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Art on the streets…

Yogyakarta is known as one of the artistic hubs of the Indonesian achaepelego. Coming from a very artsy background (mostly in theatre and writing) I fell in love with the city straight away. But late on friday night, as I was making my way through the busy nightlife to my bed I stumbled across a piece of art that has changed the very fabric of my being.

As I was weaving through people I came across a clearing in the crowds right on the edge of a busy road. There was a group of women and young girls playing drums and humming in low melodic voices. It was creepy. I stopped to watch.

Fire eater

A man was standing in the middle of the clearing with fire sticks and he proceeded to eat fire, one after another, swallowing the bright red flames and coughing out smoke. I was suitably impressed and as I was about to turn away three little boys came into the circle. These little boys looked as if they were in a trance, and the behaviour that followed was to this day the most incredible, disturbing and affecting pieces of street theatre that I have ever seen.

The little boys ate fire, breathed fire and danced in circles around eachother. One little boy was tied up in fabric and rope so he could only jump from corner to corner to the music. His little body completely imobilised, his eyes dull and damp with the night air. I was concerned for him. I was intriged by him. And so I stayed.

The men whipped the boys with enormous cracking whips and the boys filled their mouths with gasoline and breathed giant flames across the night sky. I shuddered as the coughed and spluttered the toxic fuel onto the floor. I watched as the little boy removed himself from his tight wrapping like a magician. I watched as a man contorted his body into a small ring and was rolled around the circle. I watched as a much smaller boy sat with the women, watching his father and brothers at work. I watched as this little boy wandered onto the stage and into the crowd, the father going to rescue him, picking him up gently and kissing his soft baby face before placing him back with his mother.

I watched as the man brought the boy who had been tied up right up to my face. This little boys eyes danced in the firelight but there was no one inside. The father brought out a bowl full of glass and offered it to me, asking me to put the glass in the boys mouth. I couldn’t do it. But others did. I watched as the boy chewed and swallowed broken lighbulbs as the father held him by the hair. He was rough with him, but gentle as well, it was a show after all. He then poured water into the boys mouth to help him swallow.

such a little boy

Two boys in large masks danced and did acrobatics in time to the trance music that was coming from the voices of the women. I was in trance too. I had tears in my eyes watching these children. I had fire in my heart. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see more I didn’t want to watch.

At the end of the show after the boys were doused in gas and exhausted… they lay on the ground and fell into a deep sleep. The men picked the boys up and lay them on blankets. Even after the money had been collected and the crowds had dispersed I sat in the shadows and watched these children. I watched them sleep soundly. One woke, his eyes alive again, looked around and nodded at his father who nodded back. He then curled into a ball and fell into a deep sleep.

There was something about these children, this traditional gypsy art that got inside me and changed me. We talked to a man in the crowd who said this sort of show is very common and the group are nomads, they dont live anywhere, they perform, they make money, they eat, they sleep on the street and then they move on. They perform every night.

There is more to be found out about this group, and when I find it I will share it. I am a part of them now, after seeing them, I will always remember the look on the face of that child as his mouth was full of glass and his shirt was wet with gasoline, his fingers burnt by flames.

Art on the streets, dark, inspiring and powerful and completely unexpected… better than any volcano, better than any temple or festival… was seeing the raw art of theatre, as painful and unfair and unkind it might be, play out before me.

Barefoot and in awe.

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