Are there now too many festivals in Bali?
Is calling something a festival in Bali just an excuse for hot-blooded men to hurl teenage girls in the air and catch them in an inappropriate manner?
Of course I don’t mean the marvellous temple festivals — the very backbone of Balinese cultural life — but the various regional and sports and fashion and cooking and writing and New Age festivals, all trumped up in the years since the Bali Bomb to show that “Bali Can”!
They seem to be swamping a ceremonial calendar which keeps the Balinese so busy anyway.
Last month in my quiet almost somnolent neighbourhood of Mertasari — a ‘new’ suburb populated mostly by grey nomads (European pensioners on bikes), and by the lesser sons of minor Sanur nobility — we had to endure the tail end of a ‘people’s party’ (the popular Sanur Village Festival).
We all heard the hum of the magnificent giant kites being flown but were, for the most part, scared to go out for fear of being run down by convoys of rabble-rousers. Any gaps in the ‘surround-sound’ of revving were filled with Jakarta pop music — blasted through the palm groves from a sound system at water’s edge.
Except for the most artistic kites, there was nothing Balinese about the proceedings.
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A day after the Sanur Village Festival closed in a melee of fireworks, I attended, in nearby Sidakarya Village, an open-air traditional dance spectacle of such intense beauty and grace, and appropriate gamelan musical accompaniment, that one has to wonder whether the island is being split down class lines?
The classy Balinese do the traditional festivals of which there are tens of thousands; the less classically-inclined refugees from outer islands (including Australia) and the Balinese urbanites (from no particular village) fill in the few free days left, with more modern group activities.
One new by-product of this alternative ‘packaged’ Bali is a theatrical show by Bali Theatre called “Bali Agung – Legend of Balinese Goddesses” at the Bali Safari Park. It is raising eyebrows amongst the expat cultural police in Ubud: the advance publicity and photographs smack of commercialization.
John Sumampau, the Director of Sales and Marketing for Bali Theatre recently said that “Bali Agung will shed light on Bali’s outstanding cultural uniqueness and magnificence and will reflect values that should encourage more national and international audiences to come to the island to experience this one stop entertainment park.”
It is scary, but is it really any more phoney than the various Ketjak and Barong Dances along the highways that have been bussing in the tourists for decades?
This writer does, however, sense a ‘sea change’: Is a home-grown orientalist version of Bali overtaking “the Real Thing”. There seem far too many ostrich feathers on the Ubud stage these days, and an abundance of smoke machines at classical weddings. Are these western-influenced dance impresarios a bit too keen to sweep the real culture under the mat, as it were, the way real Balinese architecture has been overtaken by ‘Balinaise’ pastiche.
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On another tack: Has Bali has lost its edge and holiday appeal as the preferred playground for the culturally-conscious, scantily-clad jet-set?
In August, the aristocratic Von Bueren family from Bangkok, Biarritz and Bombay, and friends, partied with great style.
Le tout Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi and Kuala Lumpur flew in to help celebrate: even Lalit Modi, the mega-celebrity founder of India’s International Cricket League threw a big party at his rental villa for the gathered glitterati.
10th August 2010: Kadek Nia Anggreni Permatasari, Putu Suarsa’s granddaughter, prays at her birthday oton in Sidakarya
Earlier this year architect Peter Muller — Amandari, Oberoi Bali, Oberoi Lombok — explained how he had designed Bali’s Oberoi Road in 1971. For 25 years it was an exquisite windy road which headed through virgin rice fields from Jalan Kerobokan to the sea.
I was with Muller five years ago when he returned to the area and got the shock of his life: the road had become a dense packed, up-market ribbon development with a smattering of real estate agencies. Muller — an old wag and sperm donor from way back — stormed into the C151 Real Estate office thinking it was a fertility clinic.
Helen, Rolf and Rezha Von Bueren (and little son).
Tonight, on my way to ‘Seaview’ — a large ‘Bali-style’ estate complex on a lagoon at Brawa, designed by my office for some high-rollers in 1983 — I had a similar experience.
I had overseen the construction of the Brawa Lagoon Road from Canggu South with the late Max Weber , a chef from the Hotel Bali Beach and the Von Bueren’s ‘fixer’. We modelled the road on the Oberoi Road and for almost 20 years it was also pastoral and splendid. Tonight I drive down the road for the first time in ten years and my valve slams shut. The vast rice fields are all but gone: in their place has risen a concrete and twirly thatch roof wonderland fashioned as a ghetto, it appears, for Gili Isle refugees.
Everywhere are matching gays with matching dogs and Balinese schlepping designer-look luggage.
At the party entrance a Bangkok illusionist in Royal Thai court jester costume drops and scratches the lenses on my prescription shades.
Inside is a field of beautiful people in black tie and sarong — it’s like a Toast-Masters event celebrating that rich publicist who backed into the crowd in the Hamptons. Ha!
Rolf and Helen Von Bueren are also celebrating a big birthday (“Rich 70 is middle-class 48,” one punter squawks).
They have been doing August parties since the dawn of European civilization in Canggu: this year they have pulled out all stops: there is a Ketjak plus Sangyang Jaran trance dance on the beach, an oyster-shucker flown in from Bangkok (Air Asia) and delicious Balinese food, courtesy of Made’s Warung.
The Stranger joins the region’s swells in thinking the Von Buerens for their thirty years of great August Events and wishing them a happy joint 70th birthday.