Kamis, 15 September 2011

Stranger in Paradise: Women in Bali

Sang Hyang Aji (Saraswati), the Goddess of the Arts, is the island’s top deity.

Behind every successful Balinese prince — or priest or real estate baron —is a strong woman.

For centuries, Bali has been symbolized by a big-featured, broad-shouldered, topless woman, wearing a crown of fragrant sandat flowers.

While not a matriarchy — the Balinese men being too chauvinistic to allow that — Bali is a fair place for the fair sex. Women make the offerings, the children and the rice. In general, they survive their spouses, by a decade or so, which is why most courtyard homes have lots of wise and benign grannies, and why, at any moment, there are more priestesses than priests on the island.

So popular are Balinese women that many foreigners fall in love in with them in Karaoke lounges and massage parlours; this tradition started in 1560, when two sailors from the Van Houten expedition jumped ship in Klungkung.

Throughout Bali’s modern history, the few western artists who were not infatuated with the lean torsos of male rice farmers have had wife-muses; one thinks here of Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprés’s wife and the Juno-seque Ni Pollok, and Antonio Blanco’s wife Ni Rojik, another statuesque beauty.

In the expatriate world the women are the prime force.

Last month saw the 20th anniversary of Seminyak’s most celebrated restaurant and dance hall, Warisan, for example, which was founded by three talented ladies (see photo below).

(Left to right): Founders Mary Rossi, Susanna Perini, and Simona Casellini at the WARISAN 20th Birthday party.

The other great institution dominated by women in Bali is the Corner Warung (see Stranger in Paradise, “Bali’s Corner Warung”, July 2011). Even Mama’sans of Mixed Rice become legends, in Bali: one thinks here of the curly-mopped sisters who run Babi Guling Gianyar, Mak Beng of ‘Grand Bali Beng’ in Sanur, Ibu Wardani of Denpasar and Ibu Oka of Ubud.

The Waworuntu clan of Batujimbar — a secret ‘coven’ of society beauties and their female offspring — control the Café Batujimbar, Tandjung Sari, and Jenggala Ceramics empires.

And near all of Jakarta’s top-notch ball-breakers now have villas in Bali.

On the art scene, Janet De Neefe runs the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival; Deborah Gabinetti the annual film festival; and Kiwi-born Sarita Newson runs the island’s best publishing house. A host of other expat ladies keep themselves busy saving the island from stray dogs, waste and second-hand smoke.

All in all it’s a Women’s World in Bali, with the men playing an important, but essentially decorative, role.

30th August 2011, Idul Fitri: To Batujimbar, Sanur, for Halal Bihalal at Tatie Waworuntu’s dream home.

Bali is 50% Muslim, but only part of the time.

Just before Lebaran — the Muslim holiday which celebrates the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan — the island’s mostly Javanese Muslims return home for two weeks ‘home leave’.

The island becomes eerily quiet, but just for three days. On the fourth day the island fills up; Javanese-Chinese tourists arrive en mass, having fled their servant-depleted homes because they can’t find the air conditioning switches, or can’t get foot massages on demand.

• • •

Every year, on Lebaran, Bali’s most glamorous Javanese lady, Tatie Waworuntu traditionally holds a Halal Bihalal open house for her large family, and for her Bali friends.

As doyenne of Bali’s now burgeoning community of Jakartans, Tatie is the hostess with the mostess. No-other matriarch can compete with the Indonesian treats that grace her table, and her exquisite garden.

This year there is a bouquet of daughters, daughter-in-laws and granddaughters flittering around Tatie Waworuntu’s garden like exotic butterflies.

1st September 2011: To Puri Bongkasa Palace, West of Sayan, to ‘melayat’ after the death of another great lady (see box).

There are only a handful of Balinese palaces left which still have spacious well-maintained courtyards and purely traditional pavilions. ‘The Bongkasas’ have lived in Sanur for most of the past 50 years in a large compound next to the Segara Village Beach Hotel; despite this they have managed to keep their home palace in top working order.

‘Melayat’ is the Indonesian custom of visiting the house of the deceased in the hours or days after the death. The visitor usually gives an envelope of cash or gifts. In Bali it is mandatory to give a length of white kasa cloth, and some rice and sugar, as a sign of solidarity and respect.

Today I sit with the deceased’s sister-in-law, as lines of nobles from Bali’s first families — from Puri Klungkung, Puri Sukawati and Puri Sayan — file past the ceremonial pavilion where the body of the late matriarch lies in state, and take up honoured positions in the high pavilions, where high tea is served (See my video “Melayat” on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5v57Ualr0g and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5VHksdbmJY

This will go on for the next 6 weeks until the cremation on the 22nd October.


