Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, July 2006)

Legendary decorator Baron Flexi de Rayon, originator of the Javanese Hindu Empire style, shown in this 1981 file photo at Marquessa Pucci’s Villa D’Iseh, East Bali. The baron has recently come out of retirement to lead Real Bali’s full-blooded ‘going for Baroque’ battle in Bali against architecturally annal arrivistes.


Bali ’s New Asian, Zen McVillas boom has lately gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. On an island known for its cultural diversity, one now finds everywhere roadside billboards for identical villa architecture. There is hardly an event without a real estate tie-in. Last month, Indonesia Tatler and Lotus Arts De Vivre (the incredible singing Von Bueren clan) organised a fabulous Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show at the ‘Villa Kerobokan’, the latest entry in the elite villa stakes. After the show we were all lead into a show villa. The exquisitely-built villa had all the usual NEW ASIAN ZEN accoutrements: beige-brown-black colour scheme, crisp Chinese modern atmosphere, architectural plants, evenly-spaced, and obsessively matching furniture; even the Jakartan sales reps. had matching faces! It was rather like the Matrix or an office works catalogue. One has to wonder why developers are so keen to take the Balinese flavour out of Bali.
Anyway the party was great!
Paris models had been flown in for the occasion, as had the incredibly beautiful, colourful exotic Parisian clothes – it was a perfect Bali night, full of beauty and life.
May the Balinese gods bless the Jakartans for coming all the way, at their ages, and doing the shimmy and the shammy on the dance floor with Bali’s golden oldies – Paul Ropp, jeweller Jean-Francois Fichot-Deneuve, Dayu Sri of Warisan, Kunang Helmi, of Paris and Palembang, and John Hardy, the retail magnate.
Spotted in the crowd were Singaporearchitect de jour Chan Soo Khian, party animal, beautiful Bombay heiress Tanya Dubash’ and home-wares icon Sir Warwick Purser.
Bravo Tatler, Arts de Vivre and Villa Kerobokan!

• • •

The next day, however, I spiralled down. On the world’s most creatively diverse island there are now, everywhere, advertisements for identical formulaic villas – all treeless, shine-less, birdless and loveless.
I went to a village deep in the Hindu heartland last month (see story below) and was told that they “also had a red-head Australian ‘Made’, who has seven units.”
I felt inferior.
We decorators, poseurs and apologists for empire style – Majapahit empire in my case – have now thrown down the sandbags (see photo right): come out you frigid fashionistas and we’ll fell you with a roll of distressed lurex!
Full blooded Real Bali is on the warpath! Woe to anyone who puts a chrome railing in our path.
Now read on …

14 th May, 2006: a foray to the eastern frontier
The office cook’s father died three days ago, right in the middle of holy Galungan-Kuningan week. I was in Jakarta when it happened but I promised Ketut Gasir, the office cook, that I would go to the burial, which is this afternoon.
Ketut has been with us for over 18 years. Daily she prepares lunch for 90 with her sister and her cousin; all saints.
In 18 years they have never said ‘boo’. They do their rounds of offerings – between stints in the kitchen – and regularly travel with us to staff-related cremations, weddings, etc. and on office trips to Uluwatu or Besakih temple. In this way staff become ‘family’ in an Indonesian office.
In 1992, Ketut Gasir, the prettiest girl on the block, married Nyoman Sayang, an angel with a cheeky chortle (he’s a huge fan of the Stranger’s dark side), a Tutsi-esque bottom, admired by all the girls in the compound, and a dreamy disposition.
Today I travel to Ketut’s ancestral home in Tegal Besar, South of Klungkung, where I have never been.
In the back seat of my impressive new Mercedes strassen-panzer sit Made Lati, the office bike, and a Javanese scullery maid, Dwik, wife of Mojo, my houseboy, Solo’s answer to Forrest Gump.
They read Tatler magazines like princesses to the back seat born.
The car was a gift from the president of Iran, in recognition of my ground-breaking book, ‘Vicky Pollard’s Guide to Modern Islamic Gardens’ (See ‘Persian Influence in Modern Bali Style’, Stranger in Paradise, June 2005).

• • •

We arrive at the family house compound in the very traditional, modest Balinese village just as the sun is setting. Villagers in solemn colours and batik headdress line the lane outside. Inside the house, family and friends are gathered on pavilion bases; the coffin sits high inside the ceremonial pavilion. After greeting the family, I sit with sculptor Made Cangker, Ketut’s brother in law, and start kvetching about the infringements to the green belt on the new Eastern Distributor, and about being called a bulé (honky) in this morning’s Jawa Post (see below), and about keling-kleng, my office’s new expression for wealthy Punjabis who give us the royal run-around. Most listening are amused.
Suddenly the coffin’s up and off, out the gate and shooting down the hill, pell mell, with its bearers, towards the cemetery. As it is now the holy season, it is to be a common burial with no rites or gamelan or even prayers.
The small but solid procession passes by a lovely Pura Dalem temple – designed in the ancient Gelgel/Javanese way with a leafy forecourt – and stops at the graveyard next to a Prajapati temple (to Kali, the Goddess of Death). The small temple and graveyard sit under an impressive giant pulé tree.
Poor Ketut, taking up the rear, barely has time to be distressed.
The coffin is lowered into the ground – more of a slam dunk really – and covered with soil. A strange bamboo ‘periscope’ is left protruding from the earthen mound – its mouth sealed with coconut husk. Nyoman explains that on the next propitious purification day – or dewasa pembersihan – the coconut husk stop will be removed and holy water will be poured into the bamboo spout, to purify the body below. Only then will Ketut’s father be officially dead.
So organised, really.

