Balinese New Years Pt.1: Ogoh-Ogoh

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The Balinese Lunar New Year comes in a frenzy and goes out in silence. This time of stark contrasts is packed with special traditions and ceremonies to insure the spiritual health of the coming year. The most dramatic of these rites comes on New Years Eve when giant puppets are carried through the streets in a carnival-like parade. These ogoh-ogoh (sounds roughly like ‘go-a-go’) are depictions of evil spirits often in the act of wicked deeds. They are viciously thrashed about by the young men who built them and typically burned at the end of the night. This destruction doesn’t literally signify the death of these malevolent forces, but it keeps them in check, maintaining the appropriate balance of good and evil that the Balinese believe essential to life.

(If you follow the YouTube link you can find lot’s of great ogoh-ogoh videos)

The journey of these oversized figurines began almost two months ago. At night, young men and boys gathered in community halls to sketch out ideas for their ogoh-ogoh. They brought their blueprints to metal working shops where craftsmen welded a basic frame out of scraps of rebar and fence posts. Sometimes I would to watch these groups of youngsters huddled around what looked to me like bizarre works of modern sculpture: jumbles of iron bars jutting out at unlikely angles. Over the coming weeks these skeletons were fleshed out with styrofoam and paper maché till they bulged with sinewy muscles and monstrous breasts (I am not kidding, huge boobs seem to be an essential feature of female demons). The sculpting was generally a solitary task undertaken by the group’s leader. Here is my teacher’s nephew, Gede, fitting a final wedge of foam into his creature’s thigh.

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Once Gede finished sculpting the form, the ogoh-ogoh became a community project. The head, which is usually carved separately from a single piece of foam, was united with the body, and the whole creation was moved to a large community space that could accommodate its considerable height. In the last few weeks before New Years the ogoh-ogoh underwent a rapid transformation from ghostly outlines to intricately decorated characters complete with cloths, props, and scenery. Around this time I could hear the air compressor running every night as detailed color was sprayed on in stages. I also saw the neighborhood kids out soliciting donations to buy clothes for their project (most of these ogoh-ogoh cost almost $1000 to make). Here is my teacher’s nephew with the finished product of his labor.

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On New Years Eve the young men mounted their creations on bamboo platforms and placed them out in the street so that they could be appreciated for a few hours before their demolition. Some groups kept tweaking details till sunset but most found a shady spot and passed a bottle of palm liquor while passers-by stopped to admire the display. I took a bike ride around my area and saw dozens of ogoh-ogoh in the space a few miles. The artists were incredibly proud of their creations and usually insisted that I take lots of pictures as well as a shot of liquor. Here are some highlights from the neighborhood. The last two pictured seem to offer some social commentary: a beer swilling tourist and a Celuluk demon with an iPhone (if you look closely you can see he is logged onto Facebook).

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Just after nightfall the parade commenced, with each float making a few passes through the neighborhood before heading out to the main road and ultimately destruction. The display has a religious function, and a priest always accompanies the procession, but for the young men and children this is a chance to let loose and show off. They holler and sprint around in circles while their parents’ pound drums and cymbals to match the energy of the group. The motion is coordinated but unplanned, giving the ­ogoh-ogoh a mind of its own as it dances above the crowd.  A few men blow whistles and try to keep things in order but most of the spectators just keep their distance, content to let the kids have their fun. After all, this is their last chance to get in their kicks before the New Year arrives and silence falls over Bali.

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