The Banci in Ababi and Nengah’s Disgust

Sarong Series Number 4: More thoughts on gender and sarongs

There was to be a Joged dance performance in Ababi, the village where I lived from 1998 until 2000 to do research for a PhD in Cultural Anthropology (not Archeology; I studied contemporary ideas about the body and cosmology. I didn’t dig things up).[1] The Joged troupe arrived in a truck and the members started to climb down. We were standing in front of our gate (me, Julian – who was 3ish at the time – and Luh, the Balinese woman who lived with me during my fieldwork to help with household work and childcare) watching the troupe as other people from the village started to assemble and stand on the edges of the road to watch. Nengah, who was deaf, arrived and stood near me. People had called her Kolok when I first moved to the village. Kolok means something along the lines of deaf mute. I didn’t want to use the word Kolok to refer to my neighbor. So I asked people I knew from the village about her birth order.[2] First born is Wayan, Gede, or Putu.  Second born is Kadek, Made or Nengah, which means middle. Third born is Komang or Nyoman. Forth is Ketut. If there is a fifth child you start over at Wayan. Kolok was the second born. I started to call her Nengah. Other people I knew also started calling her Nengah after that.

A local sign language had developed in the village to communicate with Nengah. I am not sure who developed the signs in use. I never asked how that came about, though now I wish I had. The structure of the signs loosely followed the logic of Balinese or Indonesian in terms of having sweeping gestures as time-markers to indicate when things occur(ed). In spoken Balinese and Indonesian, there is no verb tense. Instead there are words for a long time ago, yesterday, a short time ago, earlier today, just now, right now, later, tomorrow, sometime in the future. With Nengah, smaller or larger gestures in front of the self or behind the self indicated this notion of time. A hand cupped under the breast meant mother. A finger pointing down at the crotch meant man. I didn’t learn all of the signs people used but I never felt like I had trouble communicating with Nengah.

On the day the Joged came to the village and the troupe climbed down from the truck – dancers, musicians, the people doing the dancers’ hair, makeup, and costumes – Nengah identified a man in the group and frowned. She pointed to him then held her hand up, fingers spread, and shook it, a bit like jazz-hands. This gesture means ‘no’ and you use it to signal rejection from a distance or while you are walking away. She did this again, adding a dismissive gesture and vocalizing, making sounds without opening her mouth. Those sounds make me wonder, now, if the impulse to speak is inextricably part of us to the point that the will to communicate, even when it’s with signs, elicits the production of sounds. She indicated her sarong, pointed to his sarong, expressed disgust, waved her hand. I realized he had wrapped his sarong like a woman. Suddenly, what she was expressing was so clear to me. Her gestures were disciplinary, scolding, judgmental, public, and they surprised me. In my research, I talked to my teachers (I was studying palm leaf manuscripts and esoteric knowledge about the body and cosmology) often about gender, albeit in the contexts of ritual symbolism, music, and dance choreography. In these conversations, my teachers described a flexibility in the performance of gender – indeed it was acknowledged that there is a performative aspect to gender; there must be if a woman can dance in a male style or a man in a female style – without a socially judgmental attitude, or so it seemed to me.

There was no trans category. It was 1999. It was Bali. The notion of homosexuality (homoseks) was culturally available but was a Western import and didn’t have the same meaning in Bali as in the United States. The relevant native concept was banci (bahn-chee). Banci is an adjective that describes a combination of male and female, that is, androgyny. Banci can also be a noun, describing a person or thing having the characteristics of the adjectival banci. I contend that the man who was wearing his sarong wrapped like a woman – who had inspired Nengah’s adamant disapproval – was not a man wearing his sarong wrapped like a woman. He was banci, a legible subject position codified in particular ways – cross-dressing or combining aspects of male and female dress, cross-dancing or dancing in a style that is neither feminine nor masculine but something in between, doing the work of the opposite sex, or combinations of gendered forms of work that are usually segregated by sex. To be considered banci, there has to be a combination of clearly oppositely gendered elements – male body with female dress and work for example; female body with male dress and dance is another example. Banci is neither male nor female; banci is both male and female at once.

