Continuing the discussion of why Bali’s villages are so different from peasant villages elsewhere — The answer lies, as discussed in the previous essay, with the Subak, a unique system of irrigation agriculture, and the Banjar, the community the Subak supports. The next question asks how it was that Balinese villages, despite being surrounded by the commercialism of sun and sand tourism, had remained intact, had not been undone by the time I saw them. However, that was some thirty years ago and I needed to catch up on the current situation. Fortunately, from what I read and the photographs available on-line, the villages seem basically the same today as they were then, more expensively dressed, changed and maybe set for greater change, but still intact.
The villages of Bali are the most studied of peasant village societies anywhere, beginning during the 19th century, under Dutch colonialism. The anthropological, journalist, artistic, casual and admiring accounts of Bali are too numerous to list or to cite. Two of the articles I read are from early anthropological research, Margaret Mead’s study of Balinese psychology and Clifford Geertz’s “Tihingan: A Balinese village.”
Geertz describes the traditional social system and its subsystems — Subak, Banjar, kinship, status identity called caste but different from caste in India, various volunteer groups for work or other activities – and how these multiple subsystems with the memberships and identities they create manage to mesh and interact in the person’s social and psychological life. “A Balinese ‘village’ is a very busy place, and the complexity of the ways in which people are, even in formal terms, related to one another is staggering. If one were to apply stylistic categories to social structures … the Balinese would surely be classed as rococo.” Perhaps this is reflected in its traditional art.
Since Geertz’s time, the village has grown in size and it encompasses any number of Banjars, each Banjar varying in size from about fifty to two hundred land-owning, Subak-participating households, and each person there by heredity, by being born into it, or by marriage. The Banjar defines the boundaries of the kinship-based community and has a governing council to which the couple of each household belongs and must participate. The Banjar works so well that it has been formally, legally incorporated into the national village level government. For descriptions by admiring foreigners of how the Banjar functions, here and here.
In the mid-1930s, the great Margaret Mead, anthropologist, having determined they were typical of the island, studied two villages and a town, focusing on psychological aspects of the culture. She wrote that Balinese culture was in many ways less like her own than any other culture yet recorded. She was a social scientist and regarded the Balinese objectively, but nevertheless, I think she had trouble relating to a culture so sharply different from the American in terms of individual independence and individual expression. For the Balinese, all activities were done in groups; their arts reflected a love of being in the crowd; they were not a verbal, analytical people. So different, but she admired them; they were good managers and they got things done.
And the village economy? Mead saw it in an historical context.
Gate in Gelget, old royal capital of Bali
Before the Dutch arrived, in the mid 1800s, there were several small kingdoms on the island and villagers recognized the Rajah who ruled over the kingdom in which they lived. From his elevated position he acted as patron of the arts, protector of religious activities and gained his living by levying taxes in kind, probably part of the rice harvest; by the corvée, a labor tax from the peasant; by commanding the work of craftsmen and artists, and of servants and soldiers, for his palace; and maybe, on occasion, by seizing land. The money in circulation was Chinese coins. For the vast majority of the people, the villagers, rice and goods were sold in markets and in the villages. Services were paid for in coin or in food, or most likely, through bartering of goods and services. Nearly all adults were engaged in farming and farmers became part-time specialists in a craft or art or service – in music, making and repairing instruments, dance and dance equipment, teaching dance. Villages specialized in making pottery or baskets or metal objects or cloth or stone cutting. The Dutch governed through the ruling caste, the Rajahs; they had little impact on ordinary life but did build roads, introduced their own money and brought in new things to buy, especially cheap calico cloth, lamps and bicycles.
We have pictures of daily activities from Mead’s 1930s ethnography: “ … pennies given children for snacks and sweetmeats … children come with their pennies to buy food at the vender stalls …. market places where shoppers can hardly thread their way among endless trays of carefully sorted and arrayed fruits and foods … little stands where ready-made offerings to the gods are sold…. in the temples, children scrambling on the floor for dropped pennies … boys gamble for pennies they find in offerings …”
Geertz, writing some twenty years later, reported that families kept gardens and they made things to sell. Men cut down coconuts to earn money. Craftsmen were paid for making and repairing the gamelan instruments. Social class differences seemed based more on ritual status than on wealth and consumption. However, Mead remarked: The Regents/Rajahs have begun to express their prestige more and more in terms of automobiles and less by patronage of the arts.
I found this information from 1996 on economic life. — —
The local economy was based almost entirely on agriculture and government employment in offices and schools.
In tourist areas, carvers and painters produce objects for sale to visitors, often on consignment from art shops. Most of the objects are simply that – a tourist’s souvenir, but a modern style of Balinese art has evolved, influenced by the European artists who came to Ubud in 1920, bringing new materials, new ideas and a market for local artists’ work.
In 1996, and possibly still today, villagers went to the nearby market town to sell agricultural items they had grown or things they had made and to buy vegetable, fruits, packaged and other foodstuff. Men sold cattle in a central market. Merchants traveled to the villages to buy agricultural goods or to sell such items as cloth, patent medicines or soap.
Life on Bali has changed since 1996; villagers are working outside the Banjar but they continue to identify as farmers. At harvest time, students return from the university, clerks leave their offices and professionals take their vacation time, all to help with the harvest and to participate in ritual activities in the temples and in ceremonies.
Between 1978 and the mid-1980s I visited nine Balinese villages, each time flying into Denpasar and proceeding from there to stay for a day or two in each village, always focused on how the health care program in question was faring. In 1978, new to the scene, I naturally heard of the two prime tourist locations, Kuta and Sanur, and once visited Kuta because my interpreter/assistant friend was young and curious about this hippie hang-out on a beach where spectacular waves came crashing in at a sunset like none other I have ever seen. I was totally unaware of the village around which the tourism was building. My information about Kuta village is from a study done in 1984 by Antonia Hussey. She describes Kuta as a very poor farming-fishing village.
