nouvelle-vague-3Several times a month I meet with a group of cinephile friends, our cineclub, in the home of our film guru, Jeff McDermott, to watch a French language movie and afterwards spend quite a long time discussing it. Recently, as an added touch, Jeff has been selecting films from the late 1950s and the 1960s, one after another, to show us something of the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave, a unique movement within French movie-making that began with a group of talented young enthusiasts styling themselves as Directors and independently producing their own films. I particularly like Eric Rohmer and wrote here about one of his films, A-Summer’s Tale.

After our last film viewing the group plunged, as usual, into exchanging ideas, remarking on what we had seen and heard and too soon realized the hour was late; it was time to end the meeting and go home, even though questions we had raised were left hanging, not really answered. I, at least, felt the discussion incomplete and was pleased the following day to receive an email from Jeff in which he summarized for us the points he had would have made to satisfy our curiosity. I learned so much from his email essay that I’ve decided to share it with other cinephiles for whom movies have become a favorite art form. This is Jeff McDermott’s essay on the Nouvelle Vague

Cheres Amis,

I think the most significant thing about this young group during late 1950s France (Agnes Varda, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy) was that it was the 1st time in cinema history that new directors & writers were already film FANS – i.e they all LOVED movies.

In fact, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, with Cahier co-founder André Bazin providing much influence over the group, at least initially.

Possibly the only other 2 directors who have spent so much of their careers creating an entire ouvre, body of work, consisting of homage to films of the past would be Woody Allen, starting in the 1960s, & Quentin Tarantino in the 1990s.

Both Allen & Tarantino could have easily been co-conspirators/co-creators of the original Nouvelle Vague (Allen even shoots in black/white for some of his films) excepting Tarantino, who is decidedly more violent & profane – in his defense, Quentin’s homage focus is American 1970s films (vs American 40s film noir) so the ratings system had ‘matured’ by his generation)

poster-lumiere-and-companyThe earliest film pioneers, beginning with the Lumiere brothers, who started cinema in 1895, to D.W. Griffiths & Cecil B. Demille et al, CREATED a new art genre that has also remained one of the biggest industries on the planet for over a century.  So by the 1930s/40s, people worldwide began to integrate films into their daily lives with memorabilia, fan magazines & star powered screening events, etc.

As post WWII economics had recovered enough in France, the time was ripe so that a young artiste could get investment backing to make smaller budget independent films.

cleo-street-on-the-streetImportantly, despite each of the Nouvelle Vague directors having extremely different styles, there were many elements shared in their directing so that they became known as starting the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ film style:  truffaut-french-new-waverapidly shooting in the streets or other public areas without permits, not relying on studio sets, frequent dubbed narration as a storyline device, long scene takes, ambiguous endings, frequent use of trench coats, classic film references including movie posters displayed in scenes, all marked the era of a ‘New Wave’ in film making.

poster-a-bout-de-souffle-breathlessposter-cleo-5-to-7In addition to sharing similar influences & expressing anti-establishment filming techniques, these directors contributed directly & indirectly on each other’s projects.   e.g. Goddard’s infamous À bout de souffle was written by Truffaut, also Goddard appeared with Anna Karina in cameos as silent film actors in the middle of Varda’s famous Cleo 5 to 7 – she also cameo’d Michel Legrand, Sami Frey, Jean-Claude Brialy in the same film!   Suffice to say the intersections & collaborations of the Nouvelle Vague directors were too frequent to enumerate, especially when considering how they shared many of the same actors over & over in their films.

bande-a-part-posterHowever, the thing to realize from having Goddard play a non-sequitar brief role as a silent film era actor in an otherwise heavier film of a woman waiting to hear news about possibly having cancer, or when Goddard has his actors emulate Charlie Chaplin’s dancing forks in his 1964 film Bande à part (Chaplin’s fork routine was re-done again much later by Johnny Depp in the lesser-known Benny & Joon 1993 film) is that the Nouvelle Vague directors also shared a sense of humour borne of their love & knowledge of films.  Just as Allen & Tarantino’s films are filled with hilarious moments between their actors as well as long monologues & narrations, the New Wave directors before them created a winking at the audience heretofore unknown to film viewers.  The hilarity pops up no matter how serious (or violent) the plot throughout the new wave as well as Allen & Tarantino, mindful of how Hitchcock wryly introduced his TV shows with such wit.

truffhitchAnother influence on New Wave was Hitchcock (here with Chabrol) but Truffaut went so far as to meet with & interview Hitch in 1962, resulting in a 1967 book that has been reprinted & can be found on every film buff’s shelf.  Then in Dec 2015, some of the recordings were finally released in a Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary, along with more recent commentary about them both by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater & Paul Schrader.

