Avenues of penyor cascading over the streets and lanes of Ubud, a striking reminder that Galungan and Kuningan had passed for yet another Balinese year.
Bridges between an unseen world of spirit and a contemporary corporal world penyor symbolise this time when ancestor spirits are believed to visit their worldly families partaking in feasting and festivities. Redolent of Christmas in my own tradition, in the mood and in the symbols of celebration, there is much that connects these seasons. Both are times of goodwill, one grounded in the endless cycling of souls the other in a singular incarnation of the supreme, yet both are times of explosive artistic expression.
Along Jalan Raya Ubud, through the lanes and side streets, so many of the palm leaf decorations were ready-made, no longer crafted in the village. Once they would have been fashioned by local hands in young coconut palm, much as in an earlier time we made our own Christmas decorations. Now in the 21st century, and the dollar chasing epoch of mass tourism, time is money corroding the intangible non-monetary pleasures of a more fulsome engagement with season. In the cash economy it is easier to buy it all of the rack. Now it is sourced from Munti, a small village in Karangasem regency East Bali.
Reflecting on seasons past I stopped for breakfast at a small warung just north of the banyan tree in central Ubud. Agung Niang is an old friend and no visit to Ubud is complete without her special smoked chicken, vegetable and rice. She is a few years older than me and in the shadow of the season just passed I couldn’t help but observe how many of the people I’d known, my friends, mentors and colleagues, were now dead.
I Gusti Made Semung
I Gusti Made Semung, one of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s son’s had first introduced me to this warung, some 25 years ago. While without the global notoriety of his father I Gusti made Semung was an experienced cultural interpreter fond of recounting some of his earlier encounters with Margaret Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson.
In March 1936 when the newlyweds arrived in Bali their first eight weeks was spent in Ubud, learning the basics of the Balinese language. Already attracting interpreters of Balinese culture in the persons of people such as Walter Spies and Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, Ubud’s Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati welcomed such serious students of culture.
One morning over coffee my friend told me a story of one encounter with Bateson, illustrating a challenge of discernment probably encountered by many an anthropologists in discourse with a guide or informant.
Mangosteen have a multi-sided pattern on their base. Those familiar with this delicious fruit would know that the number of sides in the pattern corresponds with the number of segments in the mangosteen. Gusti delighted in explaining how he mystified Bateson by holding up mangosteen, stalk side towards the viewer and predicting how many segments they contained, thus proving that the unseen magical world is often merely in the mind of the beholder.
The following video clip contains the voice of I Gusti Made Semung translating for the interviewer Lorne Blair. This clip is from The Ring of Fire series. It also contains some footage of I Dewa Nyoman Batuan, another old friend from a nearby village, whom I’ll write about at some other time.
Gusti and his renown architect, artist, and craftsman father also mentored Bali student, historian and celebrated film maker John Darling. Through Lempad John was able to build on family land in Taman, north of Ubud. After Lempad’s death at 116 years in 1978, John’s inspired work Lempad of Bali gave us a powerful insight into his life, his passing and the ceremonies leading up to his cremation. Through the Lempad story we were treated to a glimpse of a culture still poorly understood in the outside world.
John followed this work with many others, not all about Bali, but notably the Bali Triptych. Meeting him in Melbourne with Cokorda Raka Kerthyasa, five years after the release of Lempad of Bali, was inspiring. I loved his matter of fact acceptance of Balinese culture, his spiritual insights and the ease with which we could fall into discussion. He was a supportive figure in the early days of Asian Field Study Centres.
Years later he sent me a copy of The Healing of Bali, an unhesitating gesture that contributed so manifestly to my own healing after the bombings of 2002. When he became ill, with the hereditary disease haemochromatosis, I often rang him but as his end approached his wife Sara protected him from my calls. I was greatly saddened with his passing in 2011. “He is remembered by the people of Ubud as one of the few foreign ‘custodians’ of Balinese culture who didn’t take – but shared.” Tjokorda Gde Mahatma Putra Kerthyasa said of his life.
Wanting to meet up with Rio Helmi at some stage I asked Agung Niang where the new Rio Helmi Gallery & Cafe was. She pointed, it was just across the road. Someone was already preparing to open for the day. I made a mental note to ring him and moved on, turning into the first lane, then right into the next street Jalan Kajeng, which used to have the colloquial name of Hans Snel Road. Another mental note, visit the Il Giardino restaurant now in the garden of the Hans Snel Bungalows.
Hans Snel died sixteen years ago. Quite a character and one of the first non-Indonesians to be granted citizenship. He was part of the Dutch military forces in 1946 that were attempting to reimpose colonial control in the newly formed Republic of Indonesia. Hans loved Indonesia, Bali in particular, and his commitment was sealed when he immediately fell in love with a local woman.
Not so much a mentor as an icon for me, his challenging the neo-colonial orthodoxies in the immediate post war period placed him completely out of step with many of his countrymen. Such a place I know well from my own experiences in the mid-1960. Was he a deserter or just AWOL or a hero of sorts? I wondered and remembered him as I walked on.
Encountering Coca Cola
Kajeng is narrow, above it the airspace dominated by over-arching penyor and a tangle of electricity and communications cables lane. Just up the lane a bright red Coca-Cola delivery truck almost seemed in place.
Snapping a few shots I moved on till something stopped me. Glancing to the east I noticed a yellow wreathed Ganesha guarding the entrance to a family compound, then the name Roda. Of course I was at Roda’s house. We first met years earlier at the Hotel Campuan. On my first trip to Bali, with a small family, the decision was between Cecak Inn, once on the site of Ibah, and Hotel Campuan. Not really knowing Bali and only having travelled in Sumatra, we opted for the more well-known hotel. A mistake in hindsight, but it allowed serendipitous meetings with Roda and the very lively Penny Berton.
