Ubud, the Heart of Bali

This part of Indonesia remains welcoming and serene

TOURISM to Bali began in the early 1920s, when the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company added the island to its itinerary. By 1930 there were about a hundred visitors a year; a decade later the figure was 250. The ships stopped off the north coast, where passengers were ferried to shore first aboard tenders and then on the backs of Balinese men. Most visitors would traverse the island by motor car to the capital city of Denpasar, in the south, where they stayed at the luxurious Bali Hotel, opened in 1927.

Discriminating travelers, however, headed for the green hills of the interior, to visit the princedom of Ubud. There was no hotel in Ubud: travelers stayed in the bungalows that Prince Gde Agung Sukawati had built for the circle of artists he patronized. What was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time began with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as any in the world, where everyone, it seemed, was an artist of one sort or another and child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana to the exuberant, clangorous accompaniment of a gamelan.

One early visitor to Ubud, Noel Coward, had his traveling companion, Charlie Chaplin, in mind when he wrote this bit of doggerel verse:

As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although 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 although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.

Today Bali welcomes thousands of foreign visitors every day. After the political upheavals in other parts of Indonesia last year, tourism dropped off temporarily, but Australians and Japanese, who constitute about half the island's visitors, are back in throngs. They know that regardless of what's going on in Jakarta and elsewhere, Bali remains as safe as can be: even as Indonesia's political and economic future remains cloudy, the Balinese, famous throughout the archipelago for their hospitable, easygoing ways, have maintained their wonted serenity.

Most tourists here are young travelers on a budget, who have turned the beaches south of Denpasar into a hell of traffic jams, raucous pubs, peddlers -- and, yes, pickpockets and prostitutes. At the opposite end of the tourism spectrum are those who stay at one of Bali's many luxury resorts, where it's possible to spend as much as $1,000 a night to stay in a walled villa, and be served champagne and foie gras beside one's own private swimming pool. Yet today, just as in the days of the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company, discriminating travelers -- those who may not see the need to travel so far from home for loud bars or French food -- come to Ubud, the heart of Bali.

I won't mislead you: Ubud is anything but undiscovered. On any afternoon most of the faces on its main streets are foreign, and most of the Balinese you meet are offering transport or other services (though, fortunately, the scene is far more subdued here than in the south). Yet it's still possible for even the lazy traveler -- and Bali will have failed you if you don't soon lapse into a tranquil languor -- to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place that seduced Walter Spies and the glittery visitors who passed through.

THERE'S no better place to begin than the Hotel Tjampuhan (phone 011-62-361-975369, fax 975137), built on the site of Walter Spies's home. The hotel, which is owned by the sons of Prince Sukawati, is a funny old place. Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting. (Bali, generally speaking, is a low-wattage island.) The service is a little erratic too: there was no stationery in my room, so I called the front desk to ask for some. Ten minutes later a man appeared at my door under a dripping umbrella, holding two sheets of writing paper as limp as boiled cabbage leaves.

Never mind -- the site is exquisite. Tjampuhan, the old-fashioned spelling of Campuan, means "place where two rivers meet." The hotel's bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel's lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there's no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn't pay much attention to rules.)

I find that jet lag often conduces to discovery. On the first morning of my most recent visit to Ubud I awoke before dawn. Knowing that it would be impossible to go back to sleep, I dressed and strayed out into the streaky gray mist for a wander. I met Wayan, the "room boy," a lithe, quick-eyed man in his mid-thirties who had introduced himself the night before, when I checked in. He was in the garden gathering hibiscus flowers, which would be artfully tucked behind the ears of sculptured deities or scattered across bed sheets for romantic effect. I asked him how to get to the river, and he immediately set down his basket and led the way, along hairpin pebble pathways and then down a crude wooden staircase. It had rained during the night, so the river dashed ferociously through the gap. A forty-foot waterfall splashed noisily at the first bend in the river.

Wayan didn't stop there. He skipped across the water on a broad plank bridge and led the way up a steep dirt path to the crest of the ridge opposite the hotel. Here he pointed down a narrow lane lined with bamboo, and said, "You can walk." I thanked him and did as he suggested. Rice fields were on one side of the lane, the roaring river gorge on the other. A mother duck and her brood fell in behind me, gently gabbling to one another as they followed me to the end of the fields. Eventually I made my way past the royal temple to an old Dutch suspension bridge, just down the main road from the Hotel Tjampuhan.

No place in the world could be greener than Ubud. Everything here is green: the young rice fields glow a fluorescent shade of emerald; the thick curtains of foliage appear all the greener for the scarlet accents of ginger and hibiscus. Things that began another color -- brick walls or pebble walkways -- soon become green with shaggy moss. Even the air has a pale-green cast: the moisture suspended in it picks up the pervasive glow of the verdure. The Balinese have long called their island "the morning of the world." It's an extravagant phrase, but that morning I had an inkling of what they were talking about.

