conference of the birds

Sage Kimball, in Conference of the Birds

One day the birds of the world, those whose songs we’ve heard, those whose songs are already forgotten and those whose songs we don’t yet know, gathered together for a great Conference.


A Conference in Ubud

 Let me tell you a story. In the vicinity of Ubud is a village called Petulu. It is a beautiful village, with roughly 4,500 people and 15,000 birds! It is, in fact, a bird sanctuary.  Just before dawn, it becomes the roosting ground of thousands of herons and egrets. While most herons migrate yearly, this particular flock appeared first in 1966 and remains here all year round. Local legend has it that these herons are the souls of the Balinese people slaughtered during the communist purge in 1966.  Since there was no opportunity for traditional Balinese cremations, only a mass ceremony was held. Thus, to this very day, there are ceremonies specifically to honor the birds twice a year. It is not permitted to hinder these herons, as they are believed to be the embodiment of those tortured and heroic souls.

In the 1970s, well known theatre and film director, Peter Brook, along with Jean-Claude Carriëre, produced a play entitled “Conference of the Birds,” inspired by the mystical Sufi poem, written by Farid ad-Din Attar in 1177 AD. They toured their visionary masterpiece through rural Africa and it instinctively, like birds do, took flight and graced audiences in New York City and Paris.

 I find it interesting that Farid ad-Din Attar was a practicing apothecary. As a chemist, he prescribed and prepared both pharmaceutical and holistic remedies. Coincidently, Ubud’s name is also derived from a word for medicine “Ubad,” which is also a medicinal herb that grows at the riverbanks of the village. It is believed to have great healing powers.

Though it may seem inconsistent with all these facts and fables, three decades later, “Conference of the Birds” arrived, or reincarnated, into Ubud (the cultural and creative capital of Bali, voted best city in Asia 2010). In collaboration with the 7th annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, and displaying the tenacious talents of theatre fireFly, an Ubud based community theatre company, a new rendition of “Conference of the Birds” was able to soar.

Preparations and past productions.

Earlier this year, the “chick stage” production of “Conference of the Birds” was performed around schools and venues in Bali. Assisted with choreography by former celebrated European ballet dancer, Max Tichauer, the story was told through dance and drama, innocently portrayed by children, who were cast as the various birds. Those fortunate enough to catch the spectacle, at venues such as the Bali Zoo, praised the high caliber performance and professional delivery by these mere chicks/children!

Looking back at last year, during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, theatre fireFLY managed to delight and entertain audiences at the Arma Museum in Ubud with their adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare, to any English speaking person, needs absolutely no introduction whatsoever. However, distinct Balinese elements influenced the storytelling, as an element of surprise and cultural coalition, making this performance a phenomenal experience for the tourist, expatriate and local market.

This production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was so successful: it instantly earned theatre fireFLY a respectable reputation, and cemented them within the Ubud community. Another Shakespearian play would seem to be an obvious choice to follow. After all, there are so many to choose from! What about Macbeth, or Othello? How about projecting the tragic Hindu tale of Rama and Sita onto Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet,” by making alterations to the script, costumes or set?

Farah Michelle Kimball, a Bali based Sufi Scholar, offers the following insight:

The stories in “The Conference of Birds” have captivated generations of readers. How is it that some theater and literature endures through the centuries? Like Shakespeare, Attar deals with the nature of love, the human spirit, the nature of the world – the inner mysteries that do not change over time. These Mysteries of the world may be obscured in our modern age, but they never lose their relevancy!

It is not a predictable, commercially risk free, recipe that theatre fireFLY director Rehane Abrahams follows when deciding on a new project. It’s the unpredictable labyrinth of inspiration that is guiding her, as she keeps her heart and third eye wide open while searching for a new challenge. Dwelling in the knowledge that being true to her inner-self will set her passions free, she believes that her audience will follow her inspired pathway, and keep buying tickets to see her auspicious productions.

