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Black Magic goes Public in Bali

by Bodrek Arsana
In many homes in Bali, the mere mention of the word ‘léak’—meaning shape-shifting sorcerers or black magic practitioners—is taboo. But something is changing; léak are becoming stars of stage and screen. Bodrek Arsana tracks this new development.
Bali, like it says in the guidebooks, is an island filled with magic and mystery. It’s not difficult to see how this reputation has flourished. The island is fertile ground for supernatural phenomena; both the creative and destructive aspects of deity—including God (Sanghyang Widhi Wasa), gods (bhatara dewata), spirits (makhluk halus) and the forces of the underworld (bhuta kala)—are in constant interaction with the human world and are respected, appeased and worshipped through ritual and artistic performance.

One of the basic tenets of Balinese religion is Rwa Bhineda (rwa means ‘two’ and bhineda means ‘different’), which maintains that pairings of complementary opposites, neither of which can exist independently, are necessary to achieve balance and harmony in the world. The usual examples given are black/white; day/night and good/evil: none has real meaning without the presence of its partner. The performance of Calonarang—a nocturnal, exorcistic dance-drama, traditionally performed to counter plagues and epidemics—epitomises the symbolism of Rwa Bhineda. The stars of Calonarang include Rangda, a masked manifestation of the widow, Dirah, often said to be the leader of léak; Celuluk, one of Rangda’s key followers; and the Matah Gede, men who volunteer to take on the role of corpses (their souls are temporarily held in limbo) at the end of the performance and test their resolve by spending the night in the local cemetery to prove that they can survive until morning. The performance of Calonarang also serves to summon léak—tremendously powerful, shape-shifting sorcerers—to come out into the night and challenge the strength of these vulnerable humans.

Ilmu putih
Clearly, to be involved with these performances calls for a special kind of person, someone who has magical powers or potency (sakti or kesaktian). They need special kinds of esoteric knowledge (ilmu) to participate safely. Although they are not necessarily léak themselves, they must have knowledge of sorcery (peng-léak-an). In keeping with the principle of Rwa Bhineda, successful use of peng-léak-an requires the mastery of both ‘black magic’ (ilmu hitam, also known as ilmu pengiwa or ‘left-sided’ knowledge) and ‘white magic’ (ilmu putih, also known as ilmu panengan or ‘right-sided’ knowledge). It is difficult to separate these two practices, as they are studied simultaneously. People who have mastered both are considered to be sakti; they have the power both to hurt and to heal.

But, for many Balinese people, just hearing the word ‘léak’ makes their hair stand on end with fear. When I was a child, my parents and older siblings used to scare me with léak stories if I was behaving badly. If I was crying too much, for example, they’d say: “If you keep howling like that, the léak will come looking for you.” As soon as they uttered the word ‘léak’ I’d automatically shut up and, to this day, it remains unutterable in some households. It is often assumed that léak are the cause of babies’ night-time crying: the tears mean the child is being bothered by visits from witches. Sickness and death are also often blamed on sorcerers: people say that the victim has been devoured by léak (“orang itu mati karena amah léak”). When I was small, my friends and I often ran, screaming, away from old women with long hair and dirty faces; it was said that old women like these were capable of turning into léak (nge-léak) and liked to eat little children.

The general idea was that léak were ugly and ferocious-looking, but it wasn’t always easy to recognise a léak in the street. One aspect of peng-léak-an is the ability to shape-shift: léak can transform themselves into dogs, monkeys, cremation towers or any other kind of object that serves their purpose. Often, they manifest as strange, flying balls of light. They can travel huge distances and suddenly appear or disappear at will. Naturally, they’ve acquired a malign reputation.
And it wasn’t just children who were frightened of léak; adults were also terrified and would avoid the places favoured by léak. Cemeteries, usually situated at the edge of the village, are eerie places overhung with trees; they are said to be strategic nocturnal meeting grounds for practitioners of peng-léak-an. Kajeng Kliwon Enyitan (a potent conjunction of dates in the Balinese calendar when special offerings must be made to appease the bhuta kala in the underworld) is a time when léak become particularly active—this is when Dewi Durga (the ferocious form of Uma, consort of Siwa) is believed to be most active on earth.

In my village, people said to be léak are stigmatised. They can get on with daily life, but are marginalised and treated with suspicion. Although léak can be either male or female, it is mainly women, especially widows, who are stigmatised in this way. When I was small, I had a friend called Ni Ketut Sari. In my circle of friends, Sari was often an object of ridicule. This was not just general bullying; they mocked her because she was the child of a léak (pianak léak) and peng-léak-an is hereditary. According to local gossip, not only her mother, Ni Wayan Ranti (46), but also her seventy-six-year-old grandmother, Ni Ketut Sempi, and two aunts, Ni Made Parti and Ni Nyoman Sarti, used sorcery.

