Barong – an archaic revival

Enter Barong

Enter Barong

One thing always leads to another, just in Bali the process is more intense. The Matrix excels at giving us what we ask for. In my case it was the Barong dance – the gamelan, flute, drums and the extraordinarily weird creature itself. It was a tourist performance – a display, but nonetheless an authentic immersion in Balinese magic. In four visits to Ubud now, I have seen all the different troupes perform. Playing djembe alone in the forest, I saw Barong peering from the foliage. I felt connected.

Barong is a shamanic animal, the King of the Forest. Its shaggy coat and protruding fangs signify membership of the Lower World, while its ornate headdress and adornments are the cosm-etic of the Upper World. Barong is both profane and divine. Like the Nagas (dragons) it is a self-existing form of power – an anima-l from the archaic, revived every week in Bali in the medieval tale of Calon Arang.

The widow Calon Arang was an embittered old crone swathed in rumours of black magic and devotion to that dark feminine archetype Durga. No man dared marry her beautiful daughter, Ratna. An outcast, Calon Arang’s anger brimmed over and she went about inflicting sorceric revenge on the Kingdom. In one of the early scenes of the dance, King Erlangga and his advisers survey the diseased state of the nation and decide that something must be done. The High Priest devises a plan. His son will marry Ratna and at the first opportunity steal her mother’s book of sorcery. This he does, and a showdown between High Priest and Calon Arang ensues.

Fully venting her rage, she transforms into Rangda, a demon with decidedly Lower World claws, fangs and lolling tongue. Rangda’s face is not so different to Barong’s, but she lacks the adornments of divinity. The High Priest sends his men to attack Rangda. One by one they launch themselves at the apparition, summoning ferocious rage as they plunge their kriss into Rangda’s breast. Each time Rangda returns undaunted, swatting them with her magic cloth. One by one the men crumble, turn their kriss on themselves, trying to pierce their own chests. The gamelan pounds a metal fanfare as Barong enters, joining Rangda in a swirling anima-l dance of the Lower World while the men writhe on the floor in agonised trance, straining against their kriss. A real priest revives the men with tirtha (holy water).

The dance holds ancient keys to the human condition. The movements of the King and his advisers are a caricature of patriarchal swagger. Their costumes are built up around their heads so that these men are neckless, moustachioed, half-demonic faces barking orders. There is something primal in their gestures. The face suddenly tilting, a pause before high-stepping across the stage like a demon.

The two men beneath the 80kg Barong costume must conjure the illusion of a four-legged animal. The mask must come to life. It must sample the air, gazing inwards. It must snap round, gnashing at some quick, invisible energy. It must dance – fur, bells and beard made of the hair of premenstrual girls flying. In these transitions from entranced stillness to wilful movement, we recognise the anima-l mind. In Barong’s unblinking eyes we recognise infinite desire to perceive, to experience, to live. We are mesmerised, put in touch with our organic (Lower World) and inorganic (Upper World) essence. Like us, Barong is a weave between Upper and Lower, Spirit and Mat(t)er, Garuda and Naga. Essentially the same, and yet so different. Barong is familiar and alien at the same time. The archaic in us remembers.

Rangda

Rangda

On another level we can compare Calon Arang, the wounded widow, with the Biblical figure of Lilith, neglected while Adam and Eve got together, and by extension, Durga. In some versions of the story Calon Arang is betrayed by her own daughter. Modern commentators observe the patriarchal propaganda about certain aspects of the feminine. The Calon Arang drama is designed to conjure fear and loathing for feminine wrath. Drawn from the male dancers, these energies are only rebalanced by the presence of divine-profane Barong, who has been summoned by the priest. Like Toety Herati, I found myself wondering about gender politics.

Having downloaded Barong music from iTunes, I tried unsuccessfully to imitate the suling (Balinese bamboo flute) on my Peruvian quena (bamboo flute). On my fourth visit to Ubud I found a flute maker and teacher. In one hour with Wayan I had learned the basic fingering; in five, the circular breathing needed to carry the sinuous tunes. Gamelan is an orchestral form with standards and scales and set ways of decorating the melody. There is a yogic mapping between the music and the human body. I realised how accustomed I am to playing ad lib.

The following week Wayan invited me to a Barong performance at a temple above Ubud. I arrived at his house in the evening, and chatted with his wife until he arrived. She told me they only had one child, which is unusual and deemed somewhat unfortunate in Bali. Perhaps, she joked, it was because Wayan was of lower caste than her. Men are allowed to marry upstream. Women are not.

Running late, Wayan and I flew by scooter to the temple, stacked above a bend in the road and already overflowing with people, all Balinese. I follow Wayan through the crowd, trying not to stand on people, and sit in the space he indicates next to him. At once he produces his flute. The orchestra starts up.

I realise where I’m sitting. Cross legged behind a group of children, I’m wedged between Kendang (double headed drum) and Ceng-Ceng (cymbals). The flute player next to me rests his leg on mine. The massage I had earlier only seems to have inflamed my glutes, and my knees are already protesting. Moving an inch to my right I will obstruct the drummer. The rapid hands of the cymbal player brush my backside. The sound is deafening. I cannot believe my luck.

