Fri, 03 Dec 1999

Good and evil are balanced in the 'Barong'

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): All human anxieties are traced back to birth, for birth is believed to be beautiful and bewildering. It is a cause for celebration and a reason to cry. Birth is creation but it is also a painful split from the whole.

Human beings rejoice at the thought of being alive but they also spend a good part of their life wandering from pillar to post in their quest to become whole again. And each time a Balinese is asked to console the lost souls in this world, the seeker is invariably led straight to the Barong (traditional dance).

For Barong, the gigantic, mythological lord of the jungle who was covered with fur and colorful decorations and whose nine-foot frame is brought to life by two men, is not just a wild dancer. His mask is decorated with leather strips, mirrors and flowers and his magical power lies in his beard, which is made from human hair.

He might be the most popular of entertainers for tourists today but his main job is to restore order with his dances each time chaos threatens to strike. He is the mediator between the strong forces of good and evil. In the traditional Barong dance, evil forces are not so much defeated as calmed, making sure that both good and evil coexist harmoniously in life.

There is no winner or loser in the view of the world. No hero or villain nor slayer or slain. There is a place for both evil and good to exist side by side in perfect balance. What has to be made sure is that evil does not dominate good. And this is what the Barong is all about.

Without the Barong, life would become a living hell, swinging from moments of ecstasy to those of agony. And this is the greatest lesson that Helen Hughes, an American ethnomusicologist at Jakarta International School, has learned during her study of the famous Balinese character and from her decade-long association with I Made Widartha Rame, a teacher at the same school and a great Barong dancer.

"For me the Barong tradition has changed not just my life, but my entire view of the world," says Helen, whose Western background taught her that evil has to be rejected. She feels more comfortable living with the thought that evil does exist and that life is to explore ways that will prevent the dark forces of life from getting the better of her. Now she wants to share this experience with the whole world. After visiting Bangkok to deliver a talk about the Barong, she and Rame will give a lecture on Dec. 8 at the invitation of Jakarta's Heritage Society in Erasmus Huis, Jl.Rasuna Said, South Jakarta.

Helen will talk about how she discovered the Barong and the lessons she learned from her intimacy with the legend she described for The Jakarta Post as "the outward manifestation of an inner strength". Rame, a Balinese from the famous neighborhood of Kuta beach, will lay bare his personal experiences with the Barong and also perform for the audience.

Rame ran away from his home in Kuta to stay with his American friends in Jakarta in the 1970s. The third son of a fisherman, Rame preferred swimming to fishing. When tourists started to flood into Kuta, Rame surfed with the beach bums for a few years.

Then he got restless and migrated to Jakarta where he brought with him all his skills, including singing and dancing. Although he is a swimming instructor at the school, he remains a member of a Balinese banjar (subdistrict), practicing the arts more as a way of life rather than as a profession.

For Rame, the Barong is holy. Although he comes from a lower caste family of Sudra, his younger brother converted to the higher caste of a priest and is the one responsible for taking care of the Barong when it is stored in a temple and the mask is covered with a white veil. Before the Barong is taken out for a performance, offerings are given to the priest who also blesses the giant gong in the gamelan and the energetic orchestra.

Rame's late father was the village elder who was consulted by everyone in times of good and bad. On his part, he always went to the Barong for council. His father was blessed with the gift of being able to shed his own ego and make a place in his consciousness for alternative beings to enter and communicate with the living. "I used to be fascinated watching him go into a trance. I have tried to go into a trance myself but I am unable to do so," regrets Rame. He recalls his father retreating into a world of his own once to find out why his village was inflicted with a mysterious plague that killed several people within a few days.

"Offerings of yellow rice were made according to the information brought back by my father from those who are invisible and health was once more restored to our banjar," remembers Rame who constantly consults with the Barong when he is of two minds. The Barong dancers also work themselves into a trance and are able to bring back news from a world that may not exist for most people.

"This is the change that has taken place in my life. Before that, seeing was believing for me. That things that I do not see with my own naked eye can also exist was beyond my comprehension," says Helen who grew up defining trance, like all westerners, as psychotic behavior.

On her ongoing love affair with Eastern mysticism, she concludes that a fascinating part of human experience is probably lost to most of the Western world where life is divided up into compartments like science and arts, office and home, work and pleasure, to further split personalities.

However, in the East, Helen discovered that each aspect of life blends into the other, helping the inner self become whole again. She has learned a lot from Rame who does not differentiate the arts from religion and worship from life. It is one continuous activity, a way of life that is practiced and not just preached or intellectualized.

"How else can the Balinese preserve their cultural identity in the face of aggressive tourism and so much change?" she questions, convinced that it is the important role rituals play in the life of the Balinese that helps to sustain a cultural identity and to promote oneness.

She feels that for people to find anything more than a tourist experience in the Barong dance, they will have to stop being passive spectators during the trance ritual. Her own experience has shown that if she is able to conquer her conditioning and participate in a ritual, she is transported to a different kind of reality which she is not quite able to explain.

Perhaps a sense of oneness with oneself, if not, with the supreme being?