Why Are All Balinese Artists?

October 3, 2017 Jean Couteau

It is a truism to say that all Balinese are artists. Even though many are just villagers, it is a fact that almost all can carve, paint and play music. There are explanations to it. Most go back to the psychology days of anthropology, before World War Two. Such anthropology is criticised nowadays, but for those who have stayed long enough in Bali to feel entitled to draw conclusions without a rigid chain of demonstrations, those explanations warrant discussion. So let us discuss them.

The key specialists of reference in the matter are Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who conducted research in Bali in the 1930s. In her seminal book, the ‘Balinese Character’, Margaret Mead notices that from an early age onward the child is gently taught to adapt to the demands of its surroundings rather than to follow its own whims. 1’Surrendering all autonomy,’ she writes, ‘and passively following the words spoken in its name or the hand (..)which snatches its hands back from a spontaneous gesture, the child’s body becomes more malleable as it grows older. Gestures which are all echoes of an experienced pattern replace such spontaneous gestures of infancy as the pounding of the child’s silver bracelet on any convenient board.’ Thus as the educator incites the child to react with mimicry, and as the latter’s autonomy is constantly repressed, it increasingly identifies with the adults. ‘Learning with the eyes is never separated from a sort of physical identification with the model,’ adds Margaret Mead 2, ‘Learning to walk, learning to eat and to dance, learning the first appropriate gestures of playing musical instruments, are all accomplished with the teacher behind the pupil, conveying directly, by pressure, and almost always with a minimum of words, the gesture to be performed.’

Celebrated Balinese painter I Made Djirna working in his home studio

Photo By NAMHAR HERNANTO

In such a system, the educators are not only the parents and relatives, but all the members of the immediate social circle: neighbours, friends, banjar members, etc. The child, as it grows, increasingly identifies with all the others who shape the mechanics of his movement and ideas. As an adult, he will spontaneously reproduce them, mainly by visual mimicry: ‘Learning with the eyes flows directly from learning passively while one’s body is being manipulated by others,’ says Margaret Mead 3.

Yet, other factors are at play, more specifically relevant to artistic talent. The mimicry mentioned is only repressive in contexts where there is a social role to play. Otherwise the child, and later the adult, experiences a bodily ease which puts it in symbiosis with its natural environment. The same child depicted by Margaret Mead as guided by its educator’s hand will be, when on its own, completely free with its body, playing in the mud, drawing with dirt on the wall and defecating under the verandah. By manipulating in total freedom all the objects of his environment (earth, wood, bamboo, leaves, utensils), the child compensates for the frustrations it encountered during its social learning. The social mimicry of childhood is thus balanced by an extreme liberty to touch and take. The combination of the two will soon to become a liberty to “make”.

The mimicry of early childhood is later continued and further emphasised by the systematic shaping of the visual memory of the Balinese. Theatre plays an important role in this. Unlike the Western child who is excluded from any cultural activity before adolescence, the young Balinese child – as soon as he or she is three or four years old – is a regular spectator and participant in the pageantry of the local culture: dance, puppet shows, etc. Although the child does not understand their dialog – part of which is in Kawi- the old literary language of Java – the child understands their images. Already accustomed in his body to the repetition of other peoples’ gestures, he assimilates and memories visually the gestures of the theatre world. This visual memorisation is further facilitated by the fact that Balinese dance, theatre, and wayang are all based on a limited number of highly patterned gestures and images: form of the eyes and mouth, gait, type of headdress, particular angsel or tandang (movements). Any young Balinese can recognize without difficulty any characters of almost any show: the court buffoons (Twalen, Mredah) and the giants of the wayang, the refined (alus) prince, the coarse (kasar) warrior of dance, etc. And any deviation from the ideal pattern of reference is immediately seen as such, whether it is voluntary and therefore comical, or involuntary and therefore ridiculous.

Most manifest in the theatre world, this training of the visual memory applies well beyond it, to almost all the aspects of social life: collective work, musical practice, rituals, gestures of politeness, all seem to function like an unconscious choreography whose elements are all precisely assimilated, and then automatically reproduced in a recognizable way. Learning through his eyes, the young Balinese learns to guide and orient himself in the orderly world of Bali: to sleep with the head oriented in the direction of the mountain (galeng ulu); to pray by putting his hands at the level corresponding respectively to God (Sang Hyang Widhi), to the deities (Batara or Dewa), to the ancestors (pitra) etc; to sit in a place and at a height corresponding to his age and status; to put such and such offering in such and such a place. In other words, the Balinese grows by reproducing an increasingly complex system of conventions that, far from being perceived as constricting, help him to conform to what is socially expected from him, and to find the proper answer to almost any situation.

The Teaching of the Arts: Mimicry and Freedom in Childhood

This kinaesthetic formation of the Balinese also applies positively to the practice of the arts, be it that of dance, music, sculpture or painting.

During a gamelan rehearsal (muruk), one will often see a father sitting his son on his knees and, putting the gamelan hammer into the boy’s hands, guide him on the notes of the instrument. Then he plays alone under the fascinated gaze of the child, then again with the child. And when he eventually leaves, the child, left by him, almost spontaneously ‘looks’ for the part just played by his father. In the teaching of dance, a similar system is at work: the teacher stands behind his or her pupil, almost body to body. He or she holds his or her hands tightly, swerves them to the right, then to the left, ‘and breaks’ the body’s resistance to adapt it to the choreographic sequence of movements. Then he or she puts him or herself in front of the pupil, who has to follow him or her, in reverse. Once the teacher has gone, the pupil reproduces his or her gestures until the repetition inscribes itself in the memory.

Such methods, alternating mimicry and freedom, are but the continuation of those of young childhood. There is freedom of expression, but it operates inside the constraints of imitation. The child and adolescent are thus taught, consciously and unconsciously, to precisely memorize gestures, choreographs, sounds, forms. As the youth is made more and more free to express himself in dance, music, sculpture and painting, he or she is also increasingly constrained by the conventional patterns being drummed into him or her.

This dual system of freedom and imitation is particularly operative in the field of the fine arts:

The Balinese live in a world of trees, water and earth, and is therefore in constant physical contact with nature and its component elements. He sits or crouches on the earth, touches mud, manipulates wood and feels no embarrassment at the faces of a brother or sister. There are little, if any, intermediaries between the individual and nature which is what one sees and touches every day, and what one transforms into the instruments of daily use: offerings, bamboo platforms, coconut oil etc.. It is this familiarity with the elements of the environment, added to the high level of visual memory and mimicry discussed above that makes of ‘every’ Balinese a ‘natural’ artist. As children they make puppet show (wayang) characters such as Twalen and Sangut from leaves; later on they play ‘barong-barongan’, become young dancers and when they are older, they ‘all’ become the ‘artists’ who have spread Bali’s fame throughout the world. In the words of a European artist 4: ‘The shows in Bali are so frequent, and so repetitive that their characters must haunt the memory of the individuals and come back to the surface, eyes closed, in the automatism of the movement.’

From the constrained gestures of childhood discussed by Margaret Mead to the shaping of visual memory and from the latter to the patterned ‘choreography’ of dance, theatre and social behaviour, and finally to the images produced by the carver, painter and craftsman, there is a dialectic of sorts which produces beauty rather than banality. The Balinese are painters, craftsmen and dancers because he ceaselessly reproduces ‘freely’ the patterned forms ‘dreamed’ by his memory.

(Endnotes)
1. Mead, M. in Batesan, G. and Mead, M. 1940: 14.
2. Idem: 14.
3. Idem: 15.
4. Field notes from Genevieve Couteau, 1976.

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