Frightening powers
Ni Ketut Sempi, a widow, had long borne this stigma. According to the other villagers of her generation, she had been highly respected as a young woman, because she was the daughter of the village head. When she grew up, she was involved in the Indonesian National Women’s Movement (Gerwani—Gerakan Wanita Nasional Indonesia), a wing of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which was later destroyed and banned by Suharto’s New Order regime. The bloody events of 1965 changed the lives of people like Grandmother Sempi forever. Her husband, I Made Purna, was killed for being a PKI sympathiser. According to an elderly neighbour of mine, he was the leader of the party in Tampaksiring. Eventually, the stigma of being involved with Gerwani was overshadowed by the stigma of being suspected of using peng-léak-an. As this knowledge is said to be passed down through the generations, the whole of her family was affected. The gossip swirled around the village. “I once saw Sari’s family changing into pigs at the crossroad in front their house. It was Kajeng Kliwon and I was walking home from the rice-fields. Although the evening light was dim, I could still recognise their faces,” said one neighbour, I Ketut Karma, “You just have to look at their faces, horrible, just like léak faces. They are known to have frightening powers. People say they can transform themselves into anything they want.”

These days, though, the old stigma attached to léak appears to be changing. Take this case from my village: Jero Tampi is known both as someone with magical powers (orang sakti) and a teacher of sorcery (guru léak), who is willing to sell his knowledge for a price. “It’s easy,” says a friend of mine, “You pay the money and, when it’s Kajeng Kliwon, you go down to the cemetery and he teaches you how to become a léak.”

Jero Tampi’s style is eccentric; he has long, tangled hair and an interesting turn of speech. He talks eloquently about politics. During a conversation in a coffee-stall (warung) about three years ago, I remember him talking about changes in social attitudes: “In the old days,” he said, “Léak were ostracised and sometimes even killed because of what they knew. We are living in the modern age now, everything is progressive and sophisticated. So, léak have to become sophisticated too. Before, it was enough to change into a dog or monkey, but now one has to be able to turn into a plane or helicopter. To do this kind of sorcery, one used to have to hide in dark, isolated places. Nowadays, it’s changed; anyone can watch people shape-shifting (ngelekas-ngereh) or challenging others to supernatural battles (ngundang)—even in the newspaper or on television. So, there’s really no reason to be afraid of admitting one can nge-léak.”
Two months ago I heard that Jero Tampi had died, during a supernatural battle with an enemy.

But what he said was true: léak are starting to find a new position in the public eye. Balinese tabloids, like Bali Aga, deal exclusively with supernatural matters like these. The private television station, Bali TV, also broadcasts shows about magic, sorcery and spooky happenings. One of Bali TV’s biggest paranormal stars is Gusti Ngurah Harta, a famous black magic practitioner (tokoh léak) and the initiator of a popular new system for maximising ‘inner strength’ (Penguruan Tenaga Dalam Sandhi Murti). He also produces and stars in a popular soap opera called Memedi, where he plays the hero, who has the power to control and manage the forces of evil. Another supernatural favourite on Bali TV is Misteri, a series that covers scary places and strange events around the island. The opening credits—“Don’t watch me…” (Jangan tonton saya…), followed by a blood-curdling, Rangda-like laugh—have become a comic catchphrase in many Balinese homes.
Displays like these are also on the rise as live entertainment. On November 10th 2003, the government of Denpasar staged a festival of Calonarang, Celuluk and Matah Gede in the outer courtyard of a major temple near the city’s central market, Pasar Badung. According to the mayor, Anak Agung Puspayoga, the festival was designed to promote Denpasar’s image as a ‘city of culture’ (kota budaya). The jury at the event (which included competitive performances) included lecturers from the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI), as well as prominent black magic practitioners. The winners received trophies and small cash prizes.

The festival provoked a heated debate in the Bali Post newspaper, particularly in the Readers’ Letters pages. People wrote in to protest about everything from the introduction of such performances on the public stage to the alleged unfairness of the judging. One priest (pemangku) asked: “Why are sacred dances (tarian sakral) like these being performed in public spaces? The people who dance these have special knowledge and power (ilmu kesaktian); there are prohibitions about displaying this in front of many people—that’s what I call arrogance. Furthermore, how could the jury possibly evaluate the dancers’ kesaktian? How can they measure it?” [November 11th 2003]. On the same page, another reader, Made Rata, questioned the level of risk faced by the dancers in a festival like this: “When people dance Calonarang, Celuluk or Matah Gede, they usually invite other people with léak knowledge to compete with them [supernaturally]. What happens if someone loses and dies? Who’s going to take responsibility?”

