Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, April 2013)



Dewa Nyoman Batuan’s body burns as his brother watches at the Pengosekan cremation ground.

Spiritual Superstars

Balinese history is rich in legends of larger-than-life Hindu-Javanese gurus, starting with Rsi Markandya in the 10th century. These holymen enriched the island with their religious teachings and temple building, founding temples such as Pura Besakih, Pura Sakenan and Pura Luhur Uluwatu. Part makeover specialists, part magicians, these Brahman priests educated the masses while creating great works of temple art.
This tradition of gurus leaving great artistic legacies continued through the ages, right up to the 1960s, when soul-searchers from foreign lands started flocking to Bali. They had questions about the complexities of the Hindu-Bali faith, and wanted quick answers.
In the early days of Balinese cultural tourism one man in particular acted as shepherd for this motley flock, Pengosekan-born artist Dewa Nyoman Batuan. His English was good, he was an enthusiastic talker, he knew his subject and he had an giant smile — pearls of Hindu Balinese wisdom were dispensed through a wall of teeth. He had the charisma of an artist and good business acumen to boot.

In 1977 after he was asked to accompany Queen Elizabeth II through his village. In the years that followed he was part-time mentor to David Attenborough, Mick Jagger and the Blair brothers whose popular film series “Ring of Fire” was made while they were living at Batuan’s house.


Lingga and Yoni, Dewa Nyoman Batuan 1983 (Courtesy of Suteja Neka and Museum Neka)

Through his art he educated a generation of newcomers while,  at the same time, founding a co-operative called the Pengosekan Community of Artists, which was aimed at giving his fellow villagers a studio from which to work and a showroom from which to sell their works.
In 1972 the Hotel La Taverna in Sanur, then managed by Victor Mason, filled its rooms with Batuan’s art. Then came a wondrous book “The Haughty Toad” ((Bali Art Print) Walter Folle) written by Victor Mason and illustrated by Batuan.
The coastal cognoscenti followed suit.
In 1980, homewares Czarina Linda Garland harnessed the talent of Batuan’s Pengosekan Community and produced a line of painted and carved handicrafts that took the tropical world by storm. The carved banana tree and the depressed naked lady glass-topped coffee table are items form this line that are still best sellers.
By the 1990s many visitors to Ubud were calling on his Aladdin’s cave-like gallery to witness the miracle of a community of artists at work in a giant factory, like an ancient guild of aesthetes.


Dewa Nyoman Batuan in 2002 at the launch of his book “Mandala” at Neka Gallery in Ubud.

In an era when hotel designers sought out the best and most innovative Balinese artists, the nature-themed works of his Pengosekan School — all figurative and flavorsome in tasteful light postal shades — was immensely popular.
Batuan’s own art, in particular his Mandalas of Balinese religious life, was more complicated, in the style of the School of Batuan (1920s) after whom, one imagines, he was named.
Business success did not distract Batuan from his main vocation, that of guru to the Aquarius generation; his flock just grew with his fame.
With his death at 72 on February 2nd, Bali has lost one of its greatest teachers.

23 February 2013: Spirited cremation for a great spirit
Driving to Ubud this morning I happen upon Dewa Nyoman Batuan’s cremation: despite his fame word had not travelled down to the coast.
At the simple family home I meet Xenia Blair, daughter of Lorne Blair, Italian painter Mondo Beyondo and, gathered in the courtyard’s high pavilion, many luminaries from the Balinese art world, including Drs. Nyoman Gunarsa, Suteja Neka and Prof. Wayan Dibia.

MAGES FROM DEWA NYOMAN BATUAN’S CREMATION
Pengosekan, 23rd February 2013

Tjokorda Swastika from from Puri Saren, Ubud
rides the bade bier.

Batuan’s son-in-law.

Xenia Blair and a family member.

Batuan’s sister lights the funeral bier.
Ubud and Peliatan princes and princes in the Pura Dalem
next to the cremation ground.

[ Click image to enlarge ]

The funeral procession heads off  for the cremation ground at noon.
Two hyper-animated bleganjur marching bands accompany the funeral bier;  an Ubud Cokorda (prince) and Batuan’s Brahman son-in-law are riding the float as a sign of the man’s status and respect within the community.
The black bull sarcophagus that accompanies the procession is mounted by one of Batuan’s many grand children. His brother carries his kajeng spirit effigy at the head of the riotous procession.
I say “riotous” as a pell-mell procession to the cremation ground is the highest honor a village can bestow.


The artwork on the funeral bier, painted by Batuan’s grandson.

At the graveyard the Ubud Palace princes and the Peliatan princesses (stars of the dance world from the neighbouring village) gather in the adjacent Pura Dalem temple as 50 expatriate disciples mill about in the large crowd. Land deals go down, yoga positions are compared, stories of the great man are swapped.
As the lembu start to blaze one of Batuan’s surviving sisters offers in song a hauntingly beautiful Buddhist prayer.

1 March 2013: Pengerupukan, the night before Nyepi, Bali’s Day of Silence
This year the monster effigies are off the scale. All the pent up creative energy that could be directed into the hotel and real estate industry — now “Culture Neutral” — has built up and burst the seams of propriety. It’s an almost anarchistic display Not that it was ever mild.

[ Click image to enlarge ]

Sadly, over the past few years, the spirit of Pengerupukan — the night of the demons — has been hijacked, somewhat, by the Spirit of the Rose Parade. Where once petrol flame-breathing unplugged youths accompanied monster effigies, battalions of ballerinas now reign. Matching t-shirts have replaced reckless abandon. And one can’t blame the real estate industry: it’s just general gentrification of placid festival fever that has swept the land.

But pockets of mayhem still exist in far-flung villages: this column’s photographers, Agus Setiawan and Made Kader, are there to record (seephotos above).

22 March 2013: A special screening of “The King and I” ot celebrate my 60th birthday and 40 years in Bali
Watching this fabulous movie I suddenly realize that Yul Brynner’s costume is Majapahit Style (See photos below).
I am working on a book of the same name in which I attempt to look back at the glorious 13th century Hindu Javanese Empire and its influences from a Balinese perspective. The book includes a section on royal costumes.

Above (left to Right):  A 19th Century Coromandel cotton jacket made for a Sumatran prince (Image courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia); the Susuhunan of Solo 2002: the brother of Cokorda Pemecutan, 2013; Yul Brynner in the “King and I”.

[ Click image to enlarge ]

During my research I discovered that the boldly-patterned Chinese silk jackets called Basekop Sembagi in Java — favoured by the Sultans of Jogjakarta and the Cokorda (Raja) of Pemecutan (Denpasar) — are descended from the Sembagi textile patterns of Sumatran batik which are, in turn, descended from the Gujarati (Indian) patola  cloth traded to Indonesia since the 6th century A.D.
Still with me ??
For many centuries Sumatran princes wore ‘Sembagi’ style jackets made from Coromandel cotton prints, from India’s East Coast.
Yul Brynner’s outfit is, I suddenly realize,  basekop Sembagi-derivative. Fancy that!
The palace sets in “The King and I”, designed by legendary Hollywood decorator Tony Duquette, were inspired  by the architecture of Hamengku Buwono Palace in Jogjakarta, Central Java, too, I reckon

 


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