The New Wave’s sharing & collaboration was scarcely ever seen when filming moved west from New York to what later became known as Hollywood.  The Hollywood studio systems had everyone under contract, so any collaborative efforts had to be done within each studio’s “stable” of talent.  Furthermore, the distribution of pictures & ownership of theatres were also tied together, which limited production of independently made films.

What remains key to the Nouvelle Vague directors from their beginning & throughout their careers was that they were all independent from film studios.  No group of such successful & talented friends have ever done that before or since.


For a fascinating documentary on the Nouvelle Vague and its effect on the American New Wave, here, and for the rise of the film auteur. here

race-posterSports events do not often interest me, so neither do movies about them. If Jesse Owens had not been African-American, I would not have watched Race, a movie that explores the meanings of an athlete’s personal history and of the 1936 Olympics. Owens ran races, set records and won medals, but the race that interested me was him being Black and famous in the 1930s. What he was famous for I barely knew, only that it had to do with Hitler’s Olympics and Hitler disapproved of Blacks and Jews participating, let alone winning, in the games. I had read that Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics is one of the best documentaries ever made. I really had to watch both Race and Olympia – Festival of Nations – 1936. (They can be seen on-line.)

Viewed on-line, the first scenes of Olympia are dark and foggy but gradually this clears to show great photography, great story-telling, and beautiful young bodies. ollympicjesse-owensFilming the action of the sports events, Riefenstahl focused the camera on some athletes more than on others, and especially on Jesse Owens. He was a wonder of grace in motion. In the second part of the documentary her picturing of the diving competition is magical. We see the women divers from on high, one after another in flight, knifing into the water, from the deep gliding up to the water’s surface.

The two prestigious and most read reviewers, here and here, recognize the importance of historical events and individuals presented in Race, comment interestingly on them, tell of the terrible prejudice against him that Jessie Owens (Stephan James) suffered throughout his life but they nevertheless consider the movie to be a story filmed in “the bland cookie-cutter mold too often seen in the biopic genre” or as a “standard inspirational biopic.” Another reviewer, here, remarks on the high quality of the work behind the camera while characterizing the movie as well-meaning but at times naive, simplistic and at pains to show almost every character (Hitler and Goebbels excluded) in the most flattering light possible.

For me, Race is quite a good movie and certainly rises above the usual biopic level. Actually, it is not biographical, not a picture of Jessie Owens’ life. It is the story of an exceptionable young man caught in the center of an important ideological conflict in the America of the 1930s.

Jessie was born in Alabama in 1913, the seventh child of poor farmers, sharecroppers, where Black children picked cotton instead of attending school.

The Great Migration by Lawrence Jacob

The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when Jessie was nine, from the deep South to the industrial North. They were part of the Great Migration, a movement that took place between 1910 and 1970 of 6 million African-Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West , illustrated and illuminated by the powerful paintings of Jacob Lawrence. Do see his paintings, here.

I grew up in a number of towns not far from Cleveland, from 1935 to the mid-1940s, attending various primary schools and one high school. We see in the movie a Black community in a Black neighborhood.  Black children attended a primary school with other Black children in their own neighborhood but Cleveland’s junior and high schools were like mine, for all children from all the primary schools, Black and White.

fifth from the right

Jessie Owens’ high school team. He is fifth from the right

Jessie attended integrated schools where his outstanding record in the schools’ track and field competitions attracted the attention of athletic departments in colleges and universities across the country, followed by several offering him a scholarship. Why he chose Ohio’s state university is not explained anywhere, but perhaps he preferred a school closer to home. Besides attending classes, studying and training, he worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, at a gas station, in the University library to support him and the baby girl born to his future wife, Ruth. After a year or so, to keep him as a winning athlete, the university awarded Jessie a token job in the Ohio government Statehouse that paid him, as a student, without requiring much time or work from him. In the movie he has one friend, the other Black student on the track team, and no friends among the White students. In fact, White students are shown as hostile to the two Black students and only after he becomes a hero for the U.S. team in the Olympics are a few of them somewhat friendly toward him. The Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder’s (Jason Sudeikis) support and friendship is critical in sustaining Jessie and ensuring his success in the Olympics.

For sports fans  —  a summary of Jessie Owen’s track and field records before the Olympics —  At about 12 years old, in a city-wide school athletic competition, Jessie set records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 ft. 11 3/4 in. in the running broad jump, now known as the long jump. In high school, he won all of the major track events, and for three consecutive years the championship of the state of Ohio high schools’ competition. In Chicago, at a national competition, he set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds. A week earlier he had set a new world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. In a major competition between universities, in 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes, and performing while suffering from a back injury. Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in the history of track and field events.