Another verbal extravagance, beloved of travel writers whose descriptive powers have deserted them, is the word "magical"; usually it's just hyperbole for "especially pretty." Yet there really is magic in Ubud. When Balinese people lose something, they consult a balian, a benign sort of sorcerer, who tells them where to find it. Balians can interpret dreams, cure sickness, go into trances, and speak in the voices of ancestors. And magic, in the form of the island's unique religion, is at the core of Bali's arts. A blend of Hinduism and nature worship, the Balinese religion is an ecstatic union of the spiritual and the aesthetic, reminiscent of the religion of ancient Greece. Bali's famous trance dances, for example, suggest the rites of Bacchus: in one of the sanghyang dances two girls who are supposedly untrained in the dance's intricate choreography go into a trance and, eyes firmly shut, move in perfect unison. The dance is named after the divine spirit that inhabits them.

WHEN Walter Spies arrived in Bali, he found a culture completely devoted to art, yet to which the notion of art for art's sake was alien. The Balinese have no word for "artist"; painting, carving stone and wood, weaving, playing a musical instrument, and, above all, dancing were just what one did when not fishing or working in the rice fields.

It is an axiom of art history that what used to be known as primitive art had a profound influence on the emergence of modernism in twentieth-century Europe. In Bali, Europe returned the favor: Spies had an uncanny affinity for the Balinese sensibility, and he thoroughly transformed the arts of the island in the fourteen years he lived there. The famous school of painting in Ubud, one of the principal attractions for people from every part of the world, was virtually his invention.

Traditionally the Balinese considered painting to be among the lowest of the arts; such painting as was done before Spies came was comparatively unsophisticated, consisting mainly of astrological calendars and scenes from the the mythological shadow-puppet show popular throughout the archipelago. Painters were limited by convention and by the natural pigments, such as bone, soot, and clay, that were available to them.

Spies, later joined by the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet, introduced Balinese artists to the wider range of colors of Western painting, and to the variety of effects possible with ready-made brushes and fine-woven canvas. More important, Spies and Bonnet introduced Western techniques, like perspective, and encouraged their students to venture beyond the traditional mythological subject matter and paint scenes from everyday life. Lest the two be accused of tampering with tradition, it should be pointed out that Balinese art, while formulaic, was never opposed to individual expressiveness; the island's most famous artist, I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, had begun to innovate stylistically before Spies's arrival.

As far as I know, there has never been another case of one person's having such a profound impact on the arts of a foreign culture. The best-known dance of Bali, the kecak, in which a chorus of men lie in a circle, loudly chanting "chak-a-chak-a-chak" as elaborately costumed soloists act out a tale from the Ramayana, was choreographed in its present form by Spies, in 1931. Originally the chorus was much smaller, and performed in a trance, but Spies wanted to create something more dramatic for a film he was working on -- Victor Baron von Plessen's Island of Demons, an early effort to capture the romance of Bali and convey it abroad.

Ubud in the 1930s was among the most chic bohemian destinations in the world. Chaplin is said to have been disappointed that Balinese girls were not as promiscuous as their bare-breasted condition suggested. Margaret Mead and her lover, Gregory Bateson, got married on a ship steaming toward Bali, where they dropped in on Spies. Ruth Draper visited for a while, no doubt reciting her droll monologues for everyone after dinner. Most flamboyant of all was the heiress Barbara Hutton, who fell violently in love with Spies and dragged him off to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. With the money she paid him for some paintings, he built her a bungalow and a swimming pool next to his house, but by the time it was finished, she had moved on to Persia. (Guests at the Hotel Tjampuhan may stay in this bungalow; the swimming pool is now a lily pond.)

Spies, however, was sexually inclined in a different way, with disastrous results. The Dutch authorities, scandalized at the general moral laxity of foreigners in Ubud, and as part of a crackdown on homosexuals throughout the colony, arrested Spies on New Year's Eve, 1938, for committing sodomy with a minor. According to his biographer, Hans Rhodius, the Balinese were shocked and puzzled by the arrest, and brought Spies's favorite gamelan to play for him outside the window of his jail cell. The boy's father told the trial judge, "He is our best friend, and it was an honor for my son to be in his company. If both are in agreement, why fuss?"

Spies was released from prison in September of 1939. While war was breaking out in Europe, he threw himself into the study of insects and marine life, turning out some exquisitely observed gouaches of his specimens. After Germany invaded Holland, the following year, all German citizens living in the Dutch East Indies were arrested. Spies, the last German on Bali, was sent to a prison in Sumatra. There he continued painting and organized an orchestra, which he conducted in performances of Rachmaninoff. In 1942, fearful of an imminent Japanese attack, the Dutch authorities put their German captives on a ship for transport to Ceylon. The day after it embarked, the vessel was hit by a Japanese bomb. The Dutch crew abandoned the sinking ship, and left their prisoners to drown, slowly and horribly.