Anom Ranuara, a performer who competed in the festival, and Made Darsa, from the festival management, disagreed with these opinions when I interviewed them after the event. According to Ranuara, the festival should just be viewed as an opportunity for dancers to display their skills. “If they enter into supernatural challenges, it’s their own responsibility,” he said.
Darsa explained that the event was monitored: “The rules were clear: dancers were not allowed to go into trance while dancing or they would be disqualified,” he explained. “I am sure that these dancers, who have special knowledge and powers, had already prepared themselves for the possibility that they might be attacked in this way.”

The festival was a huge success; thousands of people came to watch; but it was not the first event of its kind. Twelve days earlier, on October 28th, the Ardha Chandra stage at the Bali Arts Centre in Denpasar hosted another controversial show, steered by Mangku Candra, the founder of Gases, an arts group in Sesetan, Denpasar. This event involved two hundred dancers and cost Rp 60 million to stage; it pulled a huge audience of around five thousand people. “We performed the show on two consecutive nights and the tickets, costing Rp 10.000 or Rp 25.000 for VIP seats, sold out,” explained Candra, shortly after the event.

Three famous black magic practitioners from Bali—Mangku Teja from Karangasem, Mangku Puspa of Singpadu and Mangku Jagri of Abiansemal— as well as Haji Musleh, a famous mystic from Banten, were invited to attend and demonstrate their abilities. The stage was draped in white cloth and a massive sound system was used to enhance the spooky atmosphere: “We wanted the audience, who had come from all over Bali, to be satisfied with the performance. The white screen was used to catch the fire balls sent towards the stage by people while they were nge-léak,” said Candra. The show, though it caused uproar in the press, was a popular success.
I recently visited Mangku Candra’s house in Sesetan to ask him more about the 2003 performance. Inside the gates, marked by several large, colourful statues, Candra sat in front of his family temple, overseeing the work of dozens of people making ornately decorated cremation towers to order. He told me that he and his workers had just completed a series of paintings of léak: “These are not just any old paintings; I have integrated special protective talismans into them. They function both as works of art and as protection for their owners against people who might wish them harm.”

When I asked about the performance at the Arts Centre, which caused such a stir, Candra laughed. “We’re already preparing another performance that will be even more sensational,” he said, “You’ll have to wait and see—I’ll send you an invitation!”
He went on to explain that the performance was not intended only to be entertaining and scary like a horror movie, but also had a more philosophical basis: “The basic thinking behind the October 28th performance was to acknowledge the current human condition, now that we are living in the age of Kaliyuga [the most turbulent period in the Hindu cycle of time]. In this age, everything is clouded over and confused: what is good is denied and what is bad is accepted. Just look at the pervasive corruption in our country; it is chaos. In the age of Kaliyuga, negative forces, the bhuta kala, rule the earth. The essence of Calonarang is to neutralise evil and negativity.”
According to Candra, the Gases arts group aims to channel artistic creativity without reducing the sacred quality of the performance: “The principle is seni mulihang taksu…seni mulihang ayu, which means that art reveres taksu [special artistic charisma, received from deities], which in turn inspires goodness. Calonarang is certainly a sacred dance because it involves one of our revered deities, in the form of Durga, but it was originally performed in the public sphere [the outer courtyards, rather than the inner sanctum of temples] with the intention to promote good, not evil; so I think why not [perform it in public places]?”
Such supernatural displays are increasingly visible and accepted in the public sphere. Putu Setia, a prominent Balinese cultural commentator and leading figure in the Council of Indonesian Hinduism (PHDI: Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia), claims that this is a positive development for Balinese arts and culture. In an article in the Bali Post, Setia wrote that: “Celuluk has now become ‘metropolitan Celuluk’, good to be offered as a performance package for tourists” [November 15th 2003]. This is a major turn-around since the days when a person suspected of using penge-léak-an could have their house burned down and be run out of town. But is it the general consensus?

It seems that these days léak needn’t always hide in secluded cemeteries when they shape-shift—the public stage is ready for them. Candra claims that the status of léak is really changing: “What is clear is that it is not necessary to hurt people anymore; it’s better to create a léak show, invite practitioners who can entertain a large audience and make some money. Perhaps being able to nge-léak will become a profession, like being a doctor or a guide.”
It is also possible, though, that this particular cultural transformation tells us more about the role of the media than it does about the status of léak in society; it’s easy to say “I’m not scared” from a safe distance, watching TV or going out to see a stage-show. It might not be so easy if there’s a léak living next door…

First published in Latitudes Magazine

Also check:


Black Magic: A Balinese Ancient Ritual


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