Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2007)


In Bali, in the olden days, pre-Pilates, pre-spa explosion, pre-boutique hotel, pre-Milo even; there lived a contented, if slightly pickled, group of expatriates in Sanur and Ubud. The year was 1968 and there were only about a dozen of them. Most famously there was Dutch painter Han Snel, who lived in Ubud with his lovely Balinese family and, in Sanur, Australian painter Donald Friend whose ’Bali Diaries’ (the fourth and last in the Donald Friend diary series) were launched on 15 th November at the National Library in Canberra. Friend was a brilliant writer and painter and a spell-binding raconteur.
The diaries tell tall tales of intrigue and lust – there’s never a shortage of that on the Fabled Island –and blow the cover on a few juicy scandals. However, the book basically describes his own feisty, feudal-cum-colonial life style, infused with Tuans and Nyonyas (as we were all once called), Balinese treasures, heavenly gardens and, towards the end, an ignominious retreat. This month, a few of the old guard – Tuan Kris (Christopher Carlisle, co-creator of the Bali Hyatt), Nyonya Ruth (Ruth Hill, wife of S.E. Asian architect du jour, Kerry Hill (of Amanusa, Alila Manggis and Alila Ubud fame), Tuan Leurik (Sir Warwick Purser, Jakarta party-planner and international face of Mikimoto) – gathered in Sydney, the week after the launch of Tuan Donal’s diary, to celebrate the 70 th birthday of Nyonya Karol (Napisan heiress Carole Muller, last of the red-hot Nyonyas, champion of the oppressed and co-creator, with her then husband – legendary Legian lothario Peter Muller – of the stunning Bali Oberoi and Amandari hotels).

Donald Friend had visited the Mullers at their handsome country property ‘Glenrock’, near Canberra, in 1966, on his way to Bali, so he was well versed about the happening in the Hindu Happy Valley before he got there. One December 1966 entry in Friend’s diary, written after his first trip to Bali is very poignant:

“I am tempted to try, when I return to Bali, to get hold of some land along this beach and build a little thatched house to live in for a few months each year. It might be arranged as part of the real estate venture with Attilio, though at the moment the laws do not allow a foreigner to own land in Bali, there are ways to arrange it.
If I do this, I must, from the start, immunise myself from pain at the transience of all such things and the house can be thought of as something almost as impermanent as a stage-set. I hate so to see good things in unnecessary decay and neglect but, in such parts of the world as this, where even the artists who sculpt in the soft stone are utterly unconcerned about the swift rotting away of all their work. Indeed, they are quite indifferent to its decay, so long as it is no longer in their possession. So much of work of every day is devoted to exquisitely arranged offerings to the gods and other such creations made of flowers and wisps of straw and leaves meant to last an hour or less that the passing nature of things is accepted also as inevitable to such creations as we westerners try to give some permanence.”

By the time I hit Sanur in 1974, as a clandestine tennis coach at the Bali Hyatt, Tuan Donal already had a very permanent grand palais at the Batujimbar Estates; designed by Geoffrey Bawa. Peter and Carole Muller had a beautiful Ubud home next door to the former studio of Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet.
Tuan Leurik and his wife, Melbourne heiress Nyonya Lissa Purser, had a deluxe duplex, with bamboo lounge set, running metres of intricately carved walls and pretty staff. The staff had stylish uniforms designed by batik impresario Iwan Tirta.
Now, it’s not that the old Tuans and Nyonyas were any more or less competitive in the ‘luxury villa’ stakes than today’s punters (anyway the word ‘villa’ was not used then); it’s just that their houses and their staff were genuinely beautiful. They all had museum quality collections of Balinese art, amazing gardens and drop dead gorgeous houseboys, all over 18 (read the dirty bits in Donald’s diary for more!). They wore haute bohemian (trust fund babes on pot) outfits – batik moo-moos and such – and talked about barong migrations, palace ruins and princely intrigues – not Kate Moss and Schapelle Corby. We were forever racing off to visit temple festivals and palace weddings. Bali was our mistress and we were all in love.
And no-one more so than Tuan Donal, lover of all things bright and beautiful (the Balinese certainly footed that bill!). Nyonya Carole, the former Miss Coolangatta ( Queensland) with her love for Balinese traditional architecture and the fine arts ran a close second in the Bali-besotted stakes.
Friend writes of an evening at home during this golden age:

“Little Made Berata is my great delight, the youngest of the household, who goes seriously about his work, imbues all his acts with an old-fashioned courtesy.
Unconscious that I am observing him, he brings in a terracotta brazier of charcoal, adds to it a few grains of incense, notes in what direction the smoke bends, moves the brazier so that it will waft towards me. Then he adds a few more grains of the fine Javanese resin, and as the plume of smoke ascends, with a beautiful very Balinese gesture inbred with absorbed gravity, fills his cupped hands with the smoke and washes his face in its sacred perfume.”

I cried when I read this bit in the diaries. Not because Donald is long gone – as has Berata’s great beauty for that matter – but I cried at the beautiful way Donald describes the gentle edge of Balinese perfect-ness of gesture and grace. I cried for a lost age.
Today, Nyonya Carole and her flatmate, Peter Muller, have invited 300 of their closest friends to a thé dansant at Pier One, hard on Sydney’s stunning Harbour Bridge. There’s something fin de siècle about the event. The crowd is a fascinating mix of old Bali hands and the pick of Sydney’s art world (artists John Olsen A.O., Margaret Olley A.O., plus N.S.W. Art Gallery director Edmund Capon). In the wings are actors Arthur Dignam, Claudia Karvan and Nell Campbell. Draped along the Harbour foreshore, like melted Mr. Whippy vans, are the leaders of Sydney’s Haute Bohemia – Wendy Whiteley, Sheila Caroll – and of high society – ‘Bubbles’ Fisher, ‘Bubbles’ de Vere, Richard Cobden S.C. and Maggie Tabberer. It must be noted that all present are fervent Bali-lovers and frequent visitors to the fabled shores. How fabled would they still be, one has to ask, without Donald Friend’s diary!
For the occasion, couturier Milo of Seminyak has created an aqua and ivory flapper dress for the effervescent Nyonya. ‘Teamed’ with her trademark floral top-knot, worn Pedanda Istri Buda Keling style (rampant and screaming) the Ubud fashion icon makes quite a splash.

