BALINESE CULTURE AND ARTS

BALINESE CULTURE AND ARTS

Bali is arguably one of the world's most artistic culture. The Balinese are skillful painters, musicians, flower arrangers, wood carvers, dancers and weavers. In Bali sometimes it seems like everyone is an artist but the notion of art for art's sake and the idea of an artist was only recently introduced. There are no words in the Balinese language for art and artist until they were brought to the island by Westerners. This is partly because art is so infused into everyday life that no one had ever thought of making a distinction between the two. A lot of what Westerners consider art is produced for temples and ceremonies. Artists are often farmers or people with other jobs, who don’t consider their artistic skills to be anything special. Painter generally don’t sign their works.

Arististic, religious and ritualistic life are often all intertwined. This aesthetic is manifested in penjor, decorative bamboo poles found in doorways during festivals; cili, stylized female figures; lamak, decorative palm leaf strips; and elaborately carved coconut shell wall hangings. Many of these are made for ritual purposes and are destroyed when the ritual is finished.

The tourism industry greatly changed the Balinese artistic scene. Much of Bali’s culture scene is now oriented towards tourists. Contemporary Balinese temple carvings show surfers, gods driving cars and hold-up scenes with pistol-packing demons.

Balinese literature is rich in folktale and myths.

Early History of Balinese Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Ancient megalithic ritual sites bear witness to the long history of this island, although they have been covered over by later terraced rice fields and villages. Archaeological finds include bronze artefacts from before the present era. A large bronze drum or kettle gong called “The Moon of Pejeng”, stored in a temple in the small village of Pejeng, indicates contacts with the Dong-son bronze culture, which spread from Southern China to South-East Asia in the first millennium B.C. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

In the early centuries A.D. Bali gradually came under the strong influence of the Indianised Hindu-Buddhist culture. Bali was also influenced from time to time by Chinese culture, as can be seen in architecture and the visual arts, and in theatre, where certain mask types and plots indicate Chinese influences. The nearby island of Java played a decisive role in the development of Balinese culture. Java often overran its tiny neighbour, and Bali did not have its own king until the tenth century. In the late tenth century a Balinese prince married a princess from East Java, which led to a brief union of the kingdoms of Bali and East Java. **

Around the middle of the fourteenth century the powerful Majapahit dynasty (13th–15th centuries), the last Hindu dynasty of Java, conquered Bali, which was to become the place where the old Javanese culture made its greatest impact outside Java itself. The island of Bali, however, was never wholly Javanised; it continued to develop its own type of Hindu culture, which, unlike that in Java, managed to retain its integrity against the spread of Islam, which came to dominate Javanese culture in the fourteenth century. **

When the East Javanese Majapahit dynasty was conquered by later Islamic dynasties in the early 1500s, members of the Hindu nobility, artists, and priests fled to Bali, bringing with them a new wave of Javanese culture. The culture of the small Balinese kingdoms preserved many features inherited from East Java, whose influence is especially obvious in the oldest preserved forms of Balinese court theatre. **

Early contacts with Islamic Java were few, and Balinese culture was able to develop its intrinsic features undisturbed by outside influences. The West became interested in Bali in the sixteenth century, but the first European trading station was not established until the middle of the nineteenth century. The Dutch soon exerted their influence on the island, but Bali never became a centre of colonial rule in the same way as the island of Java. Balinese culture preserved its original features throughout the nineteenth century, a critical period for many Asian countries under Western colonial rule. **

Later History of Balinese Culture

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “In 1906 the Dutch, nevertheless, took Bali by force, and most of the members of the eight royal families took their lives in an act of ritual suicide (puputan). Only a few of the children of these families survived, though they lost most of their political power and wealth. As a result, the artistic traditions of the courts came to be preserved by the artists now employed by the village communities. The villages of Bali had traditionally maintained a relatively broad degree of self-government with village councils (banjar) presiding over common affairs. The musical instruments, masks, and theatrical costumes of the courts, as well as their traditions of theatre and dance, became the cultural heritage of the villages and their councils.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

The Western myth of Bali was created in the 1920s and 1930s, and its fame as “the last South Sea paradise” quickly spread to the West, partly as the result of a regular shipping route opened by the Dutch. Bali soon became a Mecca for artists and travellers thirsting for the exotic. Western artists and intellectuals found their way to Bali, and local artists inspired by Western aesthetics began to develop modern Balinese art. Western travellers and influences soon had an effect on the development of theatre and dance. Luxury hotels began to stage performances, which were the predecessors of today’s tourist shows, and Balinese dance and theatre became known in the West when a Balinese gamelan orchestra and dance troupe toured Europe, performing to enthusiastic audiences. **

World War II disrupted the peace of this island paradise, and the Japanese Occupation was a trying time for the Balinese. Indonesia declared its independence on 17 August 1945, and soon afterwards local officials were entrusted with the civilian administration of the island. This ensured the preservation of the island’s own culture and religion in predominantly Islamic Indonesia. Further trouble, however, lay ahead. In 1946 the Dutch returned to Bali, which led to a bloody civil war and the heroic puputan ritual suicide of Balinese freedom fighters. **

