The New York TimesIn America

October 12, 2003

In Bali, All the Post-9/11 World's a Stage


Kemal Judri/Imaji for The New York Times
Ketut Jagra, an actor in a mask of 
Sidha Karya, the Balinese figure of 
death and renewal, performs
in the village of Kerobokan, Bali. 


"Where is my leg?" moaned a disembodied head in a temple courtyard a few miles from the site of last year's terrorist bombings in Bali. "Where is my arm?" 

This past August, the memory of the carnage was still vivid to the audience, but the actor playing a victim of the bombings turned the mood of hushed dread into one of comedy, evoking sudden peals of laughter by quoting the tagline of a popular Indonesian television show about the undead: "Don't watch me! I'm not here!"

"The audience laughed out of relief," said Gusti Ngurah Windia, a well-known Balinese actor, as he recalled his performance a few days later. He was sitting on the porch of his home in the village of Carang Sari, several miles from the southern town of Kuta, where the bombings took place. "For a moment, the horror of their memories was transformed into fiction, a dream from a television melodrama, as if it never really happened."

A year ago today, more than 200 people were killed in the terrorist attack by Islamic radicals. In other parts of the globe a similar assault might have led to ethnic retaliation, but the Balinese, living on the only Hindu island in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, answered with art.

During the last 12 months, performers in temple courtyards, village halls and on television frequently have used traditional Balinese theater forms — masked comedies, shadow plays and folk operas — to refer to the attack and its aftermath, which has shattered the island's tourist-driven economy.

Another response took place on Nov. 15, 2002, when purification ceremonies, accompanied by theater, music and dance performances, were staged in every village across the island. 

This grassroots event stretched as far as New York, where, on the same day, Balinese musicians in sarongs and flowered head-dresses led a ceremonial procession from the World Trade Center site to the Battery Park Esplanade. Among the hundreds of Americans and Indonesians who participated were family members of the American victims of the Bali bombing. They joined a masked Balinese performer in throwing flowers into the Hudson River, a Hindu ritual symbolizing the release of the soul to heaven.

Wearing the sacred mask of Sidha Karya, a mythological Balinese figure representing death and renewal, Nyoman Catra, the performer, surveyed the scarred skyline of Manhattan and said, "People are trying to destroy our world, our country, our village." In keeping with Balinese tradition, he was playing a character in a 15th-century story, but he was also speaking of contemporary events as he connected the terror victims of the two islands — Bali and Manhattan — by turning them into inhabitants of one town. 

"Maybe the bombers wanted to create chaos and fighting between Hindus and Muslims," said Made Sumadi, an official in Bali's ministry of religion, during an interview in August near the island's capital, Denpasar. "But we did not respond the way the bombers expected. In Bali we responded to violence with peace. The bomb had a great impact on everyone, but it could not stop our performances."

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz called 19th-century Bali a theater-state, where performances were inextricably linked to politics, religion and the problems of everyday life. Similar theatrical impulses exist in 21st-century Balinese society, where almost every village temple ceremony includes some form of theatrical event, with clown narrators serving as mediators between the invisible world of gods and ancestors and the tangible one of current events. In improvised dialogues, the clowns grapple with issues like globalization and overdevelopment that endanger the island's Hindu-animist traditions.

In traditional Balinese mythology, an era marked by death and violence is referred to as "Kali Yuga" or "the time of Kali," a reference to the Hindu deity of destruction. Many Balinese performers have invoked Kali Yuga as a metaphor for the chaos brought on by the bombings. This context has encouraged the Balinese to forgo violent acts of revenge and respond instead with religious offerings designed to restore spiritual harmony to the universe.

In August, shortly after the trial that condemned a mechanic, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, known as Amrozi, to death for his role in the Bali bombings, a troupe of actors assembled in the village of Kerobokan, a few miles north of Kuta, to put on a play in a temple courtyard. The plot was based on an ancient legend, but the clown narrators made numerous references to Amrozi, including a slapstick gag in which one character jumped in fright at the sound of a slamming door because he thought it was a terrorist attack. Anxiety of this type is a recurring source of comedy in Bali. "Every time somebody burps, I think it's a bomb," joked another clown.

Later, an actor in a buck-toothed mask ran aggressively into the audience. "Don't worry!" he shouted. "I'm not Amrozi." He then told a story about a black magic curse that had left shops without customers. As the characters in the play overcame the curse by performing ritual offerings, spectators staged similar ceremonies of renewal to exorcise evil and invoke prosperity. A procession of elderly women in sarongs snaked through the courtyard between the actors and the audience, while a white-bearded priest chanted mantras on a flower-covered shrine. The boundaries between the play and the audience dissolved further when a woman in the crowd began sobbing and flailing her arms. 

"She's in a trance," someone shouted, as a priest sprinkled holy water on her head to revive her. Within a few minutes other spectators began weeping, as if the temple were plagued by a contagion of communal sadness. All this occurred during the appearance of an actor portraying Sidha Karya, who wore the same mask of death and renewal that had evoked tears from onlookers at the Balinese ceremony in Lower Manhattan.

"The trances were proof of the ceremony's success," said Ketut Jagra, the actor who played Sidha Karya in the village. "The bomb brought us sadness, but it can also lead to good things. Maybe it is fortunate that the bomb exploded in Bali, because now, finally, the terrorists responsible for a bombing have been caught and put on trial."

Many performances in Bali feature a masked figure whose long, pointed nose is the caricature of a Westerner. Played by Wayan Juana last August in Denpasar, the character claimed to be part American and part Balinese, manifesting his anxiety about terrorism by chain smoking and bouncing his head up and down like a bobble-head doll gone berserk.

In their masked performances, Balinese clowns create a carnival of contradictions: identity is fluid, the living speak to the dead, East and West converge. And sometimes Balinese actors play the roles of Javanese Muslims.

"We want to welcome tourists, not terrorists," said an actress, Wayan Murniasih, to a masked actor playing a Javanese migrant worker in a performance in Kerambitan in southern Bali. After making a few puns on Amrozi's name, she offered to rent the worker a room in her house, "but only if you register with the local authorities first." The message seemed ambiguous: be kind to Muslims, but be sure they are registered with the police.

"It is easy to make an audience laugh, but it is hard to teach them something useful," said Mr. Windia, the actor who played the disembodied head. His most popular character is a clown figure in female drag named Ratu Jegeg, who is famous for comedy routines based on sexual innuendo. But Mr. Windia also peppers his racy monologues with information about free treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. As he swiveled his hips in mock seduction during a performance, he listed the most common symptoms of severe stress. The information came from psychiatrists working with the International Medical Corps, a nonprofit organization that hires traditional performers to publicize counseling services.

"Balinese artists have always played an important role in maintaining the psychological balance of the community," said Dr. Denny Thong, a consultant to the medical corps and director of the Bangli State Psychiatric Hospital in northern Bali. "Without artists, the culture would collapse. The masked clowns are particularly good at capturing events of the moment and using jokes to soften the pain. The best way to relieve stress is to laugh at yourself."

Mr. Windia agreed: "We have always had stress in Bali, but now the source of our stress is more fierce. Our traditional repertory is full of stories about times in Balinese history when people were killed by black magic and natural disasters. These were metaphorical bombs, but now the bomb is here and it is real." 

Ron Jenkins, a professor of theater at Wesleyan University, is writing a book on tensions between Muslims and Hindus as reflected in Balinese temple performances.
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