To Protect and Serve: An Interview with I Nyoman Cerita of Sanggar Çudamani

Contributed by Lela Chapman. All photos by Jorge Vismara.

Interviewer’s notes: On May 1, the 31 young virtuosi of Gamelan Çudamani will cap their first world tour with a rare finale at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Çudamani, a renowned newcomer to the Balinese performing arts scene, is among the tradition’s most innovative children.

This is no light title in a land where traditional music competitions resemble raucous sporting events, whose jeer hurling partisans and standing-room-only crowds are a fire marshal’s worst nightmare. But Sanggar [private arts organization] Çudamani has carved a unique identity for itself here, facing the rival forces shaping the future of Balinese performing arts as a self-described ‘activist community.’ Their home, Pengosekan village, is at the epicenter of the struggle between the for-profit tourism performance industry, and the unpaid village, ceremonial, and temple work they consider to be the lifeblood of the Balinese arts. I recently spoke with the group’s choreographer, I Nyoman Cerita.

Lela Chapman: In its mission, Gamelan Çudamani paints itself as an “activist” community. What does this mean?

Nyoman Cerita: This means that all artists who become members of Sanggar Çudamani, dancers as well as musicians, are chosen for their expertise, enthusiasm, and heartfelt support of all the activities of the Sanggar. All projects comprising the Sanggar Çudamani program are carried out in solidarity, as a family rather than for individual gain or display, and with reverence for the high values of the divine and community. Each member has the same rights and responsibilities regardless of race, tribe, caste, circumstance, and more. Sanggar Çudamani’s guiding principles are, first, to serve fully and honestly the entire Balinese community, and second, to protect, renew, perpetuate, and develop all forms of performance art in order to support the high values of Balinese culture.

In practice, Sanggar Çudamani revitalizes classic dances and compositions that are almost extinct, such as Tari Legong Candrakanta, Gambuh theater, Tari Teruna Gandrung (Peliatan style), Palawakya (Buleleng style), and others.

We protect and preserve classic dances and compositions which still thrive among other popular dances, such as Tari Legong Lasem, Jobog, Baris Gede, Rejang, Nelayan, Margapati, Telek, Gabor, and others, in order to consistently rejuvenate our culture and pass it along to all Sanggar members and children who take courses at the Sanggar. In the matter of development, Sanggar Çudamani gives all members extensive opportunity to form contemporary works that are at once creative, innovative, and still take to heart the norms and ethics of our Balinese traditions.

Lela Chapman: Çudamani also describes itself as not for individual profit. How does the Sanggar fulfill its economic needs while resisting the world of for-profit tourism performance?

Nyoman Cerita: The reason is each program in Sanggar Çudamani originates with the concept ngayah [unpaid temple or holy service]. This means Sanggar Çudamani serves itself honestly for the importance of tradition and religion. Our members always perform in odalan [temple anniversaries] or Hindu religious festivals in the traditional framework, without payment. Sanggar Çudamani does not hold the usual performances for tourism. This comes out of the experiences of those members who have participated in tourist performance groups, and ended up feeling fed up with their monotony, such that ultimately the quality of those performances suffered.

Sanggar Çudamani uses another route to fulfill the economic needs from the tourism world: we create performances of the highest quality and promote them internationally. We invite renowned choreographers and composers from other countries, such as Michael Tenzer, Larry Reed, and Wayne Vitale, as well as international arts groups such as Sekar Jaya from Berkeley, Chitresh Das Dance Company (California), MIT (Boston), to Bali to mount collaborations with Sanggar Çudamani. We invite many international dancers and musicians in order to accomplish work together, as well as study gamelan and Balinese dance themselves at Sanggar Çudamani.

We use our international shows as a framework to promote cultural tourism in Bali and Indonesia. So all material income from study, collaboration, and performance in other countries becomes collective property, which is divided in a spread after 30% is applied to the Sanggar’s preservation and development efforts.

Lela Chapman: How is the relationship between Sanggar Çudamani and its home village of Pengosekan?

Nyoman Cerita: The relationship between Sanggar Çudamani with the Pengosekan community is excellent, quite mutually supportive. It is fundamental, since Sanggar Çudamani is formed and founded/established in Pengosekan town, and many of its members are themselves from Pengosekan. They play a vital role in supporting the traditional and religious work of the village, such that the community of Pengosekan may feel proud and very supportive toward the existence of Sanggar Çudamani.

Lela Chapman: What makes Çudamani unique?

Nyoman Cerita: We in Sanggar Çudamani consider ourselves the only performing arts organization in Bali which has a side program dedicated exclusively to revitalizing and protecting endangered works, as well as producing unique new works of a competitive and creative nature. The group forms a creative vessel for both Balinese and international artists, using a seven-tone gamelan referred to as semarandana, and inviting experts of the elder generation to bring their regional styles to Sanggar Çudamani.

