Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Made Bandem: Encouraging the birth of Balinese contemporary arts

Balinese performing arts maestro I Made Bandem, also known as the Joe Papp of Bali, is currently on his latest mission to encourage young Balinese artists to engage in not only the preservation of the island’s cultural and art heritage, but also in giving birth to more contemporary arts.
Bandem and his wife, Swasthi Widjaja Bandem, who have been for the past five years teaching Balinese performing arts and culture at the Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, will stage novel contemporary arts collaborations at the upcoming annual Bali Arts Festival (PKB), a cultural gathering that he conceptualized together with the late former governor of Bali, Ida Bagus Mantra, 34 years ago.

This year, the author of more than 160 books, including the textbook Balinese Dance in Transition:
Kaja and Kelod, as well as Wimba Tembang Macapat Bali on Balinese folksongs, expects to publish his latest book History of Balinese Gamelan that he has been writing for the past two years in the US.

Below are excerpts from an interview by Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti with Bandem, who is currently on a summer retreat back home in Denpasar.

Question: Traditional Balinese dances such Legong, Sanghyang and Gambuh, are creations dating back hundreds of years. However, in this modern era, why are there not any novel Balinese dance creations with the quality and excellence as the heritage dances?

Answer: It’s high time that Bali moved forward from simply revitalizing its arts and culture to also inventing contemporary creations. Some have started, but they are not yet known. For example, Kadek Suardana, who has done Gambuh Macbeth, a contemporary drama. But after two to three performances, the creation disappeared. Other creations include many Gong Gebyar, like the Cendrawasih dance which was created by my wife in 1988, also the Siwanataraja dance she created in 1990, and the Sekar Jagat dance in 1993, the Manuk Urawa by Pak Dibya, as well as the Kijang Kencana. In this country’s reform era, Bali’s contemporary arts are still seeking form. Since the 90s, we have started performing contemporary arts at the Bali Arts Festival (PKB), as well as through the Walter Spies Festival, and other festivals for young composers and young choreographers.

I believe, we need a special arts center, just like the LaSalle in Singapore, the Los Angeles Music Center, the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, for the development of such contemporary art forms.

With the presence of such a center for contemporary arts, we can also initiate a Contemporary Arts Festival that can be held intermittently with the PKB every two years. Foreign contemporary artists would be very enthusiastic to perform in this festival, because they are aware of Bali as a cultural melting pot.

As we have set the PKB as a strategy for arts development, they need to listen to input from Balinese artists, through both informal channels and formal gatherings, like the Arts and Culture Congress. Hopefully, at the congress, discussion and sharing are not dominated merely by the wishes of the elite in government and the intellectuals, but is also able to engage with the common local people, communities, artists, to speak about the reality. In the congress, we can discuss and decide what is to be done to anticipate the impacts of globalization.

How far is Balinese arts and culture known worldwide?

Almost all the major universities in the US, such as Hawaii, UCLA, Berkeley, Holy Cross, MIT, have a study center about Indonesia and Bali. Gamelan is everywhere there. Over 350 Javanese and Balinese gamelan are located abroad, being reviewed in great depth. The theories of gamelan and our arts and culture were in fact were born abroad. But we never notice this reality.

Throughout the course of the Bali Arts Festival [PKB] over the past 34 years, has it been able to realize the visions it initially carried?

PKB has been set as a strategy of development and preservation of our culture. At least with the PKB, we have been able to revitalize Balinese arts. However, quality wise, the PKB has not yet resulted in novel creations, inventions of contemporary arts. In terms of preservation, there are more Balinese arts resurfacing. However, we have a poor database. In 1992, I, along with STSI and UNUD, funded by Bali provincial administration, conducted mapping of the performing arts in Bali. We discovered that there were 5,012 performing arts groups, I estimate that currently Bali has about 8,000 groups, but we don’t have a clear and comprehensive database. That’s why every year the PKB appears to only repeat the performances of the same groups. The government should be pushed to create this database, involving the academics of universities such UNUD, STSI, UNHI, ISI Denpasar.

Amid the strong current of globalization, how can the Balinese maintain their cultural identity?

In our 1992 mapping of Balinese performing arts, about 70 percent belonged to the sacred arts categories, while the remaining 30 percent were the secular art forms. That indicated that the main motivation of the Balinese in performing their arts is for religious purposes. Such motivation must be maintained, despite being renewed and adapted in a revolutionary way. Regretfully, currently, the provincial administration is not involved in the preservation of Balinese sacred art forms, all preservation efforts are done by communities. Years ago, the administration allocated funding for the preservation of sacred arts, aside from the annual funding for PKB. The sacred arts forms are actually the core spirit of Balinese culture, as these arts are filled with the local wisdom from the stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata and many other folk stories. Government attention for the preservation of sacred arts will motivate society to keep this core spirit intact. This is also the job of the current artists, to transform those values of wisdoms into their latest art creations.

That’s why artists must deeply study literature, the ancient lontar containing Balinese culture. Regretfully, nowadays, young artists are too lazy to read and study such literature for their creations. Most of them prefer instant results. I see many good creations, in terms of techniques, but spiritless, without deeper interpretations.

In the 1970s, when I was teaching in Hollywood, there was a student of mine who studied Pendet, Barong, but he was also a belly dancer who had a show business in Lake Tahoe. One summer, he asked me to create a new combination of the belly dance and Balinese dances of Barong and Pendet. He offered me a weekly incentive of US$1,200, which was a huge amount at that time. I declined that request, despite the huge material gain. So the moral is to have a sense of responsibility for arts preservation itself. Nowadays in Bali, however, I see that there are increasingly more secular art forms, about 50 percent, instead of the previous 30 percent.

How about returning to teach here?

My wife and I still have another 1-year contract with the school [Holy Cross], but after six years, I do
hope to return to our homeland. I think that Balinese culture still needs to be developed internationally, not only through the tourism agenda, but also through academic teaching. I’m happy to see the enthusiasm of the students there to learn about Balinese arts and culture. Every semester, we can have 35 students registering for the gamelan class, despite capacity being only 25, while for the Balinese dance class, which has a capacity of 20, we usually see a queue of 10 more students waiting. I hope that students here can also be as enthusiastic.

At the upcoming PKB on June 28, the Sanggar Seni Makara Duaja, which is a dance group my wife and I are involved in, is preparing to perform the contemporary dance drama Calonarang and we will collaborate with Jack’s quartet from New York, which consists of three very talented violinists and a cello player who have learned Balinese gamelan intensively and orchestrated the music into their quartet style to accompany the traditional Balinese dance.

Indonesia has many great guitarists like Balawan and Dewa Budjana, I hope that by inviting these four people, our own local talents will be stimulated and motivated to come up with fresh ideas such as this orchestra.

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