Thu, 25 May 2000

Arja dance tells of the need to love and respect

By I Wayan Juniarta

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): The beautiful teenage girl, Ida Ayu Prihandari, donned in an elaborate and lavish Galuh costume of the classical Balinese dance-drama Arja, appeared on the stage playing an exquisite Balinese gamelan instrument last Saturday night.

This eleven-year old prodigy, intensely absorbed in her gamelan instruments, produced heavenly tunes on the chilly full- moon night. Her body swayed elegantly, showing her prowess in creating unison with the gamelan music.

Unusually, the intriguing performance was held on an intersection of the four main streets in Denpasar where the statue of Catur Muka, four-faced god Brahma the Creator, stands.

A few minutes later, a number of boys and girls from the Sekeha Bajra Sandhi cultural group joined Prihandari in a series of memorable performances of Balinese sacred dance, intricate gamelan music and a recital of the Kakawin Sutasoma ancient manuscript.

Kakawin Sutasoma tells the story of a prince who chooses to live as a hermit and leaves his glamorous life as a king. He sacrifices his own life to rescue other people's lives.

"Sutasoma is the perfect embodiment of Buddhist principles. But, since he received his enlightenment from Durgha, the Shakti of Siwa, Sutasoma is also considered as the perfect incarnation of Siwa principles," explained Granoka, leader of the group.

The Sutasoma manuscript encapsulates Indonesia's state motto Bhineka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity.

The Sutasoma story was staged to arouse people's compassionate and selfless love. The heroic story, Puputan Badung, was also enacted as a reminder of the nation's heroes and heroines.

What a remarkable show! The performances, usually staged by accomplished adult artists during certain important events, were perfectly presented by a group of talented junior artists.

Their one-and-a-half hour awesome performance enthralled an audience of hundreds, including high-ranking government officials, including the Bali's governor, Denpasar Mayor and other officials.

"It was so magnificent. There is no proper word to express my feeling. These children... our children's devotion to nurturing our traditional arts has belittled me," praised Denpasar Mayor Anak Agung Puspayoga, adding that he was also moved by the children's efforts to convey messages of peace, harmony and unity.

Their messages clearly voiced the need to love and respect all God's creatures and to sacrifice one's self for his/her beloved country.

Noted expert on ancient Balinese literature, Ketut Sumarta, pointed out that each dance movement, song and music piece were wrapped delicately to convey those messages.

The choice of the stage had religious and symbolic meaning, Sumarta explained. The location of the Catur Muka statue is considered to be the center point of the island of Bali.

The Balinese Hindus believe that intersections in streets are spiritual gates for gods, holy spirits and evil creatures to enter the world of humans.

"So, it entirely depends on us whether we will prevent or ban evil spirits or gods from entering our lives," Sumarta added.

Before the performance took place. Two Hindu high priests, Ida Pedanda Jelantik Duaja from Budakeling and Ida Pedanda Gede Singarsa from Karangasem, conducted a special ritual to spiritually measure the size of the stage and to purify the stage area from any bad influences.

Both priests are qualified shadow puppet masters who often recite and stage Kakawin Sutasoma and the Ramayana epic.

What's even more interesting, the two high priests come from different Hindu sects. Ida Pedanda Jelantik Duaja is a Pendada Boda, meaning he is a follower of a Buddhist sect of Hinduism, while Ida Pedanda Singarsa is a Pendada Siwa from the Siwa sect of Hinduism.

Their collaborative work was proof that while differences exist in the religious arena, people can still show their sense of unity and togetherness.

The performance itself would not have occurred without the meticulous efforts of Ida Wayan Oka Granoka, leader of the Sekeja Bajra Sandhi which was established in l991.

Granoka believes the arts are a means of both expressing one's ideas and a way of achieving spiritual freedom and enlightenment.

Born 51 years ago to Brahmin family in Budakeling, a small village populated mostly by Pedanda Boda families, around 75 kilometers north-east of Denpasar, Granoka fell in love with ancient manuscripts.

He studied a large variety of old literature. His favorite text was, and still is, Sutasoma, written by Mpu Tantular during the golden era of Majapahit Kingdom of East Java in the 13th century.

He mastered both written literature as well as ancient performing arts. To disseminate the wisdom and the spiritual richness of these ancient literary and artistic legacies, Granoka established the Bajra Sandhi, which accepts only children.

"Their hearts are still pure and their minds are still clear and they are easier to be trained as accomplished artists," he said.

The group has 25 members, including Granoka`s four daughters and one son. Twice a week they gather at Granoka's house in Batukandik village, west of Denpasar, to take lessons on gamelan traditional music, to dance, to paint, or to read and recite the ancient texts.

"We have never performed just for money or entertainment.. That's the reason I once turned down an offer to do a series of performances in Europe and the United States," Granoka recalled.

Granoka explained that the performance at the Catur Muka intersection was just a part of a series of performances which will reach their climax in the year 2006, to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Kakawin Sutasoma, the 100th anniversary of Puputan Badung, and the new millennium.

The Catur Muka performance was held on May 20th, The National Awakening Day, which is also celebrated by the Balinese as the day of Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. This year the day held special significance.

"Our nation now is in great distress, yet it is not an excuse to lose our true selves. As long as we have love, wisdom, trust, friendship, and goodwill toward each other, I personally believe than in the end we, as people and as a nation, shall prevail," Granoka concluded optimistically.

At the end of the performance, the children presented three glass Cakras, the mythical and symbolic weapon of the god Visnu, to the Governor of Bali, the Mayor of Denpasar, and the Badung Regent.

"The presentation of Cakras symbolized that the people respect, love, and trust their leaders, who must prove to the people that they, like Visnu, can also bring peace and prosperity," Sumarta noted.