Friday, January 31, 2014

Kecak, Kecak

Bali was never on my bucket list of places to visit. I’d always dismissed it as too touristy and commercial. It only made matters worse that it seems to be all the rage with non-imaginative honeymooners. However, with flight fares and visa norms being conducive, it seemed like an ideal getaway for a few days. Besides, with some good research, I knew I could ferret out some quieter, non-touristy areas to explore.

Of course, there are certain traditions that a traveler must experience. I’d shied away from the long list of temple tours – as a non-practising Hindu, I didn't fancy my trip being turned into a pilgrimage. Nonetheless, since some of the temples – for instance, Tanah Lot or Uluwatu – are located in absolutely picturesque locations, I decided to grasp the nettle and pay a visit. It was well worth my while.

Views from Tanah Lot & Uluwatu (Click to Enlarge)
For one, I noticed that despite a lot of the Balinese people being more ummm, well…vociferous about their religion and castes than in urban India, their temples are wonderfully more open, welcoming, tolerant and less greedy than a lot of ours. While Tanah Lot didn’t impose any restrictions at all – I even saw tourists sauntering around in the main temple area with their shoes on – Uluwatu provided bright purple sarongs, free of charge, for both men and women whose clothes did not cover their knees.

The peace and genuine piety was not lost on me as I flashed back to a horrific visit to the Jagannath Temple in Puri (Orissa, India). Here, the vile priests whacked us with fat wooden sticks and demanded money for their “blessings”, picked out anyone light-complexioned/in jeans/sharp-featured, asking them to prove they were Hindu before allowing them in. Dude, please. If I were giving out money to everyone who whacked me, my mother would have made the Forbes Rich List before I reached age 6.

My main interest in Uluwatu, nonetheless, was the famed Kecak fire dance - performed in an amphitheatre on a cliff at sunset. The view couldn't get any better – the sun splattering the sky in hues of yellow, orange and then pink and purple before sinking into the wide expanse of ocean. The organisers packed us in tighter than sardines – the amphitheater was crammed beyond capacity and at least an hour and a half before the show was to begin.

The audience squashed together (Click to enlarge)
I knew from my research that the Kecak dance involved a few dancers performing scenes from the Hindu mythological tale “Ramayana” to the tune of 70 men, dressed in checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting “kecak”. They weren’t kidding about the “kecak” chanting. It continued for a good 15 minutes initially – I got worried that was all there was to it: Sitting there listening to men chant “kecak” while absorbing the sweat liberally rolling off your neighbour in the sweltering amphitheatre.

However, the dancers soon showed up. The story was easy to follow for anyone vaguely familiar with the Ramayana – take it from someone who, on occasion, has struggled to distinguish her Hanumans from her Ganeshas. Having the pamphlet with the various scenes outlined for reference was handy too. Hanuman (or “Hanoman” as he is known in Bali) clowned around with the audience for a bit – further reiterating how much easier the Balinese seem to be about religion than the Indian Hindu fundamentalists. The performance was engrossing, the kecak-ing never relenting for the entire duration.

The performance built up to a crescendo with Hanuman, his tail on fire, running amok and setting Lanka on fire. There was fire and sparks flying around dramatically in the middle of the arena at the end as the kecak-ing singers reached a frenzied crescendo and then called it a night.

The remaining embers were doused with water while the crowd posed with various dancers for pictures before quietly filing out into the balmy night; everyone’s ears still reverberating with that annoyingly addictive yet rhythmic gibber: kecak, kecak, kecak…..

Scenes from the Kecak Dance (Click to enlarge)
[Click here for a video of the Kecak dance at Uluwatu. Let me assure you it sounds far better in person.]


  1. Based on Kecak here is L Subramaniam's


  3. @Praveen: Thanks for sharing LS's fusion version. Wasn't aware of that. I've added a link to a video of the dance at Uluwatu specifically.

  4. thanks to your post, I finally was reminded of my long standin wish list of reading A.K.Ramanujans essay 'Three Hundred Ramayanas'. Brilliant if you are interested...

  5. @mizarukikazaruiwazaru: Thanks! I'm going to check it out.


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