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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

A Potential Beginning

I have been quietly working on a longer performance, and I say quietly because I have not performed in a month or two. But this Spring that will change as we near the months of May and June!

I am working on a 45 minute tale in which I weave a personal story together with a Balinese legend. The aim is to explore how I can locate myself in relation to material that is not from my own culture, name Bali. I lived in Bali for six years, and I am married to a Balinese woman, and my children are half Balinese, but there are still questions as to whether I have the authority to tell such a story, especially the one that I chose.

"Kang Cing Wie and Jaya Pangus" is a story that traces the origins of the Barong Landung, two of the most sacred and famous masks in the Balinese repertoire. The masks resurrect these two characters from their tragic fates of being incinerated by the Goddess of Lake Batur, Dewi Danau. The two figures are not resurrected in their more youthful, heroic forms but as an elderly, quarrelsome but adorable couple. As they are paraded through streets or at the temple, they are often depicted bickering with one another like two grandparents, and that is truly what they are. They never had children, but they gave birth to the culture that underpins the everyday life of every Balinese. The union of this mythical king with this Chinese woman (the daughter of a Chinese merchant or sometimes a Buddhist priest) resulted in Bali's adopting many of its most celebrated traditions including tooth filing and cremation. Whether or not Kang Cing Wie really lived, their story is an acknowledgement of the debt owed to Chinese culture (even the Barong Ket may have its origins in the Chinese dragon).

So why am I, a white guy, telling this story, and do I have the right?

I was speaking with my teaching mentor, Bonnie Mennell, a master teacher who trains other teachers, about these very questions. She emphasized "permission." How do I obtain permission to tell this story? This question reminded me of the Taiko group that my wife performs with, Sonoma County Taiko. In order to perform a song, unless they wrote the song themselves, which they often do, they must have permission from the group that taught them the song. While I know I am oversimplifying this, there appears to be a lineage with each piece. Bonnie suggested that folktales can be like this. Before one tells them, the teller mentions who taught them and gave them permission to tell the story.

My source for the legends behind the Barong Landung is actually an academic article: "Transnational, Translocal, Transcultural: Some Remarks on the Relations between Hindu Balinese and Ethnic Chinese in Bali " by Volker Gottowik. The article includes several different backstories, and I took quite a few liberties with them. In one case, I mention that Kang Cing Wie taught the Balinese to plant rice, and this isn't even mentioned specifically by Gottowik, who merely mentions that versions of the story told by Chinese who live in Bali include credit for larger aspects of Balinese culture being given to her, and by virtue of that, to China.

I tell the story because I love it. It is the backstory not only to the Barong Landung, but to my wife's clan, which is associated with the Barong Landung and the mythical figures behind them. I say associated because Kang Cing Wie is not mentioned as ever having children. Her husband Jaya Pangus goes to Lake Batur because of this, and while praying there is seduced by the Lake Goddess who curses them both when she finds out that Jaya Pangus is actually married. Their legacy is the culture not a people, and yet, mysteriously the people of the Blackwood Clan, Kayu Selem, are thought to be descendents of them. This is a mystery that I am working to solve, and I expect the answer is going to be very complicated.

While it is important to my wife, it is also about the Balinese attitude to what is from the outside, namely me. The Balinese might be unique (though I argue that other island cultures are like them) in their openness to the outside. The story Sida Karya also depicts the powerful belief that the solution to Balinese crises often comes from the outside. In this story, Ida Sangkhya comes from Java or even India to participate in a ceremony being held by King Waturenggong. After Sangkhya is driven away by the temple guards, the god of the mountain punishes the kingdom by sending demons to disrupt the ceremony. The problem of domestic versus foreign is replaced with the more pressing constant preoccupation of islanders with impurity. To avert corruption and pollution of the entire island, the stranger must be found and invited to play a role right at the center of the cleansing ritual.

The Balinese are extraordinarily inviting and open, and yet, I truly struggle to fit in, and, as my story illustrates, it was a challenge to win the trust and the love of my wife and her family. I was and still am a foreigner like Kang Cing Wie, and, at the same time, I was and still am, quite unrefined and uncoothe (kasar) like the character Jaya Pangus, who has many demonic characteristics just like Sida Karya does.

I weave the stories together — mine with the legend — because they illuminate each other.

That will be the subject of my next installment.


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