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Art is an offering to God, says Topeng dancer
Idi Bagus Anom
The Island Bali on the southern region of Indonesia is a treasure trove for artistes and art lovers. Balinese have a unique spirit, brimming with creativity and religious ceremonies. Mask maker and Topeng dancer Idi Bagus Anom lives in this exotic land. Supriya Rajan catches up with him at his studio while he was a making a mask. The excerpts of the interview are:

Can you tell us about art in Bali?
Painting, music, sculpting and dance are part of our culture, our daily life. I do mask carving and mask dancing called Topeng, since 1968. In my family, I am the third generation artiste. I learnt the art from my father. Not just dancing but all art forms in Bali is closely connected with religion. For Balinese, art is an offering to god. When I started making masks and learning dance, it was never intended for attracting tourists or as a means of earning. It was for pure religious purpose of worshipping the gods. Art is meant for that. We consider it sacred. We want to contribute. We want to help people in the many festivals and ceremonies, conducted regularly in the village temples as well as in homes for various occasions. We do ceremonies for every thing – when a woman is pregnant, during child birth, on the12th day of a child birth, third month, sixth month, tooth falling, puberty, wedding and what not. As per Balinese calendar, we celebrate birthdays twice a year. We have innumerable ceremonies for many occasions and one can say he or she is a Balinese because their life is full of ceremonies. From the time we wake up till we retire to bed, there is art in everything we do -in our speech, in our movements, in our rituals. Our life is entwined with art and religion. The spirit of Balinese culture is Hinduism. As long as Hinduism remains in the region, art forms will thrive. After all, art is a way of worship or offering to the gods.

Is there any textual reference for the art form?
We have an ancient text called Launtars, which is written on palm leaves in Balinese script. There are separate Launtars for different subjects. For example, we have a Launtar called Asta bhoomi or Khosala Khosali for architecture, which gives measurement for construction. We have separate Launtars for medicine, astronomy, worship etc. It is same as the Vedas, but modified to suit the tradition and culture that existed in the region before Hinduism came to Bali through Java.

We do offer flower, water, fruit, leaf, fire etc like in India. The way we offer them, however, is different. We have art in it. The source of our stories or Babad, as we call it, which we use for Topeng dance, is also from one of these ancient texts. The stories are about the administration in Bali before Dutch came in the 1910s. We had a monarchy at that time with Kings ruling different provinces. Clashes among the many Kings and the alliances between the Kingdoms through marriage and friendship are the main themes in Topeng dance. We have separate masks for different characters like the king, wise men,

Advisor to Prime Minister etc. Art in Bali is alive, it keeps growing with time. So, there is nothing like classical art. Every art form has its root in the tradition but each generation presents it in its own away. So when I make a new mask, it is what I perceive from my exposure to traditional mask-making but not an exact replica of something already existing. If people like the new creation even after five to six years, it becomes traditional. The art forms aren’t frozen in time. To tell you another example, the flower carving that adorns the door is called Pathaulanda; a design pattern copied from the Dutch but Balinese artistes have cleverly borrowed the Dutch pattern and made it the traditional Bali style. That’s how Balinese art forms keep growing.

Tell us about the main dance forms of Bali?
For men, there is Baris - a warrior dance, Gambo in which movements are from Java, Topeng, Wayang Wong (men dancing like puppets with mask) that depict Ramayana and Mahabarata stories in Sanskrit, Kecak dance etc. Ramayana ballet is a relatively new form, perhaps evolved during the 1960s adapting mostly Legong style of dance. There are many dance forms that women perform like the Rejang, a basic form of Balinese dance, Legong etc.

Tell us about the basic training process in Balinese Dance?
In olden days, it used to be older people inviting the youngsters and teaching them dance for certain festivals in temple. Since 1950, we have training institutes established by the government where students can learn dance, sculpture, painting and music. There is a high school for arts. ISI (Institute Seni Indonesia, Bali) is the graduate school where art forms of Bali are taught at an advanced level.

The basic training in Balinese dance begins with breathing exercises and then comes balancing of the body weight. One needs patience to learn Balinese dance. It takes months and years to learn to dance. Maybe you can learn the movements and the steps but to dance with feeling takes time. We call it Taksu. It is something more than charisma. If you don’t have Taksu, you can’t attract audience. For example, if I have to enact a king, the audience should see the king in me and not me as an artiste. Each role I play I should transform to that character and forget self, that’s Taksu. It is a phenomenon, easy to say but difficult to achieve it.

How do you compare Indian dances with Balinese dance?
I have heard of Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. They are close and yet different. The feelings and the basic movements are the same. I think there is some connection. I had a student from India, her name is Rukmini. She could get the basic movements very quickly. How you stand and walk, how you balance your weight while moving, how you move your hand – these are the first lessons I give for a week. After that, I give choreographies to dance. It was easy to teach her compared to students from other countries.

How close are Ramayana and Mahabharata to Balinese people?
It is the life blood of our culture and our inspiration. Most of the stories that we have now and which we use in most of our art forms are from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Both these epics are so highly evolved. The specialty of these texts is that the more you read them, the unsure you become. You feel like reading it again and again. You can’t read it just once and keep it aside. In Indonesia, we have Ramayana and Mahabharata written in old Javanese script. We can learn philosophy, spirituality, politics, tactics and many things from these epics. A serious learner never stops reading the two texts.

Do you believe that some episodes of Ramayana and Mahabharata may have taken place in Indonesia?
There are many interpretations. Some people say it happened in Java and Bali. How our island could be called Bali? What must be the connection with the Bali in Ramayana? There are many temples in Java with reference to both the texts. There are many interpretations and we don’t know what the truth is. The name Bali is speculated to have come from either the ancient Indian language Pali, or the character Bali from Ramayana. It is also said that it could be from Vali, which means ceremony in Balinese. Bali is indeed an island of ceremonies.

What is your perception of India?
India is my centre because Hinduism came from there. We have many common prayers and our holy book is Veda too. Many people from here visit India and to places such as Kurukshetra et al. We call it Kshetra Yatra. There are students from Bali studying Vedas, Sanskrit and Ayurveda in India. I want to see the art forms of India. Some of the temple sculptures are so beautiful. I love them. The most important factor for me is the spirituality. I want to realize it in India. The yogis in India are amazing. Somewhere down the line, the spirituality is lost in Bali probably due to heavy tourist activity. Now people are looking back in search of it and learning yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices. We have a yoga instructor here who is from India. There is Balinese India Foundation in Bali too, which helps both countries collaborate on various cultural projects. I hope one day I can go to India.
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