It is instructive to consider the consequences of tourism for Kuta village, a village with no land suitable for irrigation. They grew cassava, soybeans, groundnuts and coconuts, raised cattle and pigs and also fished in waters where fishing could not have been easy, even after they had the outboard motor. As described, the village, population 9000 in 1970, looked similar to other Balinese villages and was organized into Banjars, twelve of them, but did not, could not, belong to the Subak system. Tourism began after 1970, with explosive growth. Land became valued for commercial development rather than agriculture and villagers began acting as individualistic entrepreneurs who invested, built, sought employment, gained income. Outsider investors arrived, bringing development but also theft, prostitution and drugs. The Banjars, traditionally responsible for maintaining peace, surrendered their authority to the newly augmented provincial police force. Kuta village became a town and one of the chief tourist destination sites in Bali.
Eventually a surfing colony was established in Kuta and it included boys and men from the original village. Alex Loenard, an anthropologist, did his dissertation on the society that took shape around the surfing at Kuta Beach. He wrote of the Balinese: The sons of fishermen, they were used to playing in the sea, and even knew and practiced a form of wave-riding themselves. “We called it serup,” a Kuta surfer in his early fifties told me. “Or another way of saying it was myosor umbak. We lay on pieces of wood and rode already broken wave to shore. We also used parts from the fishing boats that lined Kuta Beach then – the lengths of bamboo attached to the sides of the boats, the pangantang. So we understood the foreigners’ surfing.”
Kuta is not a place I would visit, but it is popular. In a good description for travelers — Once the sun goes down, Kuta is the rough and ready party zone of Bali. I found on-line one tourist advising other guys on how to have fun in Kuta. He warned them against wasting time on the smiling Bali girl venders; they aren’t the ones for sale. Margaret Mead wrote that many women kept roadside stalls from where they sold food they had prepared and “ the vender girls who skillfully make a persuasive art of repartee …” Smiles, charm and talk, that’s all.
I stayed in a Sanur Beach hotel for two nights in 1978. The organization’s staff placed me there, probably thinking I would enjoy it, while they arranged my visits to the villages. Instead, I was annoyed; I wanted to start working, or at least be around the office where I could gauge what was in store for me. Still, I had a stack of documents to read — and a small adventure at the beach, described below.
Except for two villages in northern Bali, near Singaraja, I went into villages within driving distance of Denpasar and in each village stepped into another world, but one in tune with the larger society. I met with health care volunteers, interviewed, checked program records, etc. walked about and took photographs, such as those of the men with their fighting cock roosters, without offending anyone. In fact, the dancers’ group gathered for me to take their picture. Everyone was pleasant, outgoing and cheerful. In a letter to Ravi I wrote “On Sunday I watched boys practicing a dance. They were quite good. The gamelan and the dance are part of life. The women in batik sarongs are wonderful to watch, especially walking in a row along the road, each carrying on her head a basket of food to be blessed in the temple. The society is tight, though, and control over the individual is thorough, from the top down. All quite gentle but firm nevertheless.”
And this returns me to my second question — How has the Balinese village survived the commercial lure of tourism? I was most concerned with the dance and wondered how changed it had become through its profitable catering to tourists, how, by being performed for money outside its ritual context, it could remain meaningful. Then, reading Margaret Mead’s study I discovered she had paid the villagers to allow her to photograph them as they practiced and performed the dances, and that was all right.
Dancer — from an antique painting
Dance in a village
She wrote: “Payment for theatrical performances is the economic base upon which the Balinese theatre depends.” The Rajahs once paid for theatrical performances. Next the Dutch paid for the same and many Dutch colonialist studied Balinese arts and religious rituals and pleasing ways and wrote books about them. Tourists are the most recent audiences eager to pay to hear the gamelan and see the dancers perform and leave them alone afterwards. Here for photos of a tourism performance and of the village volunteers.
Margaret Mead wrote: “… two characteristics of Balinese culture are the ready acceptance of those small details of customs and technology which can be absorbed without changing the basic premises of life, and the utter inability and unwillingness to contemplate any other drastic changes.”
With foreign investment changing the landscape, I wonder how long the village culture can last. The negative impact of tourism — rice fields sold to foreign investors to build luxury resorts, villas, residential complexes … malls and shopping complex built on a wetland … Subak organizations threatened … irrigation channels closed by buildings and roads … … And above all, rising individualism among the young … …
Finally, the small adventure on my first day in Bali –
I was stuck in the Sunar Beach hotel but had documents to read, so after lunch left it to sit in a chair at the beach. A beautiful place and no one around. I read for awhile, then went for a walk and came upon a group of girls, some ten of them about 7 or 8 years old, playing while their mothers were out in the water collecting seashells to sell to the tourists, and as I remember, seaweed for the family. The girls surrounded me and began asking questions in the little English they knew. As I coaxed out information from them I realized they would be the ones selling the shells later that day and decided they needed more English. I had them stand in a line, repeat after me each new word and indicate they understood it. It was a cooperative exercise that for some reason included words for features of the face. Could their dance have been the reason why? Our classroom exercises were fun and we played school for an hour or more until the mothers arrived and moved the girls on. They had work to do. I returned to my chair and documents. Later, when I was heading back toward the hotel, the girls came by, each with a basket balanced on her head. My favorite, the girl who had been the most eager to learn new words, stopped and came to me. With both hands she lowered her basket onto the sand, reached in, picked out a pretty small shell and handed it to me. “You are my teacher.” Of course, I still have the shell. What is better than a student’s appreciation.