Some of our past teachers have included Anak Agung Aji Raka (Legong Candrakanta, Saba style), I Wayan Gandra (tari Teruna Gandrung, Peliatan style), Ibu Menek (Tari Palawakya, Buleleng style), and myself, I Nyoman Cerita (Singapadu style), as well as others. [Interviewer’s note: the seven-tone semarandana gamelan is a recent innovation, after a century in which five-tone ensembles reigned supreme, preventing modulations which had been possible on earlier seven-tone ensembles.]

Lela Chapman: Çudamani sometimes explores classic dances such as Legong [a delicate, sophisticated, and threatened 19th century repertoire which has increasingly come to be represented by a single surviving dance]. Please tell me about your work with these dances and compositions.

Nyoman Cerita: As you mentioned, Çudamani has unearthed classic dances, including Tari Legong Lasem, Legong Jobog, Legong Candrakanta, and others. Our Legong Lasem is in the style of Ibu Arini from the Denpasar capital area. Legong Jobog, which we have revitalized, is in the style of Desa Binoh [Binoh village], which I taught. We have also explored Legong Candrakanta in the style of Desa Saba [Saba village], as taught by Anak Agung Serama Semadi.

Lela Chapman: Many of Sanggar Çudamani’s members are also composers and choreographers. Is this usual for a gamelan organization?

Nyoman Cerita: This is not the case for most groups. We are blessed to have members who are, for the most part, prominent composers like Dewa Berata, Dewa Alit, Made Darmawan, Dewa Rai and others, as well as choreographers like I Nyoman Cerita, Emiko Saraswati Susilo, Ni Wayan Somowati, and others. They are all world caliber artists. Their work has extended regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Lela Chapman: Tell me about your members’ works.

Nyoman Cerita: Sanggar Çudamani has produced quite a number of new dances and music, and most have been performed in Bali, as well as at the national and international level. These include Tari Rerejangan, Pengastungkara, Wayang Listrik [Electric Shadow Play] (Maya Denawa, Sidha Karya dan Tirta Amertha), Gregel, Çudamani and Odalan Bali: An Offering of Music & Dance. [Odalan Bali, a multimedia spectacle conjuring a Balinese Hindu temple anniversary, is featured on Cudamani’s current world tour.]

Lela Chapman: Has this benefited the Sanggar?

Nyoman Cerita: For now, yes. Look at it from the perspective of our age. Sanggar Çudamani has, as a relatively young organization, done a great service to the entire community in Bali, especially in the field of culture and arts. Moreover, we have produced extraordinary work, which has been well received and appreciated at the national and even international level.

Lela Chapman: In your opinion, what is the greatest problem facing Sanggar Çudamani?

Nyoman Cerita: There are two substantial problems facing Sanggar Çudamani now and in the future: capital and moral. The question of capital weighs heavily on Sanggar Çudamani, because to succeed in performing arts is to need more than a little funding. To make art is an extremely difficult and expensive venture. For this, we are extremely grateful to the Ford Foundation for its funding, which has contributed greatly to the activities of Sanggar Çudamani. Other than this opportunity, we hope that new parties will continue to step forward to help make our programs a success, especially on the capital level.

At the moral level, well, it has been noted that there is no perfect human. Sometimes human thinking can change depending on the situation and condition. This is especially true in an organization composed of many people with different backgrounds, thinking, and social life. So, an organization may have a great deal of influence over good or rotten human morals. We take several steps to prevent conflict within the Sanggar: 1) All activities, especially those related to money are carried out in a collective manner, openly and honestly. 2) We strive to invest in a sense of mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual help toward each member. 3) All members are free to express opinions, constructive criticisms, and ideas that further the progress of the Sanggar’s program. May it be from these steps that we may hinder, or at least minimize, areas of conflict within Sanggar Çudamani.

Lela Chapman: What is Çudamani’s objective for the world tour?

Nyoman Cerita: We hope to continue to refine our work, to delve as deeply as possible into the endangered dances and to propagate them through the entire Balinese community, as well as to increase the quality of new, never-before-seen work, including dances, kreasi baru [new creations], contemporary and even experimental compositions. We hope to continue to promote Balinese culture at the national and international level. We also seek to increase our own discipline, sense of unity, and code of ethics internally as well as externally. Moreover, we seek to increase our belief in and respect toward Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa [the supreme deity in Balinese Hinduism]. Our motto thus becomes “No day without arts creativity.”

Lela Chapman: Most foreign audiences know relatively little about Balinese dance and gamelan. What would you like American audiences to know?

Nyoman Cerita: One of Sanggar Çudamani’s most important tasks is to introduce and promote the unique global presence that is Balinese culture to all audiences. Our methods are both conventional and modern. In the works performed on the current USA tour, for example, we continue to stand on traditional patterns and designs, while incorporating and blending modern patterns and designs into the form, one from the other. We aim to produce work that can be received and understood well by all audiences, whether American or Balinese. Our work must be scrutinized within both the conventional and modern frameworks in order to be compelling at home in Bali as well as abroad. We very much want to educate international audiences about the beauty, power, and singularity of the tradition of this tiny island in Indonesia.

[All photos by Jorge Vismara, © 2005]