Roda was visiting bungalows and selling his distinctive bamboo flutes and illustrated books showing the notation for basic Balinese tunes. I thought they were expensive but bought a flute and book anyway, intrigued by the man himself. I often saw him around Ubud over the next year. We sometimes chatted.
With Asian Field Study Centres now about to welcome its first intake of students, I was on an extended stay in Ubud when I met him one morning in the lane leading to a small hotel where I was staying. He seemed to remember my youngest son, Evan whom he met as an infant. Evan was delighted when Roda handed him a book and painted flute. Initially apprehensive, not knowing what he might charge now that my son was such an enthusiastic possessor of a new toy, I was surprised when he refuse payment. I tried to insist but he was adamant. There would be no charge. I thanked him but remained puzzled.
Later than evening Roda died. Learning of this we asked for help in what we must do to pay our respects. The next day, appropriate supplies of white cloth and rice in hand we went to his house. Roda was lying in state. This was terrifying for me. Although I’d worked with cadavers and seen one deceased traffic accident victim, I had never seen anyone I knew, dead. Roda still lives in my memories and his generous gesture still leaves me contemplating just how cognizant of his imminent departure he was.
Asian Field Study Centres operated a field study program that began as a partnership between myself, Matina Pentes and Adrienne Truelove. It offered a rich experiences for students. One of the most successful elements was what were termed Cultural Options. These were hands-on sessions with artists, artisans and dancers in the wider Ubud area. Students made their own way to each session working with their teacher in the way any Balinese person might learn. Wayan Cemul was our stone carving teacher, he lived a few doors north of Roda’s place and I was standing outside his family compound moments later.
Cemul was someone who Madeleine Murray discovered when she studied stone carving with him in 1983. He proved to be our most successful teacher. Completely dedicated to his craft, original, patient and outstanding in handling difficult students. He did all without English and with his rudimentary Bahasa Indonesia. He was a master of non-verbal communication. In evaluation students consistently, rated him as the best. Unfortunately my last visit with him revealed that he was no longer remembering much of the past. I loved him and respected him and was sad when I learned of his death. This video conveys something of the man and his work, but it was produced during his twilight years.
An encounter with my old friend Ida Bagus Oka
Passing Sri Rejeki Art Shop a little further along the road, I stopped when the proprietor hailed me. We chatted for a moment. Just basa basi before I realised it was Ida Bagus Oka, a man I’d known for many years, who like me was revealing some of the distinct features of aging.
We’ve always had a cordial relationship. It was tested in a most challenging way years ago, when some antisocial student clients, working as a team, began stealing wood carvings from his market stall. Realising a possible connection with me he followed them back to the hotel rather than raising any alarms.
In those days summary penalties for theft, particularly by outsiders, could be most severe. I recalled one incident of a thief being beaten to death by a large group in Padang Tegal, just to the south, a year earlier. My field worker colleague at the time, Bob Glassick, a Psychiatric Social Worker and accustomed to crisis intervention. He had recovered the goods, paid a small fee to Ida Bagus for his inconvenience and reported the matter to the students’ teachers before I even knew about it.
My work was minimal. After the students returned home I extracted letters of apology from them and returned six months later sitting with Ida Bagus and translating each apology in turn. These days his interests turn on surviving now that his business is no longer located in the Ubud market. “People go to the market to buy things, here they walk past on their way somewhere else. It’s harder to do business here.” I could see his point.
Nyoman Sarma – The Most Recent Departure
Now flowing with this day as it unfolded I remembered that Nyoman Sarma once lived opposite. He was another of the deceased, one with whom I’d spoken with quite recently, just before his death. Nyoman was born 1952 in Banjar Taman Kaja. He had ties in Kalimantan where his brother was a policeman, as well as Bali and also spent a part of his early life working outside Indonesia. Nyoman was often in Kalimantan, what he did I’m not sure. I do know that he had an early interest in wood carving.
While Balinese carving is intricate and traditionally tied to various Indic epics, Dayak carving generally follows simpler lines. Glancing at the front of Nyoman’s old compound I noticed various sculptures in that style. At one point he had a small carving shop on Jalan Raya just opposite Jalan Gotama.
Nyoman maintained a variety of entrepreneurial interests from land to restaurants and even beading. In 1979 he and Silvio Sentosa opened Nomad’s Restaurant on the site of his carving shop. Later it moved across the road to the corner of Gotama.
Nomad’s was the third restaurant opened in Ubud. He was an immensely resourceful person. When I saw most of him, in the period 1989 to 1994 he was chairman of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Gianyar Regency. Ten years later, in 2002 he began planning to establish an organic farm to supply Nomad restaurant with clean green products.
Starting with one hectare of land at Baturiti near Bedugul he had grown the operation to 6 hectares by 2004 and was producing methane as a fuel from 10 cattle grazing on the farm. He also established his own organic garden in Ubud, right by his compound and the small resort he developed alongside it. Years ago I remember him wanting to sell me a small parcel of land, he knew of my interest in the environment. Actually sell is the wrong word, although he framed it this way. Foreigners may only lease land in Indonesia. I didn’t take him up on the offer.
In 2009 the Permaculture Research Institute produced this story on Nyoman. His passing left us with unfinished business of another kind. Years earlier we had both confronted a mystery. I suspect he held more parts of the puzzle than I, but over the years, with a little help, I worked it out even though a few pieces were still missing. Last time we chatted warmly beside the Wantilan I told him I knew the end of the story but it was only for his ears and that I’d tell him the next time we met. Now the complete story will never be told.