Monday, December 14, 2009

Luminescence Personified

Didik with Ed before the performance in Denpasar
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Two hours before his show the much beloved Indonesian cross-gender performer Didik Nini Thowok greets me at the side entrance of the STSI Arts University in Denpasar, Bali. I instantly feel the kinship of a fellow artist. His warm expressive smile, his welcoming arms, and the glint of mischief in his eyes says it all. Although we have never met and our daily lives are separated by oceans, we are clearly cut from the same cloth. As we embrace and exchange introductions there is an immediate bond of friendship that feels long held.

Didik says, come with me to my dressing room - we can talk there while I get ready. He leads me into the theatre building and rounds a corner just steps off the main lobby. With a wave of the hand and a pivot of the torso worthy of royalty, Didik announces theatrically, we are here - glamorous isn’t it? With a puzzled look on my face, I look around. All I can see are a few rag tag aluminum folding chairs positioned against the wall of a long well worn hallway. On the seat of one chair I spot a small colorful batik cloth with the basics of stage makeup in an orderly row - foundation, mascara, eyeliner, rouge, lipstick, and the ever important false eyelashes. There is a small tube of spirit gum (theatrical glue) resting near by. Didik sits down in front of his improvised makeup table. He picks up the smallest hand mirror I’ve ever seen and gestures for me to take a seat next him. Can you imagine, he says confidentially, they build an arts university and forget to make dressings rooms. At least they remembered to put in a stage. We both laugh.

This is certainly not the treatment I expected for one of Indonesia’s most revered artists. His cross-gender work as a dancer, actor, and comedian packs theatres and he is a regular presence on television throughout Indonesia. Not to mention his tours throughout the world. Didik is completely unfazed by these sparse surroundings and settles into his routine of pre-show preparations. Offstage, he is a modest, unassuming man who is clearly devoid of egotistical eccentricities. On stage Didik is larger than life. Mesmerizing. Luminescent.

As if we’ve known each other forever, Didik and I begin to talk freely about art, family, lovers and gay life in general. Our conversation is interrupted frequently. A camera crew from the local news shows up for an interview; fans seeking photographs & autographs stream through; the director stops by for notes; the other dancers check in with hellos as they proceed further down the hall to get ready in a dimly lit basement beneath the stage. Through all of this and with less than 90 minutes until curtain, Didik is the epitome of calm, grace and professionalism. He has a smile for everyone who enters his sphere and seems not in the least worried about finishing his make-up in time for the performance.

During a lull in visitors to the “dressing room”, I ask about his 5 year old adopted son. Didik explains that in Indonesia as a single man he is unable to actually adopt a child. On paper, his sister is the boy’s legal guardian. While Didik is indeed the primary parent, his entire family shares in the raising of the child. This is a perfect arrangement as Didik is frequently on the road performing.

Having been to this part of the world many times before, I think I know the answer to my next question but I ask it anyway. How is it to be gay here Didik? I am especially interested in his point of view since many of his popular comic personas are sometimes quite outlandish. We do not really speak about it. My family accepts me as I am bringing money with my work. My fans love me because I make them laugh and forget for a little while. But the gay aspect is silent. He smiles gently and adds, I think most understand it is who I am but we do not discuss this. There are still many people who see gay as a “minus” in a man or woman but you and I know that it is really a “plus” - a special gift.

The conversation turns to tonight’s performance. I want to tell you about the story you are about to see, his tone shifts from the personal to the professional. The artist as educator explains that this is a traditional dance collaboration between the Indian and Indonesian governments. In an effort to promote “friendship through culture” Didik has been asked to play the dramatic part of a cross-gender warrior named Shikandini. Didik notices the questioning look on my face and continues. Yes, it is true a cross-gender warrior princess with the breasts of a woman and the penis of a man. This story is a little known epic contained within the Mahabharata. Its telling is often excluded due to the predisposition of its main character. He continues with even greater resolve: Ultimately the tale tells of the complexity of human nature while highlighting that destiny incorporates both the male and female in all of us. This should be embraced and not shunned. So you see, the duality of heterosexuality and homosexuality has always existed in God’s world but is usually ignored, repressed or ridiculed in man made society.

Suddenly Didik is on his feet. I was so spellbound by his synopsis of Shikandini that I failed to notice that he had completely packed up his tiny makeup case. Now it is time to put on my costume. Come with me and we will have a picture together when I am dressed. It is better to do this photo before the show. Afterward, my face will have melted, he says followed by a self-effacing gesture.

We join the other cast members beneath the stage. Strikingly beautiful men and women are putting the finishing touches on their make-up. They wriggle into their colorful costumes and adjust resplendent head dresses. I watch a backstage ritual and a magical transformation I’ve seen many times before. From street clothes to character vesture - a performance is about to begin. I turn to my left and spot Didik who is now the magnificent Indian warrior princess Shikandini. He motions for me to come over for our picture to together. I’ll see you after the show he says. Didik tightens his embrace and holds me close before heading to the stage.

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