Artwork by Davina Stephens
The Balinese character part 31:
The Australian Influence
Cheekiness, irreverence and a ribald sense of humour were all part of the Balinese character before Australians started flooding the island’s toilets in the 1980s.
The recent, wildly popular, Bali-produced video ‘Where The Bali Hell Are You?’, a spoof on the Australian Tourism Board’s ‘Where The Bloody Hell Are You?’*, has come at an opportune time; it reminds us all that Bali’s greatest tourism asset is its people and their great sense of humour.
“Wicked sense of humour,” some might say.
The Balinese can be solemn and scatological, by turns, and not blink an eye-lid. They adore practical jokes of the tying shoe-laces together variety and rejoice in the Hindu Balinese Universe’s full range of characters and charlatans. They rejoice in the misfortune of others, most often in a humorous, not a nasty way, and punctuate even their most solemn rituals with blowsy mask play performances of the Drama Gong (Mask Dance comedy) variety. They can be friendly and welcoming to tourists, although in high season there seem to be as many tourists as there are available airline tickets. However, they won't bend over backwards to make tourists feel at home! They just get on with their day-to-day things.
Donald Friend self-portrait chosen for the poster and catalogue cover for the retrospective of his work at the National Art Gallery in Sydney in 1990
Last month an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) film crew came by to interview me about Australian artist Donald Friend’s Sanur years (1969 – 1984) and about the Bali-Australia relationship in general. The series starts with the sea cucumber trade, between Batavia and Perth, in the early 19th Century and ends with the Heroin trade between Kuta and Sydney’s Cabramatta (Little Saigon) in the early 21st century. Popular left wing radio host Mike Carlton was roped in to conduct the interviews.
I took the affable Mr Carlton to Donald Friend’s old house – now the home of Australian-born coal baron Graeme Robertson and his statuesque Jakartan wife Ella – and into the museum (designed by Geoffrey Bawa) where Robertson has started a collection of Donald Friend paintings and Balinese art.
In the museum I explained that Friend was an expatriate aesthete devoted, in particular, to two aspects of a Balinese life: the Bairawa aspect, the worship of Shiva as the Terrible, and the worship of the divine through the adoration of youth and beauty. Both are evident in Robertson’s superb collection of Friend’s work.
I explained to Carlton how the fanged demons of Bali’s dark side – an offshoot of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism – are well represented in Friend’s oil paintings of demon-dancers, rangda witches and leyak battles. The paintings of handsome, slightly dreamy youths – in many cases silhouetted against the backdrop of life in sybaritic Batujimbar, the site of Friend’s house and of Bali’s first real estate empire – are a record of a time when we were all besotted by the beauty and the beauties of Bali.
For some reason – sensationalist ‘Dirty Digger’ press reasons I suspect – Carlton was at first more interested in Friend’s post-pubescent peccadilloes than in rising to the occasion and appreciating other aspects of Friend’s life.
For the Balinese, great talent earns great respect. The dirty deeds of the old rascal are well documented in Friend’s diaries, launched at the Australian National Library, in Canberra, in October 2006. More important to the Balinese than Friend’s sticky fingers were his silver tongue, golden brush, and kind, kind heart.
Carlton then tried to ambush me with a number of ‘raw prawns’ about Australian hippies’ sexually abusing the Balinese in the 1970s, (just not true: hippies were way too busy doing it to each other and anyway the Balinese are deeply conservative), and about the legends of Friend wading through the South Sanur Scout Troop with a bag of Darrel Lea chocolates, (Stuff and nonsense!).
He finally mellowed when I lead him to Friend’s tiny pavilion at the Sanur Bay end of the garden. From the beach-side belvedere a view of the Nusa Penida Islands is framed by ancient beach heliotropes. It was from this romantic hideout that Friend would record the activities of sarung-clad Sanur youths – kite flying, fishing, strolling hand in hand – and work them into subsequent paintings.
Today, domestic tourists in American trainers pound the promenade; power walkers where angels once fluttered.
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Donald Friend painting of Batujimbar Estate in Sanur
I next took the film crew around the corner to a major odalan temple festival, in Sidakarya village to show them a bit of the beauty that so mesmerized Friend and other artists in Bali’s heyday. The garden at the beautiful Pura Dalem Sidakarya is one of the last remaining examples of the Sanur style of temple court – shapely plumeria (frangipani) trees and handsome red brick shrines (in this case donated by a consortium of local Australian businessmen) set in a sea of white sand – designed, in this case, by an old Donald Friend protégé Putu Suarsa. A full odalan temple festival was in progress and the crew were gob-smacked by the beauty. Even the Solonese princess accompanying the crew wrapped a pareo around her denim mini-skirt! I dragged the Jakarta-based producer into the prayer circle – Carlton, the compere, begged off, claiming fear of demonic possession – and we were soon in half-trance, surrounded, like Donald Friend often was, by perfectly-formed Balinese in ceremonial dress, fierce demon masks and clouds of incense. An intoxicating mix!
