The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 19, 2012


Take fright – or delight

If you’re planning a trip to Bali soon don’t be put off by Nyepi falling on 23 March. The day of silence will close the island to everything bar emergency transport, but the eve of the Balinese New Year is a time of celebrations both serene and raucous.

Among the boisterous are the public parades of ogoh-ogoh, the hideous papier mache monsters created by young village men to ward off evil spirits and purify the coming year.

That’s the popular Western understanding of the ritual, a sort of big scale Halloween. However the reality is far more complex as this new book reveals.

Photographer Tamarra Kaida spent six years recording the strange rites while writer and translator Sarita Newson probed the origins and meaning. Together they’ve produced Ogoh-ogoh Balinese Monsters, an accessible account, valuable for anyone interested in Balinese culture and customs beyond the trite features often found in travel mags.

Neither woman is an Eat, Pray, Love wide-eyed gadabout. Both live in Bali (Ms Newson since 1973) so their authority is soundly grounded. Ogoh-ogoh isn’t a ponderous anthropology text, yet it’s serious enough to satisfy readers seeking more by including a small bibliography, quotes from academic worthies and endnotes.

Buyers beware: At first glance it looks and feels like a big picture children’s book, but this isn’t something you’d give to a sensitive favorite niece or nephew, for the images are the stuff of childhood nightmares.

Surprisingly ogoh-ogoh are a recent addition to the pre-Nyepi events, first appearing in Denpasar during the early 1980s as an outlet for teenage energy. In those days the Soeharto administration had its nose in everyone’s business, particularly the creative arts, for there fermented the yeast of subversion.

So administrators got involved, checking the monsters to ensure none lampooned important people or upset the influential. Competitions were held to produce the most physically hideous but least politically offensive monster.

After the New Order government collapsed in 1998 an officially sanctioned cultural event should have died along with its sponsors. A return to grassroots iconoclastic entertainment, like the once suppressed ludruk comic theater of East Java, would have been expected.

That hasn’t happened, which seems to indicate ogoh-ogoh have robust roots that have tapped a deeper aquifer of need and expression, working around the shallow strictures of men in khaki.

Ms Newson offers comparisons with the Mardi Gras festivals of Europe that briefly upset the conventions in sanctioned religious carnivals. Some have now turned secular, reinventing as protest parades.

Like Mardi Gras, ogoh-ogoh have evolved. Along with demons from the epic tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Balinese youth today make effigies of corrupt politicians, drunks, gamblers and other miscreants. Comic and film characters are starting to feature.

Once the figures were burned to climax the procession. Now some are for sale, the community manufacturers no doubt hoping for monster profits. Never doubt the Balinese entrepreneurial spirit.

Despite their novelty, ogoh-ogoh spring from a universal cavernous past. At one stage the horrors were not make-believe. Our ancestors, huddling in holes, knew saber-tooth tigers and woolly mammoth lurking in the darkness were terrifyingly real.

Though the beasts have been driven into extinction the old brain memories bubble away in the subconscious. After the Odyssey and Beowulf the literature became more subtle.

To confront the giant Jack had to climb his beanstalk, clambering through foliage thick with Freudian interpretations. The folklore of Europe filled the skies with witches, the seas with serpents and the land with werewolves.

These phantoms populated works from William Shakespeare’s Tempest to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. With film came a great reel led by Godzilla and King Kong.

As modern rational people we should laugh away superstitious nonsense. Monsters were the explanations of a pre-scientific age trying to understand evil, not as something lurking in the hearts of us all, but a separate, other force to be beaten, placated or confused.

There’s another factor afoot. Demonizing the outsider is a widely practised scare tactic by politicians everywhere. For three decades President Soeharto used the communist bogeyman without to keep citizens from noticing the corruption within.

Indonesia is a fertile land for the spooky; prepare for a long and arduous hike if hoping to encounter villagers who don’t believe in black magic and hustle their kids indoors as dusk descends. Better search for the Yeti in Nepal or the Sasquatch of North America =- you’d have more luck.

It’s no wonder that Bali, the most creative island in the Republic, should have produced the ogoh-ogoh. By giving them a gross form they become ludicrous. We admire the creators’ skills but we laugh while shivering, our irrational fears mastered for the moment.

The challenge for the craftsmen is to stretch the imagination beyond worldly experience. Most ogoh-ogoh are based on the human form with longer nails and teeth, popping eyes and blotchy skin. They still stride, flail arms and stare without feeling. We find it difficult to conceive creatures that might be entirely different.

One of the best photos in the book isn’t of an ogoh-ogoh, but a lad and an old man gazing at the procession, their features a mix of wonder and worry. They could have been looking at a barricade built millennia ago – would it break and the dreadful devouring begin, or would sturdy construction, flaming torches and prayer prevail?

‘Transformation of evil forces, by giving them their day, a day of being humored, pampered and in the end gently excluded through innocent trickery is Bali’s own sophisticated way of exorcising demons without resorting to violence,’ writes Ms Newson – and then comments:

‘(It’s) a ritual the rest of the world could well learn from.’

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 March 2012)


1 comment:

Kiara Brownell said...

It's nice to know some Balinese culture and customs. It's proven that people's minds are truly creative. Thanks for sharing such informative post. I'll visit Bali Island someday and hopefully stay in one of their beautiful seminyak bali villas. For me, it would be a dream come true!