THERE is still too much artistic endeavor in Bali, though the scene is not as lively as it once was. The last great burst of creativity came in the early sixties, again at the instigation of a foreigner. In 1960 a Dutch painter named Arie Smit, who had been living in Bali for four years, was strolling through the countryside near Campuan, and came upon some boys who were drawing in the sand. He was struck by their talent, and invited them to his studio. There he gave them paints and brushes and instructed them in technique but made no suggestions as to color or content, and kept his own richly coloristic, Matisse-influenced paintings out of sight. The results, which became known as the Young Artists movement, were vigorous genre scenes, often broadly humorous, rendered in bright, flat colors with strong contours.

Smit lives in a bungalow at a small hotel next door to the Museum Neka, one of the best museums in Indonesia, where many of his paintings are on display. Now eighty-three, Smit is a big, tall man, with the benevolent, well-shaped head of a Rembrandt prophet. He welcomed the opportunity I provided to talk about old times in Bali. He told me about a Waterman fountain-pen heiress who dressed her servants in gold livery. While Margaret Mead was a guest of Smit's, Buckminster Fuller came for a visit to the island; the two luminaries conceived an instant and intense dislike for each other.

When I asked Smit to characterize the contemporary art scene in Bali, he laughed and said, "Confused." He recommended a young artist named I Gusti Agung Wiranata, who paints in the brooding, dramatic style of Walter Spies. "People criticize him, saying he only copies Spies," Smit said. "But he has succeeded in making better paintings than Spies, because he is Balinese." He told me I would find some of Wiranata's work at the Museum Puri Lukisan, Ubud's other art museum, which was founded in the early fifties by Rudolf Bonnet and Prince Sukawati.

The Puri Lukisan's collection is excellent, with a particularly strong holding of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad's work, but the gardens are so lovely that I could hardly bring myself to go indoors to look at the art. A deep gorge at the entrance is spanned by a bridge, which leads to a brick path winding among a series of lily ponds and bowers. When I arrived, some laborers were clearing the hillside in front of the garden, making terraces to plant rice.

I quickly found a fine Wiranata: next to the entrance of one of the galleries hung a round painting, no more than a foot in diameter, of a paddy field at day's end, the sinuous terraces reflecting the extravagant pastels of a Balinese sunset. The style was undeniably close to Spies's, but with a sense of repose that is lacking in the German's work. On my way out I struck up a conversation with the young woman who worked at the postcard pavilion. I asked her if a curator was about, or someone in charge I could speak to. She called out to an old man working in the rice terrace, ankle-deep in mud. After he had washed off his feet and put on a clean shirt, he came over to meet me.

Pak Muning, as he was called, was indeed a curator. He said that he knew Wiranata, and asked if I would like to meet him. I agreed to come back with a car. We drove to a little village about fifteen miles out of Ubud, and found the artist, a handsome young man in his mid-twenties, dozing on his back porch. He received us affably, and asked his wife to prepare coffee for us. I complimented him on his work, and then asked him what was his response to people who said that he copies Walter Spies. He had a pat answer: "If people say I only copy Walter Spies, I say that's okay. Walter Spies came to copy Bali." His father was an artist, Wiranata said, and his uncle was also an artist. Now he lived with his in-laws, and he complained about it, saying he missed Ubud. "A better place for painting, I think." He showed me his studio, a fluorescent-lit cubicle with a boom box and a collection of American rock tapes.

When I returned to the Hotel Tjampuhan, Wayan was making up my room. He told me that he must say good-bye, because he had to go to a cremation; his brother-in-law, a twenty-two-year-old stone carver, had died the day before, buried in a landslide at his outdoor studio, on the bank of the river. His wife, Wayan's sister, was four months pregnant. When I offered my condolences, he shrugged and said, "It was God's will. Good-bye, sir. Please to have a happy life." He bowed and quietly left the room.

Disconcerted, I ordered a coffee from room service and moved to the balcony to watch night fall. I sipped the sweet, strong brew until I came to the mud at the bottom of the cup. The moon was a pale presence behind mottled clouds; a chill crept into the air. Across the ravine I could just make out the slim shapes of worshippers arriving at the temple, their gold and pink satin sarongs glinting in the green gloom. The silvery, slightly hysterical jangle of the gamelan commenced, accompanied by the trumpeting of frogs and the screech of a gecko, melded by the basso continuo of the river torrent.

"Have a happy life": of course it was just a pleasantry. But, I reflected, a man whose job it was to collect hibiscus flowers at dawn, in a river gorge in Ubud, and who could cope with the tragic death of a twenty-two-year-old relative with such equanimity, might have some idea of what that meant.

Jamie James is a critic and travel writer who lives in New York and Bali. He is the author of (1993) and (1996).

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Ubud, the Heart of Bali - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 26-30.