The small rectangular stage is surrounded on all sides by stonework and Balinese – mostly men, wearing uniform white udang (turban) and shirt with dark sarong. Groups of women sit together, wearing matching outfits – bright blue or fuchsia crochet tops, broad sashes and floral sarongs. I meet many eyes, but only briefly. No one chances a smile. Perhaps they reflect my own self consciousness. Perhaps there are cultural factors. The relentless influx of the bulay (foreigner). I am the only one here, but I have infiltrated into the heart of the orchestra.

I watch people discretely trying to work out where I’m from. Half Indian-Malaysian, half Scottish, I can be hard to place. It varies according to context. In London people think I’m Moroccan or Brazilian. A man selling cassettes in Ourzazate, Morocco clocked my earlobes as Indian. Perhaps in Bali I am Javanese. Perhaps an itinerant from Rishikesh, whose eye might be dangerous to meet.

After roots, the second question in Bali is marital status. I watch conjectures forming about my being here alone. And perhaps about the white and silver embroidered sarong I bought in the almost empty Pasar Seni Dua (Central Market 2) and two-tone goatskin money belt I chose rather than a standard black nylon one. It’s easy to break the temple dress code. For women of course there is a vast range of patterns and colours. Men are preoccupied with certain knots and folds and subdued colours designed to compensate for the basically feminine business of wearing a sarong. Perhaps there are questions of sexuality. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgement is because the novelty of bulay in Balinese gear has long ago worn off. The smaller children stare back like yogis, dark eyes shining. They do not smile. They are simply present to the fact I am there among them – tolerated, if not exactly welcome. A fat boy plays with a mobile phone. Somehow this is comforting.

A curtain is drawn back and the first of three Barongs enters. A Barong Ket (lion Barong) with beige fur. I am close enough to touch it. A competent performance, yet the two men beneath the costume don’t quite manage to conjure the spirit of Barong – to sustain the illusion of a four legged power anima-l. The children act as if they own the place, ducking beneath the swirling skirts of Barong to call out to friends and parents. The fat boy plays a laser pointer off Barong’s mirrored coat. Another kid punches his arm.

The second is a Barong Celeng (boar barong) with black velvet flanks and the kind of face that is painted on the tips of missiles. Dog-stretching, jangling, trotting, it is pungently animal. But the show stealer is another Barong Ket. The orchestra cranks up to a furious tempo as it goes into a four legged frenzy, frangipani flying from its girls’ hair mane. This is the ecstatic dance of a power animal. Everyone is spellbound by the time it departs, somehow managing to exit the stage via the narrow gap in the corner. People scramble out of its way. Pecalang (security) men leap to help the huge contraption through.

A pause, a coda on the kendang, and the orchestra explodes into frantic arpeggios as Rangda enters, tongue dripping from jagged maw, obscenely long nails outstretched. Nine young men wielding kriss rush on and surround Rangda. One look at their faces and it’s clear they’re not acting. Their absorption is total. Their fear and loathing of Rangda is real. One by one they rush at Rangda and stab her repeatedly in the chest. The costume is more than thick enough to protect the man wearing it, but the force with which the youths hurl themselves at Rangda has four muscular Pecalang men struggling to keep the melee from staggering back into the crowd. Maybe the actor has a bruised chest in the morning but each time Rangda returns undaunted, unharmed.

She retreats behind a steel ladder – behind the veil – held in place by Pecalang men. The youths haul and shove at it as though their lives depend on it. The space keels one way and the other. People scramble everywhere, getting out the way of the tranced men. They throw themselves on their kriss, rolling on the floor in agony. Anything could happen, the whole thing sliding out of control. I realise the gamelan has stopped.

Like emergency medics the priests rush in. A pug-faced mangku (priest) and several women set down a cloth laden with coconuts and canang (offerings) and start flicking tirtha (holy water) everywhere. Several youths have to be physically restrained, the kriss wrenched from their hands. One right in front of me is totally out of it. It takes four men to hold him down. Barong is summoned and stands over him, jaws snapping at whatever evil clouds him. Faces are slapped, mantras are chanted. Normality returns.

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

Sat inches away, I feel separate. By my foreignness of course, and by my love of Barong and Rangda. I cannot access the fear and loathing. I see Rangda much as I see Barong. Their protruding fangs remind me of the Lanzon, prehistoric totem of Chavin de Huantar in Peru. Both resemble Bhoma, the demonic face grinning through carved foliage above doorways in Bali. I see a silvan ensemble. Here is Pan, the Green Man, Pachamama. Here are satyrs, nymphs, centaurs, therianthropes. Celebrations of the weave of spirit and matter. Light and dark are simply different colour threads.

Perhaps the archaic revival is a revision of the old devil-gods. Do I under-stand them from an evolved perspective, or does their darkness repel me? I cannot relate to this male rage at the female demon. Perhaps it is buried within me. Perhaps there is a rite or sacrament that opens the tomb. A stone portal, carved with leaves and demons. I imagine pausing there, in highly evolved sarong and man-bag, wondering if I am going forwards or back. If all is a dance of light and dark, does transcendence earn you a place in the audience. Is that where I want to be? Or do I want to be part of the action?

I am roused by loud protest from my knees. I tell Wayan I am going to stretch my legs. The basket I brought filled with incense and canang has disappeared. I squeeze out of the temple, start up the scooter. A local lad speaks to me at the roadside. Hati hati, he says. Be careful.

© 2013 Nizami Thirteen