The 1960s was a tragic time in Bali. The island’s main volcano, the sacred Gunung Agung, erupted and caused great damage, while famine and bloody political upheavals killed thousands of Balinese. The beginning of mass tourism was heralded by the opening of an international airport in the late 1960s. The tourist industry has grown steadily, and despite the bombings by militant Islamists in 2002 and 2005, the present yearly number of visitors is about two million. This has had both positive and negative effects on Balinese theatre and dance. While tourism provides welcome revenue, it can also erode the standards of performances when the local repertoire is adapted to foreign tastes. **

Religion and Culture in Bali

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bali is the home to its own type of religion, Bali-Hinduism. It combines elements of animism, ancestor worship and Hinduism, which was received from India almost two millennia ago. After that Hinduism developed in Bali through several steps into its present syncretistic form. Religion is very much a part of everyday life in Bali. Morning starts with offerings given to various parts of the house, trees, rivers etc. A complicated system of several simultaneous calendars gives an almost daily reason for minor or major temple festivals somewhere on the island. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

Temple festivals include myriads of different rituals and ceremonies as well as voluptuous offerings, which in themselves are art works of the highest order. Temple festivals, as well birthdays, weddings or grand cremations provide the natural context for many theatrical performances. As in India, also in Bali, theatre and dance, on the deepest level, are seen as acts of sacrifice. In Bali, as in many Southeast-Asian countries, there are no specific words for an “actor” or a “dancer”. A general term, tukang, means “the one who beautifies”. **

A charismatic performer is said to possess taksu, a special energy or a kind of spiritual power. Some masks or even theatrical headdresses are also believed have taksu. Many masks such as the mask of the village protector, Barong, as well as some exceptionally old masks are venerated in temples. A good performer should be able fulfil the tripartite idea, which covers, first, bayu or energy, secondly, sabda or inner voice, and third, idep or thought. **

Bali as a Western Art Colony

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “ The twentieth century brought an end to the isolated tranquillity of Bali. For centuries Balinese culture and theatre had been able to develop undisturbed. Now, influences flowed from all directions: from both the West and the island of Java. However, throughout their history, the Balinese have combined new ideas with old traditions, and foreign influences have stimulated Balinese theatre even in politically unstable times. The increasing mass tourism of recent years has created a new audience, which, however, has not always had a solely positive effect. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

I Nyoman Mario, one of creators of kebyar, was greatly admired by both the Balinese and foreigners living on the island. Over the decades Westerners have had an increasing influence on the development of theatre and dance. Dutch colonial officials were, in some cases, patrons of the renaissance of North Balinese theatre, and the German-born painter and composer, Walter Spies, who settled in the small town of Ubud in Southern Bali, was in many ways instrumental in reshaping Balinese arts. Among the Western artists residing mainly in Bali, mainly in the village of Ubud, were the Mexican painter Miquel Covarrubias and his wife, Rose Covarrubias, who actively documented Balinese dance and theatre. Among the Western residents was also the American composer, Colin McPhee. His writings and compositions proved important in popularising gamelan music in the West. **

Walter Spies was also the founder of the modern Balinese school of painting. He was visited by a wide range of Western artists and scholars from Charlie Chaplin to Margaret Mead, and he assisted European film-makers in planning the first documentary on Bali. For this film a new type of dance was created, the kecak, which has found an established place in the Balinese standard repertoire. These early Western admirers of Balinese culture were instrumental in organising the first visits of Balinese artists to the West. **

Some argue that Bali has been over-hyped as an artist center. Bruce W Carpenter wrote in Indonesia Expat, “Long touted as a world-class centre of the arts and a magnet for international artists, in truth the island has hosted very few longterm residents who ever achieved international recognition. Bali has mostly functioned as an alternative to those like Theo Meier who dreamed too become Neo-Gauguins long after the original had kicked the bucket. The results are often painful to see. The most notable exceptions are Mexican Miguel Covarubbias and to some extent Walter Spies. In many ways it can also be argued that Bali’s tempting beauty and the expatriate lifestyle is a poisoned honey pot that lures artists and lulls them into a deadly euphoria. For instance when the Italian painter, Renato Cristiano, left Europe in the early 1950s, he was on the cusp of a promising career as a major abstract artist. His works were praised in Italy, Paris and New York and collected by the likes of MoMA, Nelson Rockefeller and Philip Johnson. After a few years in Bali he rejected abstraction and ended up producing sweet images of topless Balinese “Madonna”. His gallery and the collectors were not impressed. [Source: Bruce W Carpenter, Indonesia Expat, June 8, 2012]

Bali, Victim of Its Own Success?