At 2 p.m. Peter Muller screens a ‘This is your life’ slide show, which highlights Peter’s and Carole’s life as the Don and Diva of Bali Style in the 1970s. We all view slides of their trips to Fiji on Adnan Khashoggi’s private jet in matching Harry Soeharyo batik shirts; their stint as ambassadors for a V.W. Rent-a-Safari outfit and Peter marking out Bali’s first garden bathroom at their gorgeous Campuan home.
And many, many more: all seminal images from a golden age of Bali expatria.
Some ‘ Bali hands’ present feel that the conservatively-culled slide show is “a bit of a whitewash”. Excised are the images of the full-blooded Nyonya that are so near and dear to all bulé aga (Hill-tribe expats. Ed.). The famous image of Carole dancing the limbo for Queen Elizabeth, for example, in front of the Pura Dalem in Pengosekan in 1976 or the widely circulated ‘RED HOT NYONYA’ images (see Nyonya in gingham one piece previous page).

There was some mention of Carole’s two amazing interior decorating jobs in Bali – the Bali Oberoi (1973), with Harry Soeharyo (now gone), and the Amandari (1990), with Neville Marsh – but there was little mention of Carole’s prowess as a cultural anthropologist and fine art expert (much of her Bali collection has gone to the N.S.W. art gallery; including an exquisite door painted by her friend and mentor, Donald Friend).
In the 1970s Nyonya Carole was something of a rebel in Bali’s then staid expatriate community: she ‘went native’ whenever it suited her.

Her Indonesian was faulty but she understood the people and the culture like few others. ‘Settlement patterns’ was her middle name. She was the first Bali anthropologist to go on an all babi guling (roast pork) diet. She was a tough old boiler on matters of finance but would cry if a dance or a ceremony got too beautiful. Her Bali houses were always exquisite – more vernacular-modern than ethnic-chic – and were much published in the style books of the time. Her last great house renovation and decorating job, Villa Tirta Ayu, overlooking the royal baths at Tirta Gangga in Karangasem, can still be viewed today.
Nyonya Carole’s antics in Bali – all wholesome – inspired over two decades of intense scrutiny and a lively series of cartoons by Stephen Little and Deni Chung who worked for this column during the 1980s and 1990s (see Hot Nyonya for an eye-full).

• • •

After the slide show, the jazz band plays sentimental favourites as gourmet meat pies circulate. The sun dips over Goat Island as John Hardy jewellery designer Polly Purser, Carole’s god-daughter, and the widow Wendy Whiteley, Empress of Lavender Bay, dance a tender waltz.

25th November, 2006: to Geria Kamasan, Banjar Kamasan, Gelgel, Klungkung for the body-washing of a distant ‘uncle’
Gelgel is an ancient imperial capital south of the the more recent imperial capital of Klungkung. It was probably founded in the 14th century by the great Hindu-Javanese holyman Sri Semara Kepakisan, the founder of most of Bali’s royal Dalem dynasties. Some centuries later Dewa Agung Jambé, the then emperor (Dewa Agung) of all Bali, moved the palace from Gelgel to Klungkung, where his descendents still live and thrive, as pangemong (royal custodians) of the great Pura Besakih mother temple.

The wife of the deceased, and her daughter, protect the deceased’s modesty

 This morning Gelgel village feels like Yogyakarta in the 1960s, all handsome Hindu architecture, wide streets, low walls and shady trees. I stray into a small red brick temple near the ceremony and am struck by the beauty of the Klungkung Style Majapahit Era (16th century) beauty of the red-brick architecture.

At ten o'clock, I walk into my ‘uncle's’ house (my Balinese father’s sister married a Brahmana in Gelgel in the 1960s) to find it packed with sweet country-style Klungkung Brahmana (not the slightly haughty urban Denpasar variety). Teenage Brahmana hotties, beautifully attired in full ceremonial dress, are in every garden recess – gossiping, petting and cooing. It appears that, in Brahmanic Gelgel,  body-washings are where one meets one’s husband or wife-to-be! 

Young faces at the Penyiraman, Geria Kamasan, Klungkung

 At noon pedanda high priests start sweeping in –the deceased was a much-loved and hard-working member of his religious community. All the pedanda and pedanda istri (lady high priests) are dressed in elegant pedanda daywear– topcoats and silver canes for the men, white sarungs and Frida Kahlo-hairstyle topknots resplendent with yellow flowers for the ladies.  

The corpse is soon carried out and laid on a raised platform on the courtyard floor.  High priests and priestesses soon surround the almost naked body – the deceased’s wife and daughter are holding firmly in place a white loin cloth  – and start cycles of Vedic chants and flower flicking rituals from standing positions on chairs. In this pretty garden, streaming with bright noonday light, it is an extraordinary spectacle.
 For the umpteenth time I ponder on the incredible variety and beauty of Balinese ceremonies, island-wide, surviving completely intact into the iPod age.  


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