Another opinion piece by grumpy old man Rio Helmi

Pengerupukan: pots and pans banging, torch flames flaring in compounds throughout the village, then everyone pouring out into the street as giant bamboo canons start blasting away; a chaotic procession chasing the demons out of their hiding places as the twilight thickens into a rich velvety darkness. And then at the end of a couple of hours of madness a huge bonfire at the crossroads with all the bamboo torches and canons thrown on top. Soon everyone is scurrying home, and silence reclaims the night.

Sound familiar? If you are younger than thirty or forty, I doubt it. Somewhere along the line Ubud began to take itself seriously. When Ogoh-ogohs first appeared in Ubud (taking the lead from Denpasar) they were very simple, crude affairs made of bamboo. At this point these ogoh-ogohs still blended in with the “ngerupuk” scene described above.

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top (lead photo): pengerupukan in the late 7os in Ubud.  above: In the days when everyone joined in. below 1: early basic papier mache and bamboo were funkier but more in the spirit, and a more controllable burn…. below 2: … and a big burn off to end the pengerupu.kan 

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It was the spirit of fun, and the opportunity for youth to ‘talk back’ and make social comment on contemporary life that helped this phenomenon sweep through southern Bali in the 1980s. It was both a brilliant, diverting reinvention and an easy assimilation thereof– the kind of thing that Balinese do so well to a cultural referent, be it indigenous or foreign.

Originally these types of figure were used as some sort of effigy in death rituals in the northern kingdoms of Bali. At least that’s according to one version that is popular with scholars. Another points to the Barong Landung, and there are other theories. Balinese history is entwined with mythology. And as mythology is the playground of the ambitious, capricious and sometimes fallacious, there will always be a bit of blur at the edges of Balinese history. Once something ‘cultural’ is borrowed by the Balinese, even from their own ancestors, it’s never quite the same again. Especially when it comes to things like ogoh-ogoh. Balinese purists are a long-suffering kind.

The limits of my own historical veracity don’t stretch much further than the 70s (and even within that period I’m sure I do some veracity stretching as well). I saw the ogoh-ogoh phenomenon hit Denpasar in a big way around 1980 or perhaps even a little before. And it was marvelous, funny, tongue-in-cheek; and sometimes the processions got downright wild. Even NASA’s Apollo missions got a mention, and the float just about took off that night!

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The younger generations in Denpasar were becoming fascinated with the full-blown influx of information about the world that was flowing in through television. And Denpasar in those days was still the central collecting pool of Balinese culture, money and power. All the backwaters seeped into Denpasar. Somehow the collected youth found itself liberated from the absolutism of traditional Balinese culture (whatever that it is) and felt free to use it as a just as contextual reference point. Ogoh-ogohs helped let off steam, challenge taboos, entertain, comment, or simply announce the group’s existence – and often all of these and perhaps more.

Nothing needed to be intellectualized – that could be left to scholars who would go on to agonize about the meaning of ogoh-ogoh, their representation of bhuta kala, etc etc. Natural selection picked the cleverest artist in the community, some strong young guys did the heavy moving, all the kids in banjar then ran errands for the team. You’d bang it up – and not let anybody from the government tell you what you can or cannot do. And despite the fact that this was pre-Internet days, Balinese society being what it is, the movement went viral island-wide. Ubud, with its large pool of artistic and artisanal talent was a natural host.

And yet somehow, slowly over the years as more money and fancy materials became available, as the handy-but-nasty foam rubber and steel rods sneered down their modern noses at the old fashioned papier-mache and bamboo, something shifted. White boards listing donors and the sums they put up became de rigeur. For practical reasons (and perhaps some more obscure) the monsters were no longer burnt at the end of the procession. Though to be fair, in the true spirit of things some banjars just dismantle them straight away – but not before plenty of selfies were taken and bloggers had their way with them.

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The government got involved, and set down rules ‘for security reasons’. Well yeah okay some of the boys would get a little drunk and rowdy. But the upshot was of all of this was that the ogoh-ogoh were no longer simply part of chasing out the demons in society, this was no longer about being a collective, raucous social comment or indicator. The demon of pride, his consort the obsession with identity, and their offspring the monster of jealousy, had quietly slipped into the whole ogoh-ogoh equation.

As a Balinese poet friend of mine, who in the 70s was youth group leader put it: “It’s got nothing to do with the original tradition anymore.”. And nowhere has this become more obvious than in central Ubud. No longer does everyone just jump into a torchlight procession yelling and banging pots. You gotta have a uniform, man. And we have klieg lights now at the crossroads where each banjar or collective does its whizbang dance show. It’s show biz.

_RLH3584above: Twenty tourists to one Balinese  below: The stage is set.

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Stand or sit on the side of the road if you can find a spot between the tourists and watch the parade go by. Yeah I know, it’s change. And I’m not saying that it isn’t fun in its own right – there’s always a couple of real winners. But it sure is change: down at Ubud’s football field this year I counted less than one Balinese per every twenty tourists. Is this still a community event? The jury is probably still out on that one.

What is certain however is that the ogoh-ogohs, in some weird, mass anthropomorphic way, are in a primadonna rivalry with one another for the limelight. There are more lenses flailing about than torches. I’m not sure what to call it; it certainly doesn’t feel like pengerupukan. Friday evening, once each banjar finished its show, its members headed home, not even bothering to watch the dance-and-monster routines of the other banjars. But then again, I left before any of them even started.

 

all photos ©Rio Helmi