Published in Jakart Java Kini, September 2008

 

Is Bali Still Little Java – an Artist’s Perspective

 


A young Ubud prince, in a version of Javanese court dress, at his tooth-filing ceremony, July 2008
 

Foreigners often ask me why Bali has not become independent from Indonesia.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch cartographers referred to Bali as ‘Little Java’, so similar were the cultures.
Today the cultures are still very similar―particularly the rituals of the palaces, which in Java have remained ‘hybrid’ Hindu―and Java still regards Bali as her glamorous younger sister.
Bali, however, has become more ‘wary’ of Java since the rise in radical Islamist terrorism yet still retains an intense sense of pride in being ‘Indonesian’.
The oath “Demi Bangsa, Demi Negara” (“For my people, for my country”) is bred into every Indonesian, from an early age and the Balinese are no exception. They are still fervently patriotic, despite the decline in roadside Independence Day decorations during the post-Soeharto era.

Soeharto was immensely popular in Bali because he defended the faith, the Balinese faith, which is the backbone of their existence. Soeharto’s Golkar party chief for the ‘Development Decades’ was none other than Anak Agung Ngurah Manik Parasara, the erstwhile Raja of Denpasar and the biggest heartthrob and superhero in Southern Bali. His family, the Royal House of Pemecutan―all descended from 15th century East Javanese prince, Arya Kenceng―still wear a version of Javanese court dress.

Scholars of Bali know that high Balinese is, for the most part, Javanese. So many Balinese dance forms derive from Java―the Barong Dance, the Gandrung, the Tari Ular (Banyuwangi’s gift to the world!), to name but a few. The Balinese quest for military-issue conservatism comes from Java too: the crisp safari jackets of all officials (before Independence, Balinese dress was famously louche), as do the ghastly television shows and the newspapers with their small-town prejudices.

Throughout history, many Balinese rajas have taken Javanese wives―plucked, gently, from the mini-palaces of East and Central Java and Madura (the Legong Kraton Dance was perhaps created for the celebration of one such union). Today, Balinese workers visit little ‘cafes’ discreetly set into the rice fields, where Javanese wives are available on request.

Post independence, the ‘Bali holiday’ became Jakarta’s answer to the Englishman’s weekend in Paris.

In 1969, a young Jakartan couple―Wija and Judith Waworuntu―founded the Tandjung Sari Hotel in Sanur. They invited le tout Jakarta to discover Bali’s magical and mystical culture. Wija is, to a great extent, the founder of Bali’s Modern Cultural Tourism era.

During my first decade in Bali, in the 1970s, I used to despair at the way my young Jakartan friends―generally the children of the mega-corruptors whose gardens I was doing―drove their cars into the grounds of the Sanur Beach Cottages, George Benson music blaring, and parked on the grass. They would then call a Balinese (“Mas, Mas”, the Javanese word for waiter and which Balinese hate) to move the car.
So many Balinese dance forms derive from Java―the Barong Dance, the Gandrung, the Tari Ular (Banyuwangi’s gift to the world!), to name but a few. The Balinese quest for military-issue conservatism comes from Java too: the crisp safari jackets of all officials (before Independence, Balinese dress was famously louche), as do the ghastly television shows and the newspapers with their small-town prejudices.

Throughout history, many Balinese rajas have taken Javanese wives―plucked, gently, from the mini-palaces of East and Central Java and Madura (the Legong Kraton Dance was perhaps created for the celebration of one such union). Today, Balinese workers visit little ‘cafes’ discreetly set into the rice fields, where Javanese wives are available on request.
Post independence, the ‘Bali holiday’ became Jakarta’s answer to the Englishman’s weekend in Paris.

In 1969, a young Jakartan couple―Wija and Judith Waworuntu―founded the Tandjung Sari Hotel in Sanur. They invited le tout Jakarta to discover Bali’s magical and mystical culture. Wija is, to a great extent, the founder of Bali’s Modern Cultural Tourism era.
During my first decade in Bali, in the 1970s, I used to despair at the way my young Jakartan friends―generally the children of the mega-corruptors whose gardens I was doing―drove their cars into the grounds of the Sanur Beach Cottages, George Benson music blaring, and parked on the grass. They would then call a Balinese (“Mas, Mas”, the Javanese word for waiter and which Balinese hate) to move the car.

Today, Jakarta regards Bali as its cultured, culinary-conscious and cash-crazy cousin; the crème de la crème of Jakartan society now have second homes in Bali; names such Dian Soedardjo (whose husband owns the Bulgari and Four Seasons Jimbaran), Mirta Kartohadiprodjo (popular publisher of Femina and Dewi magazines), Soedarmadji Damais, Mark and Mary Edelson (founders of Alila Hotels and ‘Get Going, Gloria’ herbal laxatives, respectively), and the Alisjahbana family (always represented by Pia at important Balinese cultural events). Choreographer Guruh Soekarno Putra (whose grandmother was Balinese), helped found the prestigious TIRTA SARI gamelan and dance troupe in Peliatan. Sir Warwick Purser, the popular lifestyle guru, a born again Javanese, also has a winter palace in Bali.

It is in the fields of religion and the arts, however, that Java and Bali remain close. Balinese palaces―in particular Puri Saren Ubud―now actively promote the revival of Hinduism in East and Central Java: the consecration of Candi Ceto near Solo, for example, was co-sponsored by the local (Moslem) mayor of Karanganyar.
Artistically, so many former Jakartans―painters, writers and photographers―are now based in Bali. Bali is home to photographers Rio Helmi and Rama Surya, dancer Restu Kusumaningrum, sculptor Pintor Sirait, writer Jamie James, batik impresario Bin, and many, many others.

Just as the world’s media is re-branding Bali as the home of minimalist hedonism―see the latest AIR FRANCE ‘Fly to Denpasar’ ad (left) showing a trendoid fashionista sitting on a brutalist concrete deck (no plants) outside a microwave-look ‘smart villa’ on Bali’s Bukit Peninsula―the national press has stepped up its adoration of ‘Cultural Bali’. The recent Ubud cremation got huge front-page coverage, as did the Raja of Tabanan’s anti-pestilence rat cremation. As we go to press, a private television station is working on a series called ‘Bulé Masuk Kampung – Versi Homo, Legian’.

It was Jakarta’s flamboyant Minister of Tourism, Joop Ave, himself who first said: “Let Bali be known for cultural tourism, not a culture of tourism”.

It seems that Java and Bali will always be locked at the hip, but Bali has outgrown its elder sister in terms of internationalism and sophistication

Made Wijaya is the nom de plume of Bali-based Australian writer and landscape designer Michael White.


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