Bali: Living in Harmony with Nature

In Bali–the lush green, mountainous little island of the Indonesian archipelago–every other person you talk to has an artist in the family–a painter, sculptor, wood carver, dancer.  As you drive away from Denpasar–the bustling capital city of Bali, the winding,  smooth, metallic road is dotted with villages, each specializing in a different craft. In Batubulan live stone carvers, chipping away at big blocks of soft grey stone, carving out huge statues and enormous temple gates. Celuk is a thriving centre of silversmiths, creating intricate filigrees, fine jewellery and miniatures. In Sukawati people make wind chimes from bamboo and weave baskets from coconut-palm leaves. The villagers of Mas excel in wood carving–human and animal figures, face masks. The people in Puaya create leather shadow puppets for wayang kulit  (shadow-puppet play).

Up north in Ubud–nestled amidst the luscious, fragrant hills, fringed with terraced rice fields–every second dwelling is an abode of a painter.

Ubud is the high point of our journey to Indonesia.

The sign board reads: I Wayan Bukel Art Gallery & Pension . It is a tiny room with a tiled floor, glistening white. The walls are adorned with paintings–foliage in a cascade of cool greens and the birds of all shades of rainbow. The door is open and no one is inside.  So I walk up into the artist’s domain. The staircase carved out of the hilly terrain opens up to a bright balcony canopied with a traditional bamboo-and-thatch roof. Barefoot, bare chest, wearing sarongs, are squatted two men on the tiled floor–a boss and an employee–with brushes in hand and palettes full of acrylic colours in the lap, creating birds in paradise. Nearby is a pile of canvases with similar pencil drawings ready to be filled in with colours. “Each drawing is original”, tells 28-year-old I Wayang Wiguna as I scrutinise them closely.  How long does it take them to finish one? A big canvas takes a minimum of one month. “When I have a feeling to work, I work,” he says.  I remember yesterday’s musical notes that had floated out of the balcony for long: either one of them was busy with a wind instrument.

Wiguna’s father is a farmer. “I don’t like to work in rice paddies. It’s back breaking work”, says Wiguna, who took to painting after finishing high school (12th grade). Did he learn it at school? “I did not go to any art school”, Wiguna’s round, smooth and relaxed face lights up with a smile. “It’s nothing. All the people here are painters,” he says, bemused at my reverence for art.

Balinese have a totally different concept of art. For them art has been a way of life, one of the many things that they do while living, like tilling land, cooking food, eating, sleeping. Traditionally, art always had a purpose. You produced a painting, or carved a sculpture, to be used in temples or palaces or in your own house (in the form of calendar), or to be consumed in religious and magical ceremonies. Art was not produced for the sake of art, to be desired and treasured for itself. Painters, sculptors and dancers were respected but were not considered special people. It was after World War I, when some European artists settled in Bali, that the Balinese were exposed, for the first time, to the new aesthetic (commercial) concept of art.

And thus the mass production of ‘The Birds in Paradise’. The boss, 42-year-old I Wayang Bukel,  a farmer’s son, owner of the gallery and the house, smiles. “That’s what my boss orders, just birds and flowers. I used to do traditional themes but no more,” his voice is soft, has no rancour, and his face shows a certain inner peace. Traditional themes are derived from religious texts, in particular,  Mahabharta and Ramayana epics, and Balinese folk tales. Bekul sell the paintings he and his employee produce to a rich gallery owner/art dealer in Denpasar. Once in a while the paintings are bought directly by tourists.

The production of arts and crafts has grown steadily since Bali opened up to tourists after 1965. Many artists and sculptors from other areas of Bali, and from the islands of Java and Sumatra, as well as Western artists, settled in Ubud and the surrounding areas. But the change has been too rapid after the mid 1980s.  Since 1991,  more than 500,000 tourists have been coming annually to Bali.

However, the Balinese way of life, in general, have not degenerated as yet into a mad rush for a fast buck. Balinese, by and large, appear to be relaxed, dignified and friendly people. The artists and craftsmen in Ubud and surrounding villages don’t cajole, or lure, you into buying their pieces of art. They treat you–the tourist–with respect, on equal footing as a human being.

