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Some Enchanted Island

THE "DISCOVERY" of Bali by affluent Westerners began after theend of World War I, when the Dutch colonial authorities—anxious to bleach out the stains of their colonial regime—started in earnest to create Bali's image as an island paradise, a spot of Eden. They strove to reinforce Bali's embryo image as the "isle of culture," full of smiling folk contentedly dancing, making batik, carving effigies of hero Krishna and wicked witch Rangda, arranging floral offerings, staging picturesque cremation ceremonies and playing the gamelan far into the soft tropical night. The core of this policy was that Bali had an ancient, traditional and authentic culture that should be protected from cross-pollination with modernity. The island was its own museum. It must be conserved. This was done deliberately but not cynically: The Dutch, it seems, really did want to make some kind of amends for the mass suicides their rule had provoked in the past. And although tourism wasn't an industry yet—through the early 1930s, fewer than two thousand visitors a year landed on the island—something had begun to click between Bali and the West. The place was turning into Fantasy Island for the well-to-do, who were the only ones (apart from the occasional anthropologist, such as Margaret Mead) who had months of free time for a Pacific excursion by ship. Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke intrepidly went there. So did Harold Nicolson, Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward, who wrote a mildly sardonic verse on the cultural overload:

As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali,
And though as a place it's entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And though the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavour.

This image of Bali was shaped by visitors in the thirties. One of the most influential was Vanity Fair's cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias (1904­1957), whose interest in Mexican cultural nationalism predisposed him toward Bali's own unique culture, in which, he wrote in Island of Bali (1937), "Everybody seems to be an artist. Coolies and princes, priests and peasants, men and women alike, can dance, play musical instruments, paint, or carve in wood and stone."

The best place to get a look at the various strands in Balinese painting is the Neka Museum, near Ubud, built and endowed by a wealthy Balinese. Apart from the museum, Ubud's repute as a cultural center these days is flimsy and undeserved: Its "galleries" offer assembly-line paintings and sculpture, mostly of wretched quality. Covarrubias's belief that everyone in Bali was some kind of an artist seems, alas, to have come true.

The Neka Museum houses the work of a number of expatriate painters, including Donald Friend and an influential German artist named Walter Spies. Spies became a champion of Balinese culture, not only of its painting but of its music and dance. He was the first to record the haunting, contrapuntal music of the gamelan orchestras, whose variations he studied to the point of obsession. Dance and Drama in Bali (1938), which he co-wrote with Beryl de Zoete, an English writer of Dutch parentage, remains the standard book on its subject. Its two writers saw music and dance as the quintessential forms of Balinese culture.

"Music permeates their life to a degree which we can hardly imagine, a music of incomparable subtlety and intricacy, yet as simple as breathing." You don't have to be an expert on music to sense the truth of this, and to attend a gamelan performance is a high point of any visit to Bali, however short. Likewise, the dance dramas, which generally evolved out of ancient rituals of exorcism and of invocation of the gods.


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