A Dance Less Ordinary

‘What shall we do today?’
‘The same thing that we did yesterday. Walk a bit. Eat a lot. Stare at the paddy fields.’
‘Great. I was thinking the same.’

It’s easy to slip into low gear while in Bali. The entire island has been designed for this purpose. Of course, there are some who wake at 2am (question: why sleep if you have to wake up at 2?) and drive an hour or so to reach the base of Mt. Batur (an active volcano) from where they have to climb up for views of the crater. In darkness. While scrabbling for dear life. The view from the top is spectacular. Well, it has to be worth the superlative. Otherwise why would anyone wake up when they haven’t slept at all? And yes, you can also have eggs boiled in a hot spring pool after all that trekking.

I was looking forward to some much-deserved R&R in Bali’s cultural capital, Ubud. And definitely not climbing up a mountain in the wee hours of the morning. In fact, my visit was restricted to not doing much, except go for long walks soaking in the greenery and watching the famous Balinese dances.

Despite its natural attractions, the hypnotic appeal of Balinese dances could easily become the highlight of a trip to Bali. Ubud offers a fine buffet of cultural performances. These performances are held in various temple courtyards. Come evening, you'll find leaflets being handed out informing people about the various dances they can choose from - Baris, Legong, and the utterly enchanting, Kecak dance. We went for a Kecak dance performance at the atmospheric Pura Dalem temple complex in Ubud. It was about the abduction of Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, by the king of Lanka, Raavan.

Kecak was originally a trance ritual. It was in the 1930s when it was adapted as a dance drama based on tales from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. A group of bare-bodied men wearing sarongs sit around a lamp and chant in a mesmerizing manner while performers in grand costumes enact various scenes from the Ramayana.The men slip into a trance and constantly chant 'chak-a-chak-chak-chak', basically imitating a troupe of monkeys. Throughout the performance, there's no music, only variations of this chant. Sometimes high-pitched, at times low. Every now and then, the entire troupe would go quiet and there would be sharp individual cries adding to the drama. It's popularly known as the Monkey Dance, which I felt was a demeaning way to describe such a fine dance. In the olden days, when attention spans were greater, a Kecak performance would continue throughout the night. There are times when the troupe of men would number about 150. It's only since 2006, that women have started performing this dance. As the evening's stunning performance came to an end, everybody sat quietly absorbing the atmosphere. Almost willing it to start again.

A couple of days later, not been able to get the mesmeric 'chak-chak' chants out of our system, we drove to the iconic Ulawatu temple for yet another Kecak performance. Located high above the cliffs overlooking the Java Straits, the setting was spectacular to say the least. This time it was the mighty Hanuman's tale - how he went looking for Sita in Lanka and in the process razed it to the ground.
Ulawatu was like rush hour at any soulless city. People jostled each other. Monkeys snatched shiny objects and hissed at their cousins. Touts roamed around everywhere with an air of importance. We missed the intimate atmosphere of the Pura Dalem temple.

The performance began just as the sun was dipping its toes somewhere on the horizon. I can easily use the word ‘spectacular’ here without worrying about travel clichés. But unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the performance. There was a lot of playing to the gallery with occasional phrases in English such as 'No problem' tossed at the crowd. We were a bit disappointed despite the dramatic location. But then the grand climax more than made up for it.

It may not have been as good as the first performance in Ubud, but the Ulawatu Kecak performance had its own memorable moments.