Amidst the melodic twang of the Gamelan, a woman wails from somewhere across the street. A moment later, she emerges from the crowd, supported by two men. Her eyes are clamped shut, her mouth looks like it has been pried open, and her hands shake in complex, nearly a-rhythmic patterns. She does not resist the men who guide her towards the temple entrance, but she moves slowly with knees bent at an angle that matches her elbows, now raised above her head.
For a brief moment, the music falls into one of its periodic lulls. My friend Kadet leans over to me and says, “Oni hairu," Japanese for “A demon enters." Kadet doesn’t speak English. We hit it off last week when we discovered that we both speak Japanese. Meeting outside both our communicative comfort zones in mutually foreign language has made for a pleasantly liberating form of conversation here, one that we have enjoyed together over many recent evenings. In the daytime, Kadet plays the Rindik— an instrument that’s kind of like a bamboo xylophone— at a few different hotels around Sanur, but tonight he is playing whatever instruments are required of him within this Gamelan that provides the music for a local Barong dance. He invited me to come along and I eagerly accepted. Long have I wanted to see a real Barong, the ceremonial performance enacting a never-ending struggle between the Barong, the four-legged God with protective powers, and the demon witch Rangda.
A demon enters— which is to say that, across the street from where we sit and Kadet plays, a woman has been possessed by Rangda. She has entered a trance. Before long, three or four other woman have appeared, differently pitched wailings emerging from newly contorted bodies. The village priest, who has stood by throughout the performance like a referee in a boxing match, ushers all but the first woman into the temple. While the Barong and Rangda enter into their climactic fight of the evening, this woman alone remains alongside the entrance to the temple grounds. Her body, still held in abnormal angularity, sways and steps slowly with the music. With little fanfare, the Barong succeeds in temporarily overcoming the demon, and Rangda is escorted back into the temple. Though her eyes remain closed, the woman follows closely behind. As they depart, the two walk with strikingly similar rhythms and movements. The performance is over and the bulk of the audience start to head out. Shortly after, the formerly stricken women emerge from the temple entrance one by one, walking home with not so much as a hint of what had happened just five minutes earlier.
Allow me to play the skeptic for just a moment, if only to get it out of my system… It seems to me that although the movement vocabulary newly produced by these entranced women bore no resemblance to their everyday movement, it was not exactly removed from Balinese daily life. Though I’ve only been here for a few weeks, I already get the impression that the dance, music, and theatrical representations of religious stories are integral elements of the local society. I’ve yet to see a single written document detailing the stunningly complex musical scores, minutely detailed choreography, or ancient Indonesian texts. Everything is memorized, internalized, and then improvised. And so, whether or not the entranced women were formerly dancers or performers is somewhat irrelevant— simply growing up here seems to cultivate a capacity to perform somewhere within you.
Okay that’s done with. Really— its is all I’ve got for the case of incredulity. Be it demonic possession or some other, intangible force, something changed in these women. They seemed to have been taken elsewhere, their bodies gaining new life in the process.
I’ve written about empty vessels on this blog before— indeed, this is often the cardinal strength that human performers seek when they look towards the puppet for inspiration. Striving towards an inanimate ideal, these actors try to develop a powerfully absent presence, one within which audience members may feel more willing to find character, emotions, or even themselves. But this was something different. Manifesting from a place of absence or not, here something else took over, a new presence emerging from a familiar vessel. It was gripping and just a little bit terrifying.
Throughout the evening, the two men performing as the Barong would be periodically changed out for new performers. To do so, the Barong would cross back to its initial location in the street and two locals would quickly run out from the crowd, getting beneath the creature’s costume to support this transition of hosts. The now finished performers emerged from beneath the costume and joined the two new performers at the God’s head for a moment of prayer. Following, the two new men assumed positions within the creature, and the Barong sprang to life once again. There was no attempt made to hide this transition; the Barong was still the Barong, despite its new inhabitants.
Whether or not the same could be said for the women in trance, I just don’t know. Kadek and his friends in the Gamelan didn’t seem too disturbed by the event. They continued to crack jokes and pass around a couple bottles of liquor while hammering away at their musical instruments. They kept wickedly fast tempos. Their music played on until the very end, at which point they, too, packed up their things and we all went home.