We repaired to a nearby warung babi guling to discuss Putu’s impressions of Donald Friend (Mike Carlton keen, we could all sense to get some dirt on Donald from the former Sanur ‘It’ boy).
“He never touched me,” Suarsa volunteered, sensing Carlton’s drift when question time came around, “but we were all touched by his art!”
Sunday 10th December, 2006, (Manis Kuningan holyday): to Pura Sakenan temple on Serangan (Turtle) Island to make a quick pilgrimage
In 1974, when I first went to the Sakenan festival, one had to catch a boat from the mainland, near present-day MAKRO mega mall, and wind through a dense mangrove forests. The boats were packed with devotees, who sat motionless, scared of drowning and transfixed by the beauty of the gods and the barong gliding past them in flat bottomed canoes. For the first two days the temple festival was attended by just a few families from some coastal villages but, on Manis Kuningan Sunday, armadas of jukung boats delivered a bumper crowd. These few families – mostly minor nobility – set up camp for three nights in small pondok huts that belonged to their families in perpetuity. The local fishermen from the somewhat impoverished village of Serangan, the only village on the island, become glamorous gondoliers for the duration of the festival. Their wives had little to do with the running of the festival and were often mocked for their thick accents and dark skin.
Today one just follows the throng across the world’s ugliest bridge and joins the queue of thousands waiting to complete their pilgrimage and get back home. The pondoks have this year fully disappeared (the Kepaon royal family, one of the lead custodians or pangemong of the festival, now make camp, for just a few hours, in a tent in the back of a mixed drinks stall in Hawkers’ Field – a veritable sea of warungs and snake oil vendors that springs up adjacent to the temple.
The local Serangan villagers are today transformed, from gondoliers to temple guardians. Since developers built the bridge, enlarged the island and then went bust (victims of a curse by the temple’s priests, some say), the traditional fishing village of Serangan has evolved into a seaside suburb of greater Denpasar. Surfies and sharpies, in Oakley sunglasses and exotic bumbags, have replaced the elegant salty retainers of yesteryear. Gone are all the jokes about the quirky Serangan accent, as the local community now runs almost everything to do with the giant festival, save the ceremonies. Korean widgies (female surfies) bring their kim-cha at tea-time in the officials’ stand. Today I discovered an Ivy League American in Balinese temple dress directing traffic.
Muslim children, from the sizeable Bugis community on the island, sell Hindu offerings to eager pilgrims.
The unique and picturesque ceremonies – including Barong Landung dances, from Pura Pusung Yeh in Denpasar and trance rituals – still take place but are held against a backdrop of mass migration.
Little by little, worship in Bali’s main Sad Kahyangan temples is becoming like worship at the big Hindu temples in India – long lines in packed conditions.
The Balinese are nothing if not practical. Soon, one imagines, pilgrims will be able to perform ‘drive-by devotions’ with an automatic devotion card inserted into a shrine base from a momentarily stationary vehicle.
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The Ivy league parking attendant turns out to be an Anglo-American ‘peace corp’ worker John Ellis, fresh from a tour of duty in far-flung West Flores. Ellis is researching the Hindu-Muslim relations in Serangan village, where he lives.
He is an avowed fan of this column, I discover, and we become fast friends.
“Is there anyone in the expatriate community under 50 who is interested in the Balinese culture?” he asks.
It’s a scary question as it begs the ugly truth: the Bali-besotted are a dying breed; anthropologists and social historians are fast diminishing; tourists aren’t living as long as one’s visa lasts anymore. Fast diminishing too is the pool of members of the expatriate business community – save a few members from the hotel sector – who are truly interested in taking part in Balinese festivals.
Interestingly, the number of young expatriate artists who speak Balinese can be counted on one hand whilst there are now over 50,000 Balinese who could be deemed fluent in either English, Japanese or Australian (the lingua franca of the surfing world). This statistic is not that relevant – there is no doubting that the Balinese keep the Hindu-Bali festivals going without a “Ceremonial Beat” magazine – but I do feel that the newcomers are missing out on the real Bali – the Bali that beats behind the billboards.
Come on Ozzies – get with the programme!