Wed, 02 Apr 2003

Balinese exploits artistic spirit to greet Nyepi

I Wayan Juniartha and Wahyoe Boediwardhana The Jakarta Post Denpasar, Bali

For years, the making and the noisy parade of ogoh-ogoh, or giant papier-mache dolls, has been the main activity of Balinese youths during the weeks before the celebration of the Hindu Saka New Year known as Nyepi.

"Nyepi is marked by total silence therefore it is understandable the Balinese people exploit their artistic and creative energy, and their love for noisy and colorful parades in the days prior to Nyepi," ogoh-ogoh enthusiast Komang Wirya said.

Generally, ogoh-ogoh take the form of demons and evil spirits depicted in various Hindu scriptures and Balinese folklore. A monstrous giant with menacing fangs and an intimidating pose is one of the most favorite themes among ogoh-ogoh-makers on the island.

"I don't know when did this tradition of making ogoh-ogoh actually started. But, I believe it gained widespread popularity in the 1980s," a Hindu intellectual Ketut Wiana said.

The ogoh-ogoh, escorted by groups of people carrying bamboo torches and a loud gamelan ensemble, are paraded on the night before Nyepi. Earlier on that day, sacrificial offerings are made at every household, at intersections and at the city square in Denpasar. The day is known as Pengerupukan, during which Balinese try to simultaneously appease and scare away all evil spirits.

"Actually, at Pengerupukan we try to pacify all the elements and forces of nature so as on the following day, Nyepi, the universe will regain it's cosmic balance, it's somya -- peaceful order," Wiana said.

The scary demons or evil spirits are, according to Wiana, the symbols of forces of nature in a destructive and imbalanced state. That dangerous state has been created by none other than man himself, who has carelessly and greedily exploited nature.

"That's why at Nyepi we are told to refrain from lighting any fires, traveling, working or enjoying any entertainment. In darkness, in silence, we will be forced to look into our heart and soul, thus realizing our mistakes and wrong deeds," Wiana said.

The concept behind ogoh-ogoh is profound indeed. However, several years ago, the making of ogoh-ogoh took a new turn when Balinese youths, trying to explore various new themes outside the realm of their traditional culture, provided the ground for the birth of new forms of ogoh-ogoh.

Initially, they borrowed scary icons from non-Balinese cultures and came out with local adaptations of the Grim Reaper or Japanese Godzilla-like creatures.

"Well, as long as in the end we come up with a repulsive and scary monster then I believe that we have not done anything wrong. After all, ogoh-ogoh are supposed to represent a malevolent evil spirit," a youth of Banjar (traditional neighborhood association) Cerancam in Kesiman area said.

In the Banjar's hall were three nearly-finished ogoh-ogoh. One of them took the form of a giant cobra with a prominent hood and intimidating venomous fangs, certainly not a native snake of traditional Balinese scriptures.

Yet, it turns out that the artistic exploration has covered a cultural space far wider than just the scary or demonic icons of the non-Balinese underworlds. It has also explored the icons of the popular visual media, global music scene or current world affairs.

Therefore, in the last few years Bali has witnessed ogoh-ogoh parades, which showcased, among others, ogoh-ogoh of the Iron Maiden rock band, ogoh-ogoh depicting a Punk subculture follower, or an ogoh-ogoh of the traditional monkey warrior of Hanuman riding a 100 cc Japanese motorbike.

In those cases, ogoh-ogoh, did not represent the things the makers deplored, but, instead, present the things they longed for or admired.

"Ogoh-ogoh has became a statement of existence from various new subcultures currently popular in Bali, or as an advertising tool for certain companies, or as a new tourism attraction, or a financial statement of a certain community that could afford to spend millions of rupiah to build an ogoh-ogoh," a cultural observer Mas Ruscitadewi said.

"It could even serve as a medium, through which political statements are voiced by those who under normal circumstances have no voice or political leverage," she added.

One example of ogoh-ogoh as political statement appeared in the late 1990s. It depicted a bald giant trying to gobble up a huge piece of land that was named "Kala (demon) OK".

One could not be blamed for assuming that the ogoh-ogoh was a representation of the former Bali governor IB Oka, who was dubbed as "Mr. OK" by his opponents for his eagerness to let investors, mostly the relatives and cronies of the then president Soeharto, gobble up Bali's land and beaches for tourism mega-projects.

This year Pengerupukan was highlighted by two interesting ogoh-ogoh -- namely ogoh-ogoh Inul and ogoh-ogoh Amrozy.

Inul is the Indonesian female dangdut singer whose popularity has skyrocketed in the past few months due to her extremely fast hip-gyrations. Dangdut is a popular local music genre with strong Arab/Indian influences.

Meanwhile, Amrozy is one of the main suspects in the terrorist bomb attack that claimed more than 200 lives -- mostly foreigners in the island's prime tourism area of Kuta.

Does the seven-meter-high ogoh-ogoh Amrozy represent the evil spirits -- thus the bombing was the work of evil -- or does it symbolize the destructive power of God as Amrozy carried the fiery goddess Dhurga -- the consort of Shiwa the Destroyer -- on his shoulder?

Did Inul represent a tempting demon or the banal sensuality the ogoh-ogoh-makers want to experience?

"The meaning will vary accordingly to the beholders' perceptions. Yet, one thing is sure; Balinese ogoh-ogoh have came a long way from their original function and meaning," Mas Ruscitadewi said.