The party at the table up front drank, yammered in Bahasan, and leered at the floor show. I noticed a small, greasy guy in a white suit who fondled a carved cane and glanced our way occaisionally with fidgety, bug-eyed intensity.
In came the gamelan orchestra to set up their fantastic array of gongs, bells and xylophones; chattering away and chain-smoking smoking kreteks like it was just another day on the job. They were followed by the shadow puppeteer, a fat guy with a pin mustache who smirked past the gongs like some portly kingpin of the marionette mafia.
The place went dark. A large, white screen was lit from behind by a single oil lamp.
The gamelan started with flute spiraling upward. Then, a rising squall of chimes blew into a crescendo of jangling fury and drum – slapped rythyms, before falling again into opaque silence.
A hermit intoned mantric praise to a great, translucent river that fell from the luminous sky onto a shadowed plane of droning sound. This marked the hallowed place, ancient locus where the pure image of Sita was wrought by artifice in the old kalpa, and now brightly projected upon the smokey nightclub screen for the amusement of arak-swilling hipsters bent on pleasure in all it’s many twisted and pharmaceutically enhanced forms.
Gandarvas sang where two rivers merged their sibilant flow–opposed currents of light and shadow twined in harmonious confluence of gong and bell; genius loci of the sacred earth where the gamelan’s strict measure streams into eternity.
Then, a malignant cloud of darkness loomed and long-taloned Rangda pounded the mountaintop in a gleeful, seismic dance. Staccato footfalls crossed man’s path with evil, and summoned the grim spectacle of imperialist might. Rama’s sandals held virtual court at the feet of his forsaken throne while the pious were led away shackled, in weeping counterpoint to the slow melodic line.
That hypnotic tempo still rings over the rubber plantations of the archipelago; in a dissonant mode that yet fans the undying Indonesian spirit; as if Rama’s return to his kingly estate mirrored their own tortured story; and Hanuman’s revolutionary, healing energy–born of the very earth of mankind–must ever suffer cyclical defeat and triumph; an ebb and flow whose influences lie beyond the sublunary sphere.
It’s a sacred rite where eternal Vedic wisdom is sold on naked Jakarta streets; a yarn as old as history–as fresh and fleeting as the play of shadow on a backlit screen.
All went dark and the screen was emblazoned by the bold legend: Samsung.
The small, greasy guy in the white suit grabbed his cane and made his way to our table with mincing stride.
“Saturnius McWhirr I presume?”