Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, October 2005)


The word 'villa' was first used in Bali on the Villa Ayu project (later the Amandari) in 1988. Before that every 'foreign' home was either a pondok or an umah, in keeping with the foreigners' perceived caste as outsiders. The taste police were so outraged by the pretentiousness of the phrase 'Villa Ayu' (beauteous villa) that I immediately named my home Villa Bebek ('Duck Villa'); a name more facetious by nature than by translation. Everyone thought it was a great hoot, particularly immigration at the airport, and then 'villas' started popping up everywhere
Somehow, between the completion of the architecturally superb Villa Ayu (Amandari) in 1991, and the publication of the second volume of 'Bali Modern' in 2004, the top end villa product had transgressed from being quintessentially Balinese and joyously tropical to being quintessentially formulaic in design, and barely either tropical or Balinese.
Recently I came back from an afternoon outing to Seminyak, reeling from viewing a bivouac site for the disenchanted called 'One smelly black sand dune - playground for metrosexuals'. It certainly was an eye-opener; these days they really pack them in on the west coast. For US$1,000 a night, you get a high-walled compound with a remote-controlled gate, three Zen-themed bedrooms, an offering-deplete Balinese shrine, an assortment of black garden accessories and 25 running metres of bullrush (the metrosexuals' preferred stiff plant).
But the well-heeled are not complaining, and neither are the Balinese!
Now read on…

24th August 2005: I am invited to a Tooth Filing in a Balinese village near Klungkung, the old imperial capital
In Bali, every generation has its own star sculptor. I Gusti Nyoman Lempad designed many of Ubud's great temple gates in the early part of the twentieth century. Ida Bagus Nyana of Mas founded the Mas village style of elongated figures in the 1940s. I Cokot, was the favourite of the European collectors of the 1950s and 1960s. I Made Jojol of Taro village was famous Australian artist Donald Friend's favourite in the 1970s - the giant end piece at the Amanusa lobby is his. Wayan Cemul of Ubud, a 'primitive-modernist', was the favourite of the early Bali Style pioneers - magnates such as Peter Muller and Bill Bensley - in the 1980s. Lately, Nyoman Nuarta of Garuda Wisnu Kencana theme-park fame, and I Made Changker, a protégé of popular painter I Nyoman Gunarsa, have risen to superstar sculptor status. Changker realised the giant statues in the main dining room of the Four Seasons Resort, Jimbaran and the entrance statue to Dreamland Beach.
I first met Made Changker as a student in the days of Nyoman Gunarsa's 'Sanggar Dewata' Artist Studio in Jogyakarta (1975 - 1990). At that time Gunarsa, Bali's most respected painter, was head of painting at the prestigious National Art Academy. The 'Sanggar Dewata' was a sort of Hindu Balinese Artists' Youth Collective. They excelled in wildly figurative art in the Gunarsa style, in an art community (Jogyakarta), otherwise obsessed with European trends - abstract expressionism and urban anguish. Gunarsa's pupils were given a classic education in Hindu Art and then left to mimic Gunarsa, which most did but with limited success. Made Changker managed to break away from the mould of his guru and forge his own identity; he had strong features, a gentle nature and a modicum of independence rare in Balinese artists. His early studio pieces were Brancuzzi-like in their boldness, but naïve (see photo, above).
I have kept up with Made Changker over the years. He has realised many artworks for our garden designs overseas - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore and the Taj Kovalam in Kerala (see past Stranger columns) to name a few. Changker's brother, Nyoman Sayang, works for my company as head of the art department. He is worth his weight in gold. Changker, like Nuarta, lives mostly in Bandung, West Java.
Today I am invited to Changker's family home, in Keramas, near Klungkung, as Changker, and his four brothers, a sister and numerous cousins are having their teeth-filed in an elaborate ceremony.
Keramas is one of those Balinese villages that time and the tourism industry have mercifully passed by. A rivulet runs down the side of the main street, which is lined with matching Balinese gates. The entrance to the village itself is announced by clusters of ghoulish statues, all by Changker, arranged along the road in front of the imposing Pura Dalem (the temple to Lord Siwa).
The large family courtyard is traditionally Balinese, gorgeously so. The first thing I see upon entering is the striking form of the priest from the Pura Dalem sitting cross-legged on the veranda of the stunningly beautiful meten pavilion, a masterpiece of decorative Balinese design (see photo, below left).

Every inch of the sizable home - an interlocking series of pretty pavilions and courtyards - is taken up with temporary bamboo structures, all piled high with exquisitely woven or carved or baked offerings. The podia of the pavilions are lined with streams of relatives; visiting noblemen are seated in elegant Balinese dress on the raised floors of the various outdoor parlours. The highest of these, in the far back corner of the courtyard, houses one skinny Brahmana, who is perched grandly on a taban platform, dispensing instructions to all the stagehands - like a sarung-clad Von Karajan, conducting a symphony orchestra.
It is a wondrous sight.
I can't help pondering, however, on the 'disconnect' which exists now in Bali between the real Bali, the world's most gorgeous and godly, and Villa-Bali, the world's most anal and godless (go easy on the ponderings Ed. the real estate magazines have a militant arm). It's the sort of paradox that gives credence to the Balinese belief in the irrefutable dualism that defines their universe - night and day, Barong and Rangda, chalk and cheese.
Today it is full on feudal glory; all beauty-barrels blasting. Gamelan music - frantic yet melodious - makes one's every atom shimmy and shake. Weaving amidst it all is a line of Made Changker's siblings, led by his doting, moist-eyed mother. There are many rituals to be performed and acres of offerings to waft off, fling or bury: the tooth filing ceremony is the ultimate rite de passage and a massive Nyekah (soul purification) ceremony, for the family's recently deceased grandmother, is happening, at the same time! Many of the purification rituals are the same for both ceremonies - the Balinese are nothing if not practical - and here today many of them are medieval in their intensity. Before the actual filing of the teeth all of the celebrants gather in the meten pavilion, to change from their festive finery into priestly white and yellow robes.
They then offer thanksgiving, one at a time, to their parents who are seated side by side on chairs in the room. Each sibling kneels at the parents' feet and buries his or her be-turbaned head in their parents' knees. It is a touching filial piety; something I have seen only in Java, particularly on television, when the Soehartos (a long-running show that preceded the Sopranoes, dear villa-bound readers) received their children on the old strong man's birthday. I decide that Keramas village, being so near to the town of Klungkung, Bali's former imperial capital in medieval pre-Majapahit times (15th Century), has retained many of the Javanese Hindu customs imported to Bali in the classical era. Certainly this family, with their Gajah Mada-like profiles (Gajah Mada was the Winston Churchill of Majapahit East Java) are a shining example of masculine grace - Jawa's big thing - in a tantric Balinese s.

I watch Nyoman Sayang's Mum holding his shoulders during the foot-washing ritual (back off spa-vendors. Ed.), which follows the vice- vindicating, virtue-enhancing tooth-filing ceremony, and I remember my Mum, Mavis White, who would cuddle me in the back of our Triumph Mayflower after my frequent pre-teen trips to the dentist. Indeed, experiencing the full throttle beauty of a wham-dinger Balinese ceremony has this effect: one's mind wanders and one has little anthropological flashes, which are like 'Kodak moments' of the frazzled synapse.

The stranger survives abduction by biscuit bum bandits on a train in India, and meets Mahabali at a pre-onam festival in Kerala.
Stay tuned…….

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