VALE: Ida Ayu Kompiang Sutarti Oka
(Wife of the late Raja Bongkasa Drs I Gusti Gede Agung Oka)

Ibu Kompiang died peacefully in her Sanur home on 3rd September 2011, aged 79. She had been playing cards with friends in the morning and was gone (lebar) by lunchtime. If any lady deserved a peaceful transition, after a full life of service to her family and community, and to the Indonesian Republic, it was Ibu Kompiang. Her popular husband, ‘Bapak Oka’, had been head of Depdikbud (Dept. of Education and Culture) in Bali for almost a decade and went on to be head the National Sports Council in Jakarta, always with Ibu Kompiang as head of the Dharma Wanita Ladies Auxiliary.

Born into Denpasar’s brahmana house, Geria Tapakgangsul, the daughter of Pedanda Gede Karang — and sister of the well-known boulevardiers Gus Pang, Gus Pong and Gus Pung — she was part of a generation of smart, uber-elegant ladies which included Ibu Ida Ayu Diwangkara, owner of the Diwangkara Hotel next to the Grand Bali Beach.

I first knew Ibu Kompiang when she was secretary to (the then) Hotel Bali Beach G.M., Siegfried Biel, the German visionary who first gave Ubud-based artist Hans Hoefer a leg up in 1970, as publisher of the first APA GUIDE, “The Guide to Bali” — on his way to becoming South-east Asia’s most successful travel book publisher.

Ibu Kompiang was my first ‘mentor’ in Sanur society (when I was a tennis coach at the Bali Beach). I learned at this time that she had had to deal with all the 50s and 60s legends — including President Soekarno, artist Le Mayeur, antiquaire Jimmy Pandy, Cultural Tourism pioneer Wija Waworuntu, Diparda head Pak Riyasa and artists Donald Friend and Ari Smit — and would have had a pivotal role in stabilizing society, with her young husband, post the tumultuous and bloody era of the Communist Insurrection.

She ran an artshop in the Bali Beach arcade and hosted gatherings of the legendary Chicago Group of upper echelon local government officials — the ‘club’ of royals who loved Charlie Chaplin movies, Frank Sinatra music and Balinese Culture of which she was the last survivor. She raised five perfectly-mannered children who all married children of other first families (Puri Agung Sukawati, Puri Agung Karangasem and Puri Carangsari, amongst them) and was a loving grandmother to 15 grandchildren.

In later years she was a permanent court fixture at all royal weddings and cremations and guided her home palace, Puri Bongkasa, into its position as a popular, classic venue for lavish Balinese feasts and dance performances.

She was a peoples’ princess in the true sense of the expression, and a great lady.

She was as egalitarian as she was royal — her smile and trademark giggle could warm a courtyard of stuffy courtiers from 50 paces.

She is survived by her seven children, her brother Pedanda Gede Ngurah Karang known as Gus Pung and three other siblings.


9th September 2011: Seminyak’s oldest eatery celebrates 20 years in the business

In 1991 a few Italian friends and a Balinese starlet started Seminyak’s first fine-dining restaurant with a view over the rice fields.

Husbands came and went but these ladies stuck together, despite age and cultural differences. Simona was a third generation hotelier, and Mary Rossi an aristocrat from an ancient Sicilian family of meat-packers. Dayu Sri is an Ubud Brahman with an hour-glass figure. She is widely regarded as the Paulette Godard of Batu Belig.

The rice fields have long gone but the restaurant remains, as a base for expat sun-lovers and theme party enthusiasts.

Despite stiff opposition from other big eateries — local restaurants with similar clientele such as Sarung and Metis among them — it is really only Made’s Warung Seminyak which rivals Warisan as a banjar for boisterous buléand their local friends.

Bravo Dayu Sri, Marie Rossi, Jean-Paolo, and Simona and may Warisan help the high-kickers and high-rollers for another 20 years

29th August 2011: To Pura Dalem Kawi, Sayan, near Ubud, for a mass tooth-filing ceremony

The puberty ritual of mepandes — when the top six teeth are filed down — is often held in conjunction with the exquisitely refined series of rites held for the purification of departed souls.
The offerings for both sets of rituals are similar; both involve the gathering of all family members.

Multiply that by 100 and you have an idea of the scale of the mass events popular in the highland villages of Bali these days.

Today I arrive in an outer temple court as the famous albino water buffalo from Taro village is getting a load of offerings; the ceremony is taking place next to the grandstand of the soul effigies, all glittering with gold leaf crowns and rice pastry towers

Inside the temple, the celebrants are dressed as angels — the boys with rouged lips and artificially arched eyebrows; the girls in classic Balinese ‘bon-bon’ confectionary.

In the morning light, with the angklung gamelan playing and the priest’s bell ringing, it feels like the prettiest place on the planet.

The local prince — lead-drummer in the gamelan — and is scheduled to ride the magnificent ‘float’ to the cremation ground at noon.

He tells me that the gamelan is a gift of ‘Tuan’ Colin McPhee, author of ‘Music in Bali’, in 1936.
At noon, pre tooth-filing, the angklung starts a haunting processional tune; and the 100 celebrants and 150-odd spirit effigies plus one albino water buffalo then process three times around the tight outer court.

It is the most beautiful ceremony I have ever seen.

See my video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_BEvh1893E and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEYetJConCE.