherwise de-rail one’s participation in class. It is this transformative power that I was able to feel when performing in front of the community, and made executing the dances feel so much more natural.
Overall, looking back on the block as a whole from playing music to exploring Balinese culture, one of the most valuable parts I found as a student that’s never done a semester abroad was how powerful of a teacher experience can be. Especially in a political climate where the sources behind facts are under such scrutiny, it was refreshing to learn about a subject with my own senses, rather than solely through a textbook. Though scholarly literature certainly did serve to ground the class, there’s something about the visceral reaction of seeing something for yourself that takes the textbook to a level that no textbook can. In short, it personalizes the process of learning, and makes it about people and senses rather than words in a book. Whether what I see ends up confirming or even nuancing what I learned beforehand, it’s an experience that I can’t recommend enough for CC students thinking about the abroad experience. It’s taught me not to simply be satisfied with the words of others, but to go and engage with the world and find out its workings for myself.
Arguably the most difficult part of blogging about this trip (as I’m sure would be the case in any abroad experience) has been to capture the sea of subtlety that naturally comes when thrust into a world outside of your own. However, I feel that I would not be doing my religion major proud if I didn’t talk about the spiritual landscape of Bali. I knew coming in that it hosted a unique blend of Hinduism, but what ultimately struck me the most was its practice. I first felt its power in the offerings. Composed of little straw saucers filled with food, flowers, and often small amounts money; for what these humble offerings lacked in fanfare, they made up in sheer numbers. In fact, it was difficult to go anywhere without finding one on a doorstep, sidewalk, or street corner. Temples also had a similar prominence in Bali, as communities often hosted more communal temples as well as household shrines (seen above). Thus, while in the West it’s often easy to section off our Sacred and our secular, the world of spirit is infused into everyday life in Bali. All you have to do is walk around.
Another striking feature of Balinese religiosity was its emphasis on heritage, and how that would present itself in daily life. One one level, one need look no further than the prayers at our professor’s local temple; in the listing of prayers, one could always count on one including their ancestors. However, even beyond the setting of the temple, ancestry plays a major factor in the daily lives of the Balinese. It is believed that when a person dies and is cremated, their spirit arises from the fire and–with the help of the family and community–ultimately comes to reside in the family’s communal temple. These souls either will remain in the family’s life in spirit, or will reincarnate into a new person in the community. Such is the case for one of the little girls on the compound, who was found by the priest to be the reincarnation of our professor’s mother. In this way, one’s heritage isn’t only felt in services, but becomes a lived reality for individuals and their loved ones.
To continue our journey through Bali with a a trip to one of the holiest temples on the island–Tanah Lot. Located on an island twenty yards off the coast of the mainland, at first blush this quiet sea temple (seen below) has an unperturbed atmosphere deserving of its sacred status. However, look anywhere around this island and you’ll find that it’s surrounded by tourists, shops, and even an 18-hole golf course. So many of Bali’s holy sites fall into this trap, in which the cultural (and specifically religious) tourism that served as the original appeal for the island become a hub for a hoard of tourist-centered businesses hoping to capitalize on their allure. As this push to expand on the tourism market that already drives Bali’s economy continues, many Balinese people have voiced their discontent towards this degradation of both Bali’s physical and cultural landscape. Our class’s position is particularly precarious, because as we have learned about tourism’s effect on the Balinese people, so too are we participating in this tourist culture not only in our purchases, but also in our being outsiders looking into another culture. After talking to the class ironically during a lunch at a beachside resort, the consensus seems to be that best thing we can do as students is to constantly seek to educate ourselves about Bali while also realizing the limits of how much we can truly understand this new culture, especially in such a short time. It is this very humility that allows spaces like Tanah Lot to not be merely a plot of potential real estate, but a temple with a significance that can only be understood from the inside.
So far in our virtual journey through Bali, we’ve covered forms of Balinese music and theater that predated globalization and the advent of mass tourism. However, as emphasized through Liz’s repeated questioning of “well what IS traditionally/properly Balinese?” a main point in this class has been about the fluidity of culture. Just as the indisputably Balinese Hinduism we see today was ultimately an import from India, so too has Bali needed to re-adjust its cultural mindset to accommodate its booming tourist economy. In terms of the arts, one such product is the modern kecak chant, which creates a soundscape for theatrical scenes using various patterns of the sound “cha.” Our class has been repeatedly practicing this popular tourist performance, and it’s honestly not hard to see where the appeal lies! As the chant excitedly continues, a tale from the famous Ramayana epic unfolds as the brave monkey general Hanoman (pictured above) sets out to save Sita and kill the evil rakshasa (played by yours truly). Even if I do meet my untimely demise by the end of the performance, chanting along to the kecak is an incredibly catchy way to explore Balinese tourist culture.
Throughout our time in Bali, the class has had the opportunity to play in one of the cornerstones of Balinese music–the gamelan (or “ensemble” in English). Composed primarily of bronze instruments to withstand Southeastern Asia’s notorious rainy season, these gamelans serve multiple ends here in Balinese society. On one level, one cannot understate the religious significance of the gamelan instruments, which are believed to have their own spirit that deserves reverence from players and bystanders alike (so if you get rebuked for trying to step over one, now you know why!). The gamelan also finds its way into numerous ceremonial contexts, such as the funeral our class saw earlier in the block in which the gamelan served as the center of the procession. Beyond the realm of the spirit, the gamelan also finds a prominent role in the competitive realm as well! Our class got to experience this firsthand at the Bali Arts Festival as we watched gamelans representing different regions of Bali duke it out in front of thousands of excited fans. Though the class (seen in the picture below) may need a few more blocks before being competition-ready, we have also been practicing gamelan daily both for the immersive experience and in preparation for our upcoming show! FUN FACT: if you’re curious about this multifaceted type of Balinese music and culture but want to save the trans-Pacific flight, CC has a gamelan group that performs once a semester! Be sure to keep an eye out for their shows!
This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was an incredible look into the power of the Balinese arts. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!