A Gift from Niskala

As this year’s installment of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival draws to a close, I’ve asked myself the same question that others have asked me over the last day or two: which session, author, or event stood out above the rest?

I tossed the question around in my head for a little bit – and decided it was best to keep the jury out until then end, before making my final decision. I reviewed some of the writers, poets, film-makers, musicians, poetry slam champions I’d met; I pondered the relative merits of panels I MC-ed. Sure, it was intellectually stimulating to attend the ‘mutual admiration society’- tinged conversation between John Pilger and Jose Ramos-Horta; it was utterly inspiring to hear children’s book authors discuss their creative process and their audiences.

It was eye-opening to listen in on a panel comprised of African (and African-American) writers, discussing the issue (or non-issue) race, apartheid and accomplishment. And it was, attimat times, disheartening to take in the messages voiced by a trio of writers about the current state of Bali, such a tiny island with such overwhelming challenges.

I thoroughly enjoyed being MC (mistress of ceremonies!) on the large terrace at Neka Museum, a venue that (despite its less-than-stellar acoustics) greets you with such an abundance of nature just beyond – rice fields on the ridge, coconut trees swaying, butterflies, dragonflies and bees swarming – that one can’t help but be reminded of the still-present beauty and spaciousness of this island.

There were the films at Betelnut, the book launch at Tutmak, early morning coffee with a new friend at Casa Luna.

But one evening stood out more than anything else: watching the Wayang Kulit performance (shadow puppet play) at Museum Puri Lukisan. One of Bali’s leading puppeteers, I Wayan Wija performed Sutasoma, the story of a noble prince who leaves the comfort of his palace to seek enlightenment within the world; narrating the story in Balinese, Indonesian and English. He was even comical at times.

Along with the other attendees, I settled down in front of a white screen, waiting for the show to begin. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the puppets came to life – held as they were behind the backlit screen. Shortly after the show began, I started to feel antsy: what, I wondered, was going on backstage? I was sure that the best of the action was taking place on the other side of the screen…

I quietly gathered my bag and sandals, excused myself as I traipsed over peoples’ legs, and around to the side of the backstage, kneeling down on the outside of a red padded bench. And there, is quite simply, where the magic came alive in front of my eyes:

Wayan was seated cross-legged, an open wooden ark on the ground to his left, the toes of his right foot clasping a wooden peg that he would periodically knock against the ark’s side. Two assistants sat on either side of him; with puppets splayed out in front of them all – possibly more than 100 in total – on the ground, and a few lodged into the tops of three thick  banana-tree stalks that lay on the ground in front of them.

A jug of oil hung above Wayan, with flames shooting up from charcoal pieces; one of the assistants would rise every so often to refill the jog and pour oil onto the charcoal – using a concave piece of stalk.

Slightly behind Wayan, his assistants and bevy of puppets sat a small troupe of gamelan musicians – who, when not playing, would smoke, drink kopi, check their handphones or nod off.

A tokek suddenly sounded – the musicians were giddy.

Wayan would flick his puppets against the back of the screen, ululate or sing or talk in various tones, all the while planning ahead to the next scene: Unbeknownst to the audience on the other side, he would lean over to the assistant (in between his utterances) and mumble a command for a given puppet – animal or human – and the assistant (or both) would search feverishly for the requested character.

At one point, towards the end of the show, Wayan pointed to something and, before I knew it, and without skipping a beat and letting go of puppets in his left hand, his right hand was laced through a tambourine, then a djembe drum held to his side and off he went – adding his musical accompaniment to an already festive and busy performance.

It was, simply, a breathtaking sight. I had all but forgotten that the show was intended for viewing on the OTHER side of the screen. Perhaps so. But given the large number of viewers that had migrated to backstage by the end, it was perfectly clear where the most incredible show (on earth? on Bali?) was taking place: in the wings. The angels were calling to me…

Is that any surprise? In Bali, life is comprised of Sekala and Niskala – the seen and the unseen. I was blessed to have crossed over to the (otherwise) unseen.. to find the true heart and soul; not just of the wayang kulit, but for me, of the festival itself.

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