As a benefit, and displaying her trust, devotion and belief in bringing “Conference of the Birds” to life, Rehane performed a one women show at Gaya Fusion in Sayan, Ubud. Adapted from the 2000 BC Sumerian myth “Turning the Ear – The Descent of Inanna” was accompanied by eclectic live music, performed by Oded Carmi, and a video installation by new media artist No.E Sakana. With a fusion of African, Indonesian and Butoh dance,  and Rehane’s hair-razing acting, vocalization and trapeze artistry, the show was a mental ravishment. It was a bold example of her capabilities, and bloody bagus talent, when she is launched onto a stage.

A New Production

Rehane feels that the theatre the company makes is ceremonial. In her words:

Theatre must function as more than entertainment. Otherwise, what’s the point? fireFLY shows are rituals, they have their own internal logic and respond to the cultural forms around them which, in our context, is Balinese. “Inanna” and “Conference of the Birds” formed a yin-yang/above-below/rua-bhinneda (black and white) with “Inanna” being the tabuh rah (blood sacrifice) and “Conference of the Birds,” the high ceremony. This manifested naturally with the rehearsal space for “Inanna” being next to a cockfight ring. It would’ve been perfect to perform there, with the blood on the floor, but I chickened out!”

And so, a new production of “Conference of the Birds” emerged from the cloud of fairy dust left by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and partly funded by midwife “Descent of Inanna.” With the intention of projecting a bird’s eye view of the truth, through a symbolic and timeless tale of thirty birds on a mystical journey to find the Simorgh.

Adult actors, cast as the Hoopoe, Peacock, Nightingale, Sparrow, Hawk, Parrot and Partridge, lured audiences of all ages to the Ubud Maya Resort and Spa’s amphitheater for five live performances from 6-10 October 2010. This majestic setting was the perfect venue for what can only be described as a rare, soulful theatrical treat.

The starlit open sky acoustics echoed the live angelic sounds of classically trained Anello Capuano’s music, against the backdrop of a misty green river gorge. The actors performed goose-bump inducing choreography by Eliat Tovi, and sang sounds organically acquired by training with Julie Oliver, infused with the fruitful labor of six months of rehearsals and development of a unique hybrid intercultural acting technique, at the Purnati Centre of the Arts.


Finding the Inner God

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wandered into Darkness wide
Return and back into your Sun subside”

A grounding principal of Sufism is to be taught the ability to learn. As the thirty birds travel through seven valleys (symbolizing Yearning, Love, Gnosis, Detachment, Divine Unity, Bewilderment and Selflessness or Subsistence in God) in search of the Simorgh, it is all in preparation to learn.

Ironically, “Simorgh” means “Thirty Birds” in Persian, and at the end of their journey they find; thirty birds, YES, they find themselves! The lesson being that; GOD IS WITHIN US. What could possibly properly prepare any bird/person to realize that God dwells within you and through you?

As we live in the exiting world of confusion and free will, each individual or group makes their own choices and travel their own valleys, keeping in mind that freedom has its responsibilities. Variety is the spice of live, and although predominantly Muslim today, the historic Spice Islands, and the modern day archipelago of Indonesia, are home to an endless variety of gods and spiritual beliefs.

Following the story of “Conference of the Birds,” I chased understanding and embarked into a valley where I too have never ever been; my inner God. A place can shape you, and experiences certainly do.  My eyes view religion as the external veil humans use, to wrap or drape over and around themselves in representation of what they internally believe. Through their rituals and ways of life, they expose their true inner God.

During this journey I realized my own religion. Within me lies a love for the place I had to fly to, like a bird, as I wasn’t born there. My love affair is in deed with a place rather than a person. This Utopia I have wrapped around me is Ubud. And the ability to let God dwell within you, and through you, with love; I famed too simply be part of – “UBUDISM.”

Thus the birds lost themselves in their desire

To be one with him who consumed them with his fire.

The End.