A Man of Many Friends: Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana
I walked into the compound of the griya (Brahmin household) in the midst of much activity. Their family gods were getting new shrines and every post and pavilion was wrapped in gold-painted cloth; the neighbors were there in droves making offerings, sorting through rice and busying themselves with the myriad tasks any large temple ceremony entails. And this is two weeks before the ceremony even begins.
This compound is where Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana, or Gus Aji Blangsinga as he is more affectionately known (named after his village of Blangsinga) lives with only a few of his l7 children (with Ida Ayu Putu Muter), 27 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. An incredibly handsome and fit man of 73, Gus Aji is one of the living repositories of the famed Kebyar Duduk dance, which was created in the 1930s by I Ketut Mario and has become one of the standards seen in both sacred and secular venues.
Gus Aji was surrounded by dance growing up as his father performed Baris (warrior dance), Topeng (mask dance-drama) and Pandung (the prime minister who challenges the witch Rangda in the Calonarang dance-drama) and his grandfather was a Gambuh (classical dance-drama) dancer. His older brother, now a high priest, taught him Baris when he was 8 years old; he shortly thereafter moved to the town of Tabanan, over an hour away by car (and cars were few and far between in the 1930s) where he went to primary and junior high school. It was here that he saw the great Mario and his pupil I Gusti Ngurah Raka rehearsing and performing under the banyan tree in Tabanan. Often Dutch officials and their friends would come to watch a performance here. Sitting on his haunches, the young Gus Blangsinga would watch entranced for hours at a time as these two dancers went through their exquisite and complex moves. Kebyar Duduk is a solo refined male dance done completely while seated on the ground. It caused quite a sensation when Mario first presented it to the public in the l930s.
One day, Ngurah Raka approached him and asked “Who’s son are you? Do you want to study?” Even though in his heart of hearts, this was his deepest wish, he humbly replied “I’m still in school, Pak”. The Japanese came to Indonesia in l942 and the Opskool he was enrolled in disbanded, so he returned to Blangsinga in Gianyar. But he couldn’t get this new dance out of his head. He practiced on his own, remembering some movements and then inventing some of his own.
He was asked to perform Kebyar Duduk for a local odalan (temple festival) in his village. At that time, there were musicians from outside his village in the audience. After seeing this young sensation, he was asked to come to their village to perform. I Nyoman Regog from Peliatan saw him on one of these occasions and asked him to dance with his gamelan group. Even the Raja of Gianyar called upon Gus Blangsinga to perform at the palace. He thought he would perform Kebyar Duduk and was all dressed and ready to go. But the Raja had asked a Joged Bumbung troupe to perform–a group of 4 or 5 young women who invite men from the audience to perform with them; this is the only dance approximating a social dance in Bali. The leader of the musicians challenged the Raja “Find us the best dancer here to be chosen by our Joged dancers. If he is a better dancer than my girls from Sayan, then I will disband my troupe”. So Gus Blangsinga came through the curtains and sat down in the middle of the stage space and began to dance. The Joged dancer was completely perplexed by this new way of dancing and the troupe, as promised, split up. Thereafter, Gus Blangsinga performed at many occasions at the Gianyar palace, where many of the great dancers of the day used to congregate to teach and perform (including I Made Kredek, I Wayan Griya, Cokorda Oka and Anak Agung Gede Sukawati). There he learned with the best and finessed his dancing style. While in his early teens, he saw more of Bali than probably any of his children have today. He was invited to perform at temple festivals all over the island as well as at the Bali Hotel in Denpasar for tourists and visiting dignitaries. His love of dance was so profound that he would walk from Blangsinga to say, Bangli (over five miles away) just to perform.
In l952, at the age of 23 he went to Jakarta with the Tjinta Manik group, under the leadership of I Wayan Likes from Denpasar. They were under contract for one year to perform for the Armed Forces. They often danced at the presidential palace in Jakarta in front of the first president of Indonesia, Soekarno, who was a great supporter of Balinese arts.
In l954, he went to Pakistan with the most famous dancers of the day — Ni Made Darmi, Jero Rupawati, Jero Gadung Arwati, Gusti Ayu Mejawati and Luh Cawan, representing Indonesia in a Arts Festival (they came in second place after Pakistan).
In l958, Gus Blangsinga went to see Mario, whom he had not seen since those days under the banyan tree in Tabanan. Mario ordered him to dance, to “show his stuff” and was so mpressed that afterwards he told Gus Blangsinga “It is true that I am the creator of this dance, but your dancing has surpassed mine; you have perfected Kebyar Duduk.”
For the next fifteen years, Gus Aji travelled to India, Europe, China, Singapore, Hongkong, and Japan. He stayed on in Japan for a year (l968), where he performed Balinese dance.
1965 was a horrific time for the Balinese. There was an attempted coup in Jakarta attributed to Communists and those farmers and peasants who had joined the PKI (Communist Party) with the promise of free land were massacred left and right. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, thousands of Balinese died during that year. Gus Aji, as one of the village leaders, went to the district leader, where he saw the list of people targeted to be exterminated for their PKI leanings. He was shocked as he knew all sixteen of these men and they were not interested in politics, only in feeding their families. After he explained this to the district head, their names were taken off the list. Gus Aji also saved many of the local Chinese merchants from the same fate. A true believer in unity in diversity, Gus Aji lives his ideals and is respected for it.
He continued to perform with the Peliatan gamelan; he refused payment as it was enough to be able to dance with musicians of great caliber. And to this day, he says he is not rich like other artists who have travelled far and wide. “But I am rich in two things: family and friends. I have friends all over the world. That is what I treasure the most.” And it is obvious from the people who have gathered at the griya to assist Gus Aji and his family with their rituals this month. They receive no payment, just the honor of being associated with such a great man.