Photos and text by Eva Rapoport
Every year from mid-June till mid-July Bali island hosts an incredible celebration of traditional performing arts, mostly local but also coming from any other parts of vast, diverse and amazingly culturally rich Indonesia.
Bali Arts Festival (Pesta Kesenian Bali) has neither a well-maintained web-site nor an English Wikipedia page however this year it’s being held for the 39th time.
The sequence of events starts from June 10 (traditionally the second Saturday of the month) with a magnificent parade where all Balinese regencies are to be represented and goes on till the 9th of July with several performances being held on a daily basis – all open and absolutely free for the public. The festival venue Taman Budaya (literary: cultural park) of Balinese capital Denpasar itself represents a beautiful ensemble of traditional architecture pavilions, one big amphitheatre (with capacity to hold up to 6000 spectators) and several small open-air amphitheaters.
A great majority of the performing groups come from Bali, demonstrating rare art forms from the distant parts of the island or competing for the title of the best in the most popular genres (which include barong, legong, kecak, various mask dances, etc.). Preserving Balinese arts is the main objective of the festival, though they do not remain completely frozen in time so there are always performances combining contemporary music, dance and theatrical styles with the reflection over motives and patterns of traditional culture. Numerous groups coming from other Indonesian provinces allow spectators to realize the extent of diversity even without leaving the island while the occasional groups from other countries assure festival’s international status. Along with the performing arts, which are the indisputable center of the event, traditional Balinese foods and crafts, and even ways of conducting religious ceremonies, are also showcased.
Bali Arts Festival was started in 1979 as an initiative of provincial government and particularly of the governor Ida Bagus Mantra as a reaction to the disturbingly rapid expanse of the tourist industry and as an attempt to prevent the extinction of traditional Balinese arts while more and more young people were leaving their villages for the centers of bustling commerce and urban life. The bet on the competition proved to be successful and various series of contests on district and regency levels helped to galvanize cultural life, while numerous government supported schools of dance and art were opened in those centers of urbanization during the same period.
Up to now, despite the overwhelming growth of the tourist industry, the festival luckily remains mostly local communal event allowing performers, artists and craftsmen from different regencies to meet and occasionally compete, being supported by the spectators from their own villages. The presence of foreign tourists is still rather insignificant. Thus, the festival’s performances remain free of charge and relatively safe from commodification while numerous venues on the same island offer tourists exoticized cultural shows of questionable authenticity but for quite high ticket prices.