In the universe of global image-making, Bali shines as one of the brightest stars in the constellation of places deemed nearest to paradise on earth. European traders, soldiers, orientalists and colonial administrators began inscribing a Balinese civilisation centuries ago. They were followed by Western anthropologists, writers and artists celebrating the island’s natural beauty and intricate culture and, more recently, by millions of visitors building the momentum of tourism over the past half century. Bali’s legacy today is a colorful mosaic of fluid tradition, mutable identities, mass marketing and encroaching modernism, according to the two French authors of this new book.
In Bali: 50 Years of Changes: A Conversation with Jean Couteau, Eric Buvelot and Jean Couteau have produced an intricate, sweeping, and controversial picture of Balinese consciousness, social patterns, and religious life, as well as Bali’s place within the national framework of Indonesia. It is doubtless the most ambitious attempt to present a holistic view of the island since Fred Eiseman, Jr.’s Bali: Sekala and Niskala (1990), or Adrian Vickers’ Bali: A Paradise Created (1989). Yet this is not a historical narrative, or the culmination of years of comprehensive research on a particular topic. Instead we find a series of transcribed conversations between two expatriates: Buvelot, a journalist based on the island since 1995, and Couteau, a renowned writer, social observer and commentator intimately involved with Bali since the 1970s.
Adopting an interview format, Buvelot draws on Couteau’s lived experiences and decades of interaction with Balinese of all backgrounds and other Indonesians to weave some 20 hours of dialogue into a composite contemporary portrait. Central topics of the book’s 16 chapters are loosely organised according to the originally-Indian philosophical principles of kama (desire), arta (wealth), darma (duty) and moksa (liberation). The two men interact on the page as observers, provocateurs and debaters, each reflecting his position as insider-outsider; ‘we are part of the sociological object that we analyse,’ Buvelot writes.
The resulting dialectic is penetrating and wide-ranging, with many unresolved questions and contradictions, reflecting not only the dynamism of systemic change, but also the variable, inconsistent and inherently particularist configuration of Balinese life in general. Couteau sees power as always negotiated, configured through multiple associations and social ties. While provincial (or previously, royal) authority might seek to decree practices of land use or ritual, say, it is ultimately a local village decision that prevails. Centralised power is always in contest with the local, and what is local the Balinese explain as a matter of differences, of desa, kala, patra –place, time, and pattern. Couteau posits this kind of predictable indeterminacy as a fundamental strength, stemming from Bali’s heritage of ancestor worship underlying religion and social life. The ancestors are local, reborn into specific individuals and locations, nurturing and constraining Balinese mutual obligation and community belonging.
Defining an audience for the book is a puzzle, as it targets neither the novice, the traveller or the scholar and expatriate residents of Bali are a narrow market. Nonetheless, the sweep of its subject matter may draw even the casual reader into topics such as personal morality, environmental pollution, racism, and reincarnation. The rhetorical frame with its four themes is not always successful: topics (for example, sex, education, urbanisation, the violence of 1965) are often discussed in one chapter, then reappear in another, and there is no subject index to guide the reader. Topics ebb and flow through multiple perspectives, circling around to illuminate yet another aspect of something already mentioned under a different heading. This initially feels frustrating, yet while reading the book I was reminded of the intricate layering and cyclical structure of gamelan music, which builds texture through repetition, marked at regular intervals by the recurrent, familiar sound of the gong.
Couteau’s responses to Buvelot’s queries evoke major shifts in Balinese systems, lifestyles and cultural patterns that are both encouraging and troubling. Bali depends on its globally-marketed image of green, fertile ricefields, yet today’s society is post-agrarian, as many land holdings have been sold to build roads, shopping centres and resorts, and thousands have moved from the village to urban lifeworlds. Disappearing vistas and water-borne plastic have marred the image of a pristine nature. While being part of Indonesia has fostered tolerance of different identities (including the foreign), brought universal schooling and modern infrastructure, not to mention investment in a dynamic tourist economy, it has also led to the arrival of economic migrants—sex workers, wage labor—from different, poorer places, with resulting ethnic tensions and competition. Even with widespread literacy and enhanced prosperity, patriarchy and polygamy persistently disadvantage Balinese women; new norms regarding gender and sexuality are flaunted in the tourist districts but resisted back in the villages.
Balinese readers, especially, might be uncomfortable with some of the harsher glimpses behind the carefully groomed image of their ‘island of the gods’, as Couteau deals with rape, gigolos and the sexual freedom enabled by motorcycles; disappearance of the natural and architectural heritage; and patterns of violence and public corruption, all part of today’s Bali. Buvelot and Couteau could have included more commentary on the emergence of artists, civic action, social media and NGOs producing counter-narratives to the idealised images of a tourist paradise; while they mention the controversial development project at Benoa, they never quite explain reklamasi and the reasons it has prompted widespread opposition.
It is in the realm of religion, Couteau suggests, that Bali’s fundamental core is being most strongly challenged. Religion used to focus on the ancestral obligations and ritual inherent to families and clans, with an overlay of court-centered ceremony celebrating Hindu and Buddhist deities, Kawi texts and Javanese-Majapahit lore. Now, a growing number of Balinese see themselves as part of ‘the great global family of Hindus’, rationalising doctrine and standardising temple ceremony under a top-down authority, the Council of Hindu Affairs (Parisada Hindu Darma). This normative thinking encourages many Balinese to define themselves as Hindu in a new way—adopting Sanskritised neologisms and making pilgrimage to sacred sites in India, among other practices. Couteau argues that as ethno-religious identity comes to dominate self-awareness, it becomes difficult for Balinese to take a critical stance on their society; if managing the image of ‘Bali for the World’ becomes everyone’s obligation, objectivity and reason are lost. Ultimately, he hopes that the primal and deeply rooted village systems, imbued with the cult of the ancestors, will anchor Balinese identity no matter how strong the winds of change.
Two special features of this book deserve highlighting. One is the insightful foreword written by the Balinese author Kadek Krishna Adidharma, welcoming the two men examining ‘our idiosyncrasies and contradictions’ and acknowledging that although ‘a tradition-bound Balinese could never have published the observations in this book,’ its appearance might open new kinds of discussion. The graceful flow of the translation (from the original French) created by Diana Darling is a notable achievement.
Rendering hours of transcribed conversation into an organised text is not an easy task, and Buvelot has shaped chapter headings and introductions as guideposts making the reader’s journey through the material more manageable. Even more helpful would be a unified glossary of terminology and references, as the text tends to be cluttered by redundant footnotes, along with definitions of terms that would be more efficiently compiled in one place. Both text editing and proofreading functions seem to have gotten short shrift in the production process; these could both be improved in a subsequent edition. The interviews published here seem to have been completed before the appearance of COVID-19, suggesting that pandemic-related impacts and changes in Bali still await further interpretation. One hopes these two interlocutors do not end their deep explorations of what it means to be Balinese, and to be observing Bali, at the 50-year mark. They have much more to reflect upon, and to share with us.
Eric Buvelot, Bali, 50 Years of Changes: A Conversation with Jean Couteau. Trans. Diana Darling, Brisbane: Glass House Books, 2022.
Mary Zurbuchen wrote The Language of Balinese Shadow Theater, was the Ford Foundation’s Representative in Indonesia, and currently works as a consultant and translator from her home in California.