Banci people, historically, could develop alternative forms of intimacy; a makasihan relationship – which means “in love” – describes same-sex, marriage-like relationships of ‘life friends’ who refuse to marry, remain ‘sleeping partners,’ and share a living space. I most often heard stories of makasihan relationships in accounts of Gandrung, a very old dance genre in which beautiful young boys were imbued with love magic, adorned as women, and danced with men in a manner similar to Joged. a later form in which the female position was danced by a woman. This category of makasihan relationship has not survived to the present day. To put this another way, there are still men and women who never marry and have a same-sex ‘sleeping partner’ into adulthood and old age. People vaguely assume this style of relationship could be romantic and sexual but the descriptor makasihan is not used and it’s not necessarily the case that the actors consider themselves homoseks.

***

I wrote the previous paragraphs and footnotes in the early Spring of 2022. I took the accompanying photographs of Bruce dressed up in one of my sarongs -wrapped the way a woman wraps a sarong – sometime before April 12, the date on which he elected to have a follow-up surgery that resulted in his death from Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome three months later.

I intended these photographs to be illustrations of what banci combinations of gendered elements – male body, female clothing for example – can look like. My previous posts on wrapping a sarong like a woman and like a man are the frame of reference. On the other hand, I dressed myself like a man, which is actually an example of banci.

I have alot to say about gender and sarongs. I have more stories. But the fact that I made these photos of Bruce for this post and saved it as a draft here with notes to myself to add material but then didn’t finish it because Bruce’s hospitalizations started and my life began to revolve around his health crisis and our shared fear of catastrophic bleeding, and then he died, seems like it demands a comment. I think his picture here, lively and funny and alive and convincing in his channeling of a banci vibe, has stopped me these months since July 12 when he left this earthy realm and became memory and images stored on my hard disk. I have felt paralyzed every time and recoiled, closed the laptop.

I have to start making and writing again. I feel like I have been floating in a half-life with diminished, sometimes totally absent, purpose for months. And I have to finish this post, even though it won’t take the ideas I have been playing with as far as I intended. Maybe that’s fine. My posts get too long. So I’m publishing this in its unfinished state with notes to myself at the end as teasers for future posts I will commit to writing. They are good stories.

In the meantime you may wonder – so what about the banci person with the Joged troupe who had the body and short hair of a man and also wrapped his sarong like a woman?  I don’t know anything more about that particular person, though I do know quite alot more about banci and the difference it makes how one wraps a sarong.

***

Gandrung dance and Pak Later’s anger – “what is love?” Longing for the perfection of banci.

The hand movement to demonstrate the imaginary perfect companionate intimacy of husbands and wives.

Nengah’s other public anger about sex and her divorced aunt .

NOTE: I have used male and female pronouns here because we use gendered pronouns in English and these pronouns tell us something about the way different categories of person get combined or distinguished through clothing, work, and love in a sex-segregated Balinese context. I have not used plural they and their because these are not relevant linguistic terms or categories for Balinese.  The Indonesian language does not have the same linguistic conundrum we have in English; the Indonesian pronoun dia is ungendered, meaning both he and she, as well as it. Further, the third person and passive voice are used in conversation both to refer to the self and to other people. Names are used instead of ‘you’ or ‘I.’ My Balinese collaborator actually refers to himself as I Raga, which simply means ‘the body’ or ‘the person.’ In many ways this linguistic landscape is much better suited to ambiguous or androgynous gender and combinatory subject positions. I often think we should just import the pronoun dia.


