Bali is the only place in the world that ritually honors nature and the underworld by officially enforcing a day of silence and stillness once a year, regardless of the disruption it may cause to trade and commerce. Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, is the only day of the year when the entire island literally comes to a complete stop.
The evening before, in order to rid the villages and towns of dark forces accumulated over the year, villagers lure evildoers to a feast, then escort them away in a rowdy procession of enormous papier-mâché and foam effigies made in their imagined likeness. Teetering dangerously back and forth on bamboo platforms, accompanied by a clamorous band of musicians playing deafening and discordant metallic percussion instruments, the fantastic creatures seem to be flying and gyrating through the night.
The imposing brutes are an all-important feature of the ngrupuk parade, a noisy, chaotic affair that stands in utter contrast to the day of utter silence that follows, marking the first day of the Balinese calendar devoted to quiet introspection. Turning off the lights and keeping silent is a way to fool the evil spirits into thinking that Bali is empty of people. Since they have little interest in returning to a place devoid of human prey, the dark forces are tricked into leaving the island in peace. The headless and crumpled ogoh-ogoh are subsequently burned in a ritualistic effort to rid the community of the previous year’s evils, or put up for sale.
The communally created, highly artistic monsters come in all shapes and sizes: long-fanged werewolves, green growlers, magic frogs, the bat-winged Celuluk, the witch Rangda’s daughter, Rarung, who devours babies in order to increase her magical powers, and mythical demons from Hindu mythology such as Ludra Murti, the ten-headed assistant of Rahwana, and the hellish bhuta kala characters from the underworld.
Increasingly more diverse and Western-influenced non-traditional forms have recently made their appearance: Halloween-style witches, a Balinese version of Dracula, and contemporary figures of disrepute such as the gaunt gambler, the debauched drug addict, the wasted alcoholic, the scantily clad prostitute, the obese corrupt politician on the lam with his bags of money, all reflecting the evils of modern society. These comical, powerful, playful and yet mesmerizing artistic creations exhibit skilled craftsmanship and startling originality.
In the preface, Bali-based photographer Tamarra Kaida’s early experience with a wart that her father made disappear by magic eventually motivated her to look underneath everyday reality and plausible explanations of how things appear, and to examine so-called “sympathetic magic” that uses effigies, fetishes and puppets to influence the behavior and environment of human beings. Presented with such visually spectacular material, her book Ogoh-Ogoh: Balinese Monsters brings out in full display Kaida’s talent, but she also manages to capture the human side of the parade. The faces of the onlookers record the full spectrum of human emotion: captivation, fear, worry, delight, entrancement.
Out of every page loom hulking, green-skinned, Mohawk-haired, sharp-eyed, red-skinned, bulgy-faced, big-bellied, long-nailed, comical and fearsome monsters, ghosts and leyak festooned with treacherously sharp fingernails and meters of wildly bouncing dreadlocks. These grotesque distorted figures emerge out of the dark collective consciousness of the Balinese mind. It’s no wonder that Balinese culture and architecture is replete with repugnant stone carved guardian-like beings positioned at the entrances of temples and homes.
But it’s not just a matter of good conquering evil. According to Bali Hindu belief, it is more important to maintain the balance between good and evil. Since evil as a force cannot be destroyed, it must be appeased, mollified, given ritualized respect in the form of offerings. Thumbing through the pages of this book I can better understand why my six-year-old Balinese son is titillated and fascinated – yet strangely untroubled - by these terrifying beasts. Although we recoil at the spectacle, the ogoh-ogoh at the same time liberate, disarm and dispel illusion. Not merely childish play, they shake viewers out of an unconscious complacency.
Photo captions explain how the effigy was constructed, the meaning of the magic symbols and curses, who is doing the carving, painting and dressing of the various wild things. Captions also identify the character, whether it is a cursed god, wretched devil or anti-hero from Western film and television. Author Sarita Newson’s text discusses the Balinese lunar and Gregorian calendar cycles, provides cultural and historical background behind the rituals leading up to Nyepi, the origins of this parade of puppets on Bali, and gives a particularly detailed well-written explanation of how the Balinese practice the rules, abstinences and daily activities during New Years Day.
Newson thoroughly explains how in many cultures the sacred is inextricably linked to the profane. These psychologically complex Balinese entities perform the same function as gargoyles, chimera and sexually exhibitionistic Irish sheela na gig statues do in Christian gothic architecture. The circus-like Mardi Gras festival and the ribald Roman feast of Saturnalia are also unadulterated pagan pageants. In both celebrations, the prime function of the monstrosities is to ward off evil forces and maintain a balance between the two faces of God.
The book’s photographer has long been fascinated by ogoh-ogoh. A prolific photographer and writer, Kaida has published photo books, collections of poetry and short stories, and most recently a novel. She has traveled extensively in America and Europe giving lectures and photography workshops. Kaida currently lives in Ubud where she writes for the Bali Advertiser under the pen name Uma Anyar. On her website (http://tamarrakaida.com/) you can flip through the pages of her ogoh-ogoh book and almost feel what it’s like holding it in your hands.
Together with Newson, Kaida has produced a stylish publication that showcases not only one of Bali’s newest and most exciting performing art forms but also includes a learned treatise on its meaning in Bali’s contemporary and ever-evolving cultural life.
Ogoh-ogoh: Balinese Monsters by Tamarra Kaida, text by Sarita Newson, Saritaksu Editions 2011, ISBN 978-979-1173-17-9, 93 pages, notes, bibliography. Available for Rp250,000 at Periplus, Gramedia and Times bookshops; Ganesha bookstores: a) corner of Jl. Raya Ubud & Jl. Jembawan in Ubud; b) Jl. Petitenget 888 (inside Biku Restaurant); c) Jl. Nusa Indah 21 A (near the Art Center), Denpasar.