Are there women painters in Ubud? Yes, a few, I am told. Traditionally painting and sculpting have been men’s domain. “But now women can do whatever they want to,” says Bukel whose wife works in a small fashion industry in Ubud. “There are 150 women in the factory. We make wigs and hair pieces. It is managed by a Balinese woman who sells these items to a Dutch concern”, says Swati, a demure, petite woman in her late 30s.

“I have been working there for the last fifteen years”. Swati is off to work at 7:30 in the morning, returns home around 3:30, looks after the household and the pension–two rooms built within the premises to be let out to tourists. Swati’s 17 year-old-son and 15-year-old daughter are studying in school and  learning traditional Balinese dance. Bekul and Swati’s household is large, like any other Balinese household. Bekul’s parents and two married brothers, with their spouses and children, live in the same premises in separate one-room-one-verandah units.

Ubud’s main road, Jalan Raya, is lined with art galleries, artists’ homes, cafes, book shops, restaurants, money changers, travel agents, tour operators, tourist information centres and all modern amenities.

“Before 1965, Bali was nothing. It was just a forest inhabited by us poor people. My father had a rice field but he didn’t own it. So one third of the produce went into its rent and one-third in buying the food for the family.  My father was left only with a little money to take care of the needs of the ten of us–six brothers and four sisters. He had a tough time. But now life is good. Tourism has brought prosperity to Bali. And I am happy,” the chubby, moon-faced Dirga, 43-year-old driver of a shiny new Suzuki coaster, is chirpy. “Now my parents live with me. They don’t have to work any more in the rice field. Me and my wife take care of them and they take care of our three children when we both go out to work”.

For many years Dirga’s wife sold handicrafts to the tourists from a small rented shop. “But she quit because there is too much competition, too many people selling things to tourist. Now she arranges religious ceremonies and gets a good amount. She is learning Sanskrit.” Dirga and his wife belong to the Brahmana caste. Bali Hinduism is different from the Hindu religion in the subcontinent, a bit egalitarian, in some ways. Here women of Brahmana caste can perform, or lead, the religious ceremonies. There is no rigid demarcation between the so-called ‘man and woman’s domains’. Petty trade, particularly, is dominated by women. In Bali, village and town markets are managed mainly women traders.

Ida Bagus Dirga bought the coaster on credit some three years ago. Now the debt is paid off and he is the proud owner of the vehicle.  “These days young people don’t want to work in rice paddies. For landless people there is no money in agriculture. In Sanur 75 per cent of the young people are engaged in tourism”, Dirga is driving us from Sanur beach back to Ubud.

But hasn’t tourism brought some negative elements with it? “In the beaches, yes. Especially our main beach Kota is ruined by the onslaught of tourists. Too many hassles there. I don’t like to go there any more. There is too much noise., discotheques, pubs and bands. Kota beach is for young people. Sanur beach is for older people,  not so noisy,” says Dirga. “Last year when your prime minister Benazir came to Bali, she stayed in the Beach Hotel. She did a lot of shopping from Sanur Beach Market, ha ha ha..”, he chuckles. Then asks, “His brother was killed, wasn’t he? Who killed him?”

On the dashboard of Dirga’s vehicle is the little tray woven out of coconut-palm leaves, decorated with offerings banten–bits of food (rice, coconut), flowers (chrysanthemum, bougainvillaea) and incense–to keep the demons away. Bantens  you would find everywhere in Bali, on the street floor, on pavements, in front of the doors, on the bridges, trees, temples. Every nook and corner and niche would have this artistically displayed, curious little work of daily ritual.

We are warned by others as well about the ‘too touristic-garish nature of hotel-dotted Kota resort beach’, so we decide to avoid it. But can we go back home without visiting a Bali beach? The palm-fringed, surf-pounding, emerald watered, golden sandy beach of the picture postcard fame? That would tantamount to a sin, almost. So we come to Sanur.