[1] Joged Bumbung (you can find videos on YouTube) is a courtship dance in which young women, accompanied by a bamboo gamelan orchestra that is specific to the genre, dance with men from the audience, comprised at least of the village where the Joged is happening and often surrounding villages. My description is based on the performances I have seen in the past, the last one of which was about two decades ago. Even from the first Jogeds I saw in 1993 to the most recent I have seen in 2003, Joged dance changed and has no doubt changed more since, under the influence of global dance trends visible on social media. The following paragraph describes a more classic Joged rather than more recent sexualized iterations I witnessed in the early aughts that were regarded as scandalous by local politicians who deemed Joged dancers’ hip gyrations as porno. This designation was particularly potent at the time as there were national debates about legislation to outlaw ‘pornographic action.’ In these debates, pornogaphy was not limited to media produced with the intention to arouse; pornography was instead more broadly defined as any action that caused a feeling of desire in a viewer. This broadened definition is particularly concerning for the way it positions aroused citizens as agents of the state, discerning who is engaging in behaviors that should be counted as pornoaksi (pornographic action) and subject to disciplinary action carried out by the state.

In the classic dance, the Joged dancer begins behind a curtain (the dance space was just open ground, sometimes in the yard outside of a temple, in which a curtain was rigged up temporarily and a mat laid down for musicians), creating a sense of expectation by grasping the two curtains at their opening and making the curtain shake and dance before she dramatically parts the curtain and enters the space to perform an opening solo dance, using a fan, and accompanied by a musical overture.  When this introductory dance finished, the music and choreography changed. The Joged began a coquettish, stylized walk around the space to indicate she was ready to select a partner. Holding her fan in her right hand, her hand just above shoulder level, she rotated her hand, in this way fluttering her fan. She would flutter the fan like this for the length of time she circled the dance space looking for the man she wanted to dance with her.

Historically, she would select from the group of men who showed they wished to dance by sitting on the ground on the periphery of the dance space (By the time I did my PhD fieldwork, this spatial organization had changed and little kids and their mothers would ring the dance space for a better view while the men stood behind. When the Joged picked a man from this group by pointing her fan, he would have to make his way through layers of seated women and children.). Once the Joged decided who she wanted to dance with, she touched him on the thigh with her fan, at which point he would get up, join her in the dance space and pay for the dance. Historically, men would pour coins into a copper pot so that the audience could hear from the clatter how much the partner was capable of paying; the more he chose to pay for the dance, the higher his status. The man would begin to dance with the Joged and they would improvise, using a range of loose choreographic conventions that indicated seduction (the Joged shaking her hips while looking over her shoulder at her partner then jumping away playfully when he approached, hip-shaking, jumping away, and on like that), conflict (mock-hitting each other with leafy branches supplied in the dance space for the purpose), reconciliation (one partner turning away from the other, crouching, pretending to wipe away tears, and having to be comforted and coaxed back into the dance), elopement (pretending to be on a horse together). Mock sex was an addition to this conventional repertoire in the early aughts with the Joged pulling her partner in close, holding his hips against hers with one arm around his waist, and thrusting her hips against him, often ending this embrace by thrusting against him once (punctuated by the music) hard enough to knock him off balance, a move that read as both rejecting and humiliating. I saw this lead to real rage on the part of the partner more than once and he went after the Joged with true violent intent, a few times grabbing the branches left on the dance floor as a prop. The Joged, each time I saw this happen, retreated behind the orchestra where she was shielded from the furious partner, who was restrained by other men and expelled from the dance space.

When the dance performance was over, the music and choreography changed once again and the Joged performed a meandering slow-down dance, waving goodbye with her fan and exiting by the curtain through which she had initially entered the space.

[2] In Balinese cultural naming-practice, people have two names, a birth-order name and a personal name. Names get more complicated upon marriage, the birth of children, assumption of a ritual specialist role, all transformations that involve a re-naming. People are addressed by this birth order name up to marriage, sometimes by a personal name (and sometimes a nickname, especially for men). Which name is used seems to depend upon context. Because birth order names are non-specific with reference to the individual, personal names are used when use of the birth order name could be confusing. Actually, I’m sure it’s much more complex than this linguistically and culturally speaking. But it’s not something I ever paid much attention to. I just used names in the way the people around me used names – birth order names in some contexts, birth order plus personal names in other contexts.

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist, Writer

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