writing our culture alive

cassi plate at the ubud writers festival

BALI IS AN ISLAND EMPTIED OF TOURISTS. THE BOMBINGS OF 2002 (REPEATED THREE YEARS LATER) WERE THE CATALYST FOR THE FIRST UBUD WRITERS AND READERS FESTIVAL IN 2004.

As the island commemorated both terrifying events this October, it also welcomed visitors to this year’s Writers Festival. On the night we left Bali, we were among a handful of guests in a large, old hotel not far from the bombsites; stray dogs and skinny cats prowled through the empty tropical grounds.

A tribute to Indonesia’s most famous writer, Pramoedya, who died earlier this year, opened the 2006 festival. His life spanned Indonesia’s turbulent 20th century, from Dutch colonialism to Japanese occupation, the battles for independence, political purges, the corrupt rule of Soeharto—who kept Pramoedya in prison throughout his 35 years of power—and the recent democratic elections. Shameful events in a country’s history have a way of reappearing. During the week of the Writers Festival, the Jakarta Post referred almost daily to the events of 1965 when up to 2 million people were disappeared or murdered in Indonesia in an anti-communist putsch.

The festival was an opportunity to hear Indonesian writers, poets and intellectuals (Goenawan Mohamad illuminated the work of Pramoedya; Acep Zamzam Noor, Nirwan Dewanto, Linda Christanty and Ketut Yuliarsa are poets and writers to seek out). Writers, many of them South-East Asian, attended from all over the world: Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia, Britain, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. We heard about the relationship between modernity and Islam, the future of Asian literature, and the relationship of writers to the places in which they find themselves—so often, in a globalised world, places they call home. These writers are featured in the Autumn 2006 edition of the Asia Literary Review.

The Bali bombings have made the once ubiquitous tourism a rare commodity; the searing events have created a new focus for traditional dance (legong), music (gamelan), shadow puppetry (wayang kulit) and performance poetry on the island. As you watch you’re struck by how artists and performers are using their work to comprehend events, inventing new forms to express change. In Bali, writing is an art connected to all the other arts and to all the senses; only in Ubud would a writing event integrate all the manifestations of culture.

The highlight was Wayang Kulit on Skateboards. The dozen shadow puppeteers used adapted skateboards to shimmy smoothly back and forth behind the giant screen, lit by a video projector, subtly changing scenes provided by a power point display. Along with the traditional characters of princes, villagers and Balinese mythical figures, we saw soldiers, a petulant tourist and two quaking kangaroos. The story, performed in Indonesian Bahasa with English bits thrown in, included allegorical references to the cataclysmic bombings and ironic commentary about the relationship between Indonesia and Australia. Accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, the performance communicated sharply and sometimes hilariously, even to those of us illiterate in Bahasa. Made, the director/voice of Wayang Kulit on Skateboards is planning a collaboration with Australian hip-hop performer Morganics, another guest of the Ubud Writers Festival, on The Tempest. That’ll be worth a trip to Ubud.

A need to protect the openness and tolerance of Balinese culture was the impulse for the closing night celebrations, held in the opulent baroque grounds of the late, self-aggrandising expatriate Spanish artist ‘Don’ Antonio Blanco. Balinese playwright Putu Wijaya performed a riveting tale of a caged bird set free, despite protest by his old loving master, only to be devoured immediately—an allegory for the dangers facing his country’s fledgling democracy. The most spectacular performance of the night featured girls and women iridescently costumed, combining traditional southern Indian traditional dance with Balinese legong.

As the visiting London-based Pakistani writer Ziauddin Sardar (Why the World Hates America) commented, “We write to ensure our culture survives, that the culture and knowledge is passed on; we write our culture alive.” There is a deep pleasure in being part of a community that is passing on traditions to the next generation, connecting tradition to the present and bringing the present to life.

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 42

© Cassie Plate; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006