Sanur, the 3 km long east-coast beach turns out to be okay for us Karachiites. Except for the swaying coconut palm trees and the cafes on the shore, there is really nothing exceptional for those who don’t know swimming, surfing, scuba diving or snorkelling!  At places, the water is muddy and a bit blackish. And the famous Bali Beach Hotel is conspicuously ugly. The promenade that runs along the Bali Hotel is lined with deck chairs full of sun bathing westerners. The adjacent Sanur Beach Market has rows of stalls with Balinese women selling knick-knacks. A little farther from the Hotel and the Market for the tourists, the coast is dominated by local families with children playing in the sand and eating corns-on-the-cob. The young couples are sitting on the canopied benches, sipping drinks. Weary looking women are selling bamboo wind chimes and other crafts in dilapidated, make-shift, wooden stalls.

I Wayang is one such women. She makes bamboo chimes and runs her stall to supplement the family income. She has studied upto middle level (class 9) and is now educating her 9-year-old son. Her husband is a construction worker. Maade, 22 and single, manages her ready-made garments stall with the help of her younger sister while her parents sew batik shirts, blouses and skirts.  Maade started helping her parents in trade six years ago and could not attend school beyond middle level.

Denpasar, the capital of Bali–once a market town–has grown fast during the last 20 years, we are told. To many tourists, who land in Denpasar to go down to the beaches or head up to the mountains, the bustling town looks prematurely aged. The town’s main artery is lined with multi-storey buildings that are blackened with moss and seem rickety. The storm water drains constructed along the narrow gorges stink with sewage. But what gives Denpasar an aura of its own are the many shrines and temples with traditional compounds and gates and granite-carved pillars radiating with orange and scarlet floral offerings tucked neatly in various corners and niches.

At the bus terminus in Denpasar, a boy befriends us. Tanned, he is in his early 20s, wearing a jeans and a sleepy look in his big almond-shaped eyes. He sits besides us in the bus and talks in broken English. He is also going to Ubud, he says. Then he takes out an album. “Stay at this pension,  if you like”. We take the album. There are photos of the pension, and the post cards sent by the tourists who stayed there, all praises for the place and the woman who runs it. Enchanted with Lestari House and its mistress, we decide to take a chance on this young tourist agent and disembark at Kutuh Kelod on the main artery of Ubud.

We climb up the stone staircase, carved out of a hill,  and disembark at Lestari House. A traditional Bali dwelling, Lestari House is a square plot on a hilly terrain, enclosed by brick walls, containing separate units and open pavilions, each with its own function. A unit is a room with attached bath and a verandah. In between, there are open spaces and the units are connected with brick-laid passages. There is a kitchen and the granary and three units–one for head of the household and two for the married sons. There is a pavilion near the kitchen where women of the house process vegetables and grains–peeling, cutting, sieving. The pavilion used as a family temple, is built on the higher level, with a cornice adorned with offerings and the statutes of deities.

The family section is partly separated through a brick wall covered with creepers, bushes and swaying plants. The split level leads you to the pension–three units  for tourists–laid out in front of an open courtyard. A breath-taking place. With thick foliage, red, pink and yellow scented flowers, lush green grass, the courtyard presents a well-maintained nook of a forest.

And that’s the way every house is laid out in Bali. In harmony with nature. “The Balinese concept of life is based on three principles,” Yuda Yudha, a young man has told us just the other day in a Denpasar street, ” Human harmony with human; human harmony with nature and human harmony with God”.

Across the road, night has come alive. The stage for traditional Balinese music, dance and drama is set on a raised platform of a large pavilion that serves as theatre. Chairs are spread out in rows in front. The tickets are being sold by the music and dance group–one of more than 1500 such groups active in Bali–outside the pindaal .  The audience take seats on first-come-first-serve basis. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal. The group manager and artistes’ children play with the curtain, darting in and out on the stage. The performance starts on dot with gamelan  orchestra. The musicians are seated on the floor with their instruments. Then comes Prembon–a new genre of masked dance drama, a popular form in Bali which relates folk lore and historical tales to everyday life, with humour and satire. There are several presentations in the programme. At the end, the audience are treated with the most famous and exquisite Balinese dance Legong, performed by two young girls with fans in their hands.

Outside the theatre pavilion, the streets are empty, the night is star-lit and calm has descended on Ubud.

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