• • •

As I turn to leave the graveyard, I am confronted by a villa under construction, smack in the spiritual centre of the village. It is a giant and promises to be very O.K.B. (nouveau riche). It looks like an art gallery or Mayor’s office. Who could conceive of such an insensitive piece of architecture in an otherwise tiny ‘rustic charm’ hamlet?
My enquiries reveal that it’s to be a home for a Dutchman, designed by a Surabayan architect.
Is nothing sacred?
What if the Balinese started building casino-style McMansions in the middle of quaint little Frisian hamlets, tooth and jowl with windmills!

18 th May, 2006: a visitor brings news of developments in genetic anthropology and Art Brut
Free-range anthropologist George Breguet drops in with news of a startling discovery. It seems his DNA-sucking comrades – in Sembiran Village, North Bali, one of Bali’s most ancient mountain villages – have taken samples from inside an ancient tooth and discovered that the 11 th century Sembiran Village dweller was an Indian! ‘Orang Keling’ means Indian person in Indonesian (see related story later).
Could he have been a relative of the early founders of Buda Keling in east Bali?
George also brings some photographs of the mystical, painted-rock installations of one Ms. Men Tanjung (left), who lives in a hamlet near Buda Keling. The art brut sculptures are startling in their originality and beauty. So much so that noted artist Ms. Kartini Affandi of the prestigious Women and Art museum in Djogyakarta, has ‘vandalised’ a set and transported them to Djogyakarta! Let’s face it, they only really work in situ, in Men Tanjung’s home, where she prays and dances to them every morning.
Is nothing sacred?

20 th May 2006: (An excerpt from Sahib Jatayu’s Diary, my new column, which appears on line from time to time). Dinner in Hyderabad with cultural Czar Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh.
Mapu is India’s ultimate gentleman aesthete and cultural warrior. So many of India's great restoration and museum projects – particularly in the textile and jewellery areas – were guided by him. He invented Anggawastru chic for Rajiv Gandhi (i.e. the wearing of ultra- organic, natural-dyed cotton traditional attire, in white, all the time). “The ultimate Dandhi does the ultimate Ghandi,” said India Today magazine. He chaperoned Jackie O around the Taj Mahal during the lead-up to New York’s amazing ‘Festival of India’ in 1985; he built the fabulous Calico Museum in Amedabad; he knows every-one in the land, has an infectious giggle and loves to talk Hindutsva shop.
Mapu is very generous: he dispenses pearls of wisdom to his admirers. He is child-like in his enthusiasm and ancient in his wisdom.
Tonight I learned that dancing naked in the first shower of the monsoon heals prickly heat.
He tells me how the famous BALIYATRA ceremony in Orrissa is actually held by the Keling people. ‘Orang Keling’ in Indonesian really means a dark southern Indian (but this could be stretched up the Coromandel Coast to Bengal if you are Javanese enough). India's first trade contact with Indonesia was possibly from people near the ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda in Orrissa – the regency of the Keling people – when Buddhism was introduced to Indonesia, through Sumatra, in the 9th century.
Recent research by archaeologists in North Bali has unearthed pottery shards in the Akiramedu style (Pondicherry which they date to 300 BC!
In Bali, the expression ‘Layah Keling’ survives, meaning ‘lying bastard’ (in a nice, not a nasty way).

• • •

Later the same day I speak to anthropologist, Amandari-founder and Woolite heiress Carole ‘Nyonya’ Muller who was off to a lecture on ‘Balinese Goddesses’, at the National Art gallery in Sydney by brilliant Woolongong academic Adrian Vickers.
We talk of Dewi Danu the Lake Goddess and of Sang Hyang Aji (Dewi Saraswati) the Goddess of Beauty, and of Durga the Goddess of Death.
“The Balinese are obsessed about death and disease,” squawks the lively Nyonya.
“It’s more that they have a beautiful fascination with morbidity,” I counter, “unlike the Indians, who have a morbid fascination with aspects of Kali’s beauty”.
I remember Mapu’s comment that Bali represents the “purest” form of ancient ritualist Hinduism.
Let us pray that more people learn to respect that purity, and that the onslaught of McMansions in quaint spiritual heartlands is halted.

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