The day after I had witnessed the Balinese dances, I ventured out into Ubud on a rented bicycle. This eventually proved quite a challenge, as Ubud is situated in a reasonably hilly area, and of course I am a Dutchman with a fascination for hills and mountains but alas no experience with cycling over them (I remember a half day cycling in New Zealand, some six years ago, and I needed four days to recover from that). But this landscape invites you to stop and gaze at it, it is so beautiful with its green ricefields with different levels, the many coconut and banana trees, the beautiful houses with thatched roofs. The cutest little kids that wave and say “hello” about twenty times, with a proud mother smiling behind them.
In the south of Ubud, the famous ARMA is located, or Agung Rai Museum of Art, a must see for anyone visiting Ubud. Founded by Mr. Agung Rai and his wife, with the proceeds of the adjacent cafe, restaurant, and art gallery, ARMA is a complex consisting of several grand Balinese-style villas, enclosed by a stunning garden. A collection of paintings by both Indonesian and foreign painters is displayed in two of the villas. In the other buildings, classes of Balinese dance and music are taught to Ubud’s youth, as ARMA conserves and promotes Balinese culture. It is quite unusual to see an effort like this, as the Indonesian government isn’t known for its cultural stimulation. It is to the credit of Mr. Agung Rai that this gem of a museum exists in Ubud.
After having walked around for a while, I decided it was time for coffee (kopi), and I wrote a little in my analogue or paper version of this travel journal. Sitting at a table next to me, was a woman dressed in a beautiful bright purple sarong, wearing the make-up of a dancer, playing with a lovely baby boy. The woman turned out to be Mrs. Agung Rai, one of the dancers who oversee the teaching of the dances at ARMA. A man introduced himself to me as Zanzan, and he turned out to be the father of the boy, and very proud at it, radiating while he showed his son to me. Zanzan works closely with Mr. Agung Rai as Operations Manager at ARMA, and he will be accompanying the youth gamelan orchestra of ARMA on a tour of Balinese dance and music in Europe this November. We talked about history, culture, Indonesian politics (his uncle was the Minister for Culture in Megawati Sukarnoputri’s cabinet) and of course Balinese dances and music. After a while, he offered to show me the places in Ubud where tourists usually do not come, and where the environment and life more closely resemble the indiginous life of the Balinese. We made an appointment for the following Tuesday for the tour, and after saying goodbye, I continued to walk around the ARMA complex to admire the stunning gardens and guesthouses of the ARMA Resort. Little brooks, ponds with statues of animals made out of stone, waving palm trees, and in the distance those stunning green ricefields.
There are so many art galleries around here in Ubud that you could fill all the museums of the world, easily. There is some unremarkable art, and some stunning, abstract paintings, impressionist and realist. There had also been a Writer’s Festival, which would have been interesting, but it had just finished when I arrived in Ubud.
To my delight, I managed to find out where a kecak dance was going to be held, that evening at the Padang Tegal, a temple in the center of Ubud. I went there early to get a good seat, and by now it had become quite dark. The stage, inside the gated complex of the temple, was lit by a dozen oil lights. Around 50 dancers walked onstage, all men, dressed only in black and white chequered sarongs and wearing a flower behind one ear. They sat down in a large circle, and used only their voices to produce the accompanying music, a rythmic, hypnotic chant, changing rapidly as they performed their trance-like movements. Female dancers dressed in beautiful costumes appeared, and at times a male dancer, wearing the costume of a demon or ferocious animal, as they depicted great stories from their Hindu religion. They moved in between the 50 kecak dancers, they spun around eachother in what seemed to be a chase or a fight, a contest of strenght or the depiction of the sadness.
The large group of dancers alternated their trance-like movements very rapidly (during a real performance, without the tourists, they would indeed be in trance). One or two people would give the voice commands that would change the movements, or change the chants, and the movements and chants would frequently lead to a climax. Hundreds of hands in the air, waving and shaking, the whole group becoming one moving object, standing, sitting, swirling around, moving back and forth, suddenly standing up again and facing eachother, arms raised as in a contest, and suddenly they would cease their movements. The chants then changed, and they would continue along another rythmic path, that would lead to a new series of movements.
Later on in the performance, two small, delicate Balinese girls, elegantly dressed in yellow-white dresses, were literally carried onto the stage by a group of women, who then sat down behind them, singing. These two girls performed another trance-dance. They would increase their rapid movements along with the chants, during which they would exhaust themselves so much that they collapsed, and needed the support of the onlooking women to stand up again. They continued dancing, and collapsed again for several times. Although re-enacted, this was so very moving that the audience fell completely silent, the bright flashes of cameras ceased, and people just looked in awe at yet another immensely powerful display of Balinese culture.
The last performance was done by an old man, performing the fire dance. A couple of men lit a big heap of coconut shells, which radiated so much heat that I was afraid, sitting at about 10 meters from the fire, that the lens of my camera would melt. While carrying an animal on his back, made out of bamboo and straw, this man seemed oblivious to the heat and to the burning, walking in trance through the fire, over the coconut shells, kicking them around as in contempt of this force of nature.
After what had seemed 5 minutes, but was indeed more than an hour, the performance was over, and I left the Padang Tegal that evening feeling very moved, silently going back to my guesthouse.
The last image on my mind, before I finally fell asleep, was of those two delicate Balinese dancers, their movements accentuated by the light of the oil lights, their exhaustion almost too painful to witness.