In 2007, Sara Webb of Reuters wrote: “With its manicured rice terraces, Hindu temples, and processions of women bearing Carmen Miranda-like mounds of fruit on their heads, Bali has successfully sold itself as a tropical paradise. But the island resort, which attracts supermodels and rock stars as well as thousands of less famous economic migrants in search of a better life, may become a victim of its own success. Mosques, shopping malls, and luxury villas have mushroomed on this largely Hindu island set in the predominantly Muslim Indonesian archipelago. [Source: Sara Webb, Reuters, December 12, 2007 ^*^]

“If a bid to lift height restrictions on buildings goes ahead, the skyline could be set for a more controversial addition: high-rises, seen as the most effective way to deal with a growing population and rapidly shrinking supply of land. "The religious people don't want this, they will have a problem with the temples and the way of life," said Putu Suasta, an environmentalist, explaining that the mostly Hindu Balinese believe that other buildings should not tower above temples. "I don't think they will allow it." ^*^

“Bali is being transformed by non-Balinese who some critics say are gobbling up its precious rice fields for property development, competing head-on with the Balinese for jobs, and bringing alien cultures to the island. "I want to keep my culture," said Luh Ketut Suryani, a psychiatrist who is lobbying to preserve and popularise Balinese ways, including language and customs, and to make it harder for other Indonesians to settle on the island. "If you want to build a big mosque and church, build it in another place. If you don't agree, don't come to Bali. All Indonesians are equal but now we (Balinese) feel we are a minority." ^*^

Post Bali Bombing Culture Scene

In 2012, ten years after the bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, Jakarta Post: “Small independent businesses started establishing themselves in the island and by 2008, the Bali Creative Community was founded. Rudolf, one of the founders of the community, said that the emergence of Bali’s creative industry was nearly simultaneous with similar developments in Bandung, West Java’s capital, whose youth have developed their own music, clothing and design industries. “The idea is to branch out from tourism so we’re not dependent on it and Bali would not be heavily affected by force majeurs,” Rudolf, who now resides in Sydney, said during a Skype interview. Apart from terrorist attacks, an outbreak of bird flu could also send tourists packing, he added.[Source: Jakarta Post, October 12 2012 /=\]

“Nina Hadinata, the 28-year-old founder of clothing label This is a Love Song, acknowledged tourism’s contribution to the island’s economy, but she added that she was sometimes saddened by current developments that “change the simplicity of the island we used to know”. Nina believes that Bali’s youth are shaping the island with innovation and creativity. “Now more than ever, there is a force of young people striving to think outside the box, creating ideas that we have never seen before here on the island,” she wrote in an email. /=\

“The size of Bali’s creative industry has yet to be measured. Rudolf said the community is a fluid organization that was different from a business association. Suparta Karang is the owner of Mimpi bungalows and a native of Kuta. After the 2002 bombings, he initiated the Kuta Carnival Festival to attract tourists. He said people from outside of Bali had an advantage over locals, who are obliged to be involved in the planning and organizing of the numerous religious rituals, and less time to run their businesses than other investors. While creative Bali youth expand their horizons to other areas, local leaders remain fixated on tourism. All around them, other creative people are producing innovative products, such as Nina with her clothing label, and other youth engaged in film and design. It seems as though the regional leaders of Bali stand to learn a thing or two from the island’s youth.. /=\

Culture and Tourism in Bali

Bali Tourism Board director Ngurah Wijaya told the Jakarta Post the unique Balinese culture is what makes the island such a special destination. So, the government should prevent Balinese business owners from being marginalized through proper management of the tourist industry. “You can’t blame the businesspeople ... but the government should make sure that the development that’s underway matches with what Balinese need, and not with what national [business players] need”. [Source: Jakarta Post, October 12 2012 /=\]

The leading industry in Bali is still tourism, contributing 30 percent of total regional revenue. The second-largest sector is agriculture, a fall-back in Bali if disruptions destabilize the tourism sector, according to the head of the Central Statistics Agency (BPS)’s Bali office, Gede Suarsa The tourist industry is undoubtedly growing strong, but those reaping the largest benefits come from mostly outside of Bali. Suarsa estimated that 75 percent of players in the tourism industry are from other parts of Indonesia or from foreign countries. This lopsided ownership poses risks of capital flight if tourism in Bali faces a time of crisis. /=\

“Some local entrepreneurs are concerned they will be marginalized by outside interests who do not share the same cultural traditions and responsibilities. Ngurah wonders whether Bali actually needs as many tourists and as many hotels as it has today. The island welcomed more than 2.8 million last year, an increase from around 2.5 million visitors in 2010. Badung regency, home to Kuta, Nusa Dua and Jimbaran, has seen a surge in hotel rooms, from around 37,000 in 2001 to 78,000 this year. /=\

Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika acknowledged the problem of mass tourism in Bali. “So many people come to earn their livings here, to get wealthy and to suck money from Bali,” he said. While Bali was becoming more prosperous, he said, it was becoming overwhelmed with urban issues of traffic jams, garbage, water problems, accommodations, pollution and social disparities. Pastika attempted to call for a moratorium on hotel development in Badung, Gianyar and Denpasar, to shift development to the island’s less popular northern areas. However, the call was not compulsory and the southern areas were less willing to cooperate. Badung regent AA Gede Agung said he still welcomed hotel investment projects.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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