Leni Riefenstahl was marginal to American concerns at the Olympics but her presence in the movie adds to the interest.

She is shown as Goebbels’ associate, serving informally as his interpreter, probably a dramatic device for keeping her in the action. We understand that he controls the finances for her to film the games and she is cool toward him. triumph-des-willens-posterIn reality, she was friendly with Hitler and did associate with Goebbels and others in his circle. Critics disagree on whether she was ideologically and actively a Nazi. Hitler admired the first movie she directed, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht ) and asked her to make a film for him. She wrote he wanted a film ” … showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying – in terms of spectacle.leni-riefenstahl-poster … … a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics. …” In 1935, she directed, produced, edited, and co-wrote Triumph of the Will, recognized, despite its content, as one of the greatest propaganda films in history.

I watched The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Rienfenstahl and it was wonderful. She was incredible. She died in September 2003, aged 101, active and outrageous until the last.


Until watching Race I was unaware of the serious public debate at the time over whether to boycott or to participate in Hitler’s Olympics. Major national figures were involved in the controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted a boycott of the Olympics because of Hitler’s rabid racism against Jews, blacks and other minorities, and in the movie, an NAACP representative comes to the Owens home to persuade Jessie not to participate in the Olympics.

olympic-hitlerQuoting from the Holocaust Encyclopedia    –  Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. Observers in the United States and other western democracies soon began to question the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.

Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC),  stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” He claimed: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.”

Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, led efforts to boycott the 1936 Olympics. He pointed out that Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination based on race and religion. In his view, participation would indicate an endorsement of Hitler’s Reich. When the American Olympic Committee put before its members for a vote the decision to participate or to boycott participation won by only two votes.

In the movie, we watch Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) debating the issue before other men in what appears to be a meeting of the American Olympic Committee. Mahoney makes the case for boycott and Brundage for participation.  Avery Brundage is the more complex figure and facts may have been modified somewhat for dramatic effect, to present the spirit of what happened, if not the exact sequence of events.

Brundage is at the games, shown negotiating with Goebbels, trying and failing to have Hitler meet and congratulate Owens as he did with all other winners. (The movie shows little of the other Black athletes.) Brundage is at fault when he does not protect the right to participate for two American Jewish athletes.

High-level American diplomats warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Nazis were exploiting the Olympics for propaganda purposes, but he chose not to become involved in the national debate over a boycott. He continued a 40-year tradition in which the American Olympic Committee operated independently of outside influence.

owens-and-langFor Jessie, the experience of being in Germany added to that of running and winning in the games. In hotels and restaurants no one discriminated against him. At the games, Germans in the stands adopted him as a favorite and cheered him on. A German competitor, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, gave him advise on the rules that allowed him to win. The two became friends and corresponded until Long’s death in the war. At home, President Roosevelt invited the White athletes to the White House but not Jessie or the 17 other Black men on the U.S. team, even though they had won 14 of the 56 U.S. medals in Berlin.

In the movie, a most ironic situation occurs after Jessie has arrived home, is famous throughout America and beloved for winning in Berlin. We see him and Ruth (in real life his mother) with Larry Snyder and his wife and other guests, all elegantly dressed, approaching the entrance of the grand hotel where a celebratory dinner in Jessie’s honor will be held, and the doorman refuses entrance to Jessie and Ruth because they are, in the word of the time, Negro. Larry protests, but Jessie, maintaining his dignity, accepts. He and Ruth walk around to the back of the building, to the servants’ entrance, continue through the huge kitchen in the basement to the service elevator and take it up to the dining room where he will be received as the star of the event.

President Roosevelt’s snubbing of the Black athletes disturbs me. FDR was a major figure in my childhood, and now, with this incident and others, I realize he was a racist. Oh, well. Although a flawed individual, he was a great President. Fortunately, Eleanor Roosevelt was a great human being. She served as liaison between her husband and the NAACP and she defied segregation laws by sitting between White and Black attendees at the 1939 Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Ala. Read here of the famed singer, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the Times of India, Reagan Gavin Rasquinha, has in the second section of his review of Race a discussion with the screen writers, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and of how they approached the movie. They studied documents and social and political biographies from the era, everything available about Jesse Owens. They informed themselves about the 1936 Olympics, its significance, and the out-sized personalities of the people who ran it.

In writing the screenplay, Shrapnel and Waterhouse decided to tell the story of a particularly significant period in Jesse’s life, the time when he matured from a talented runner into a worldwide champion. They also sought to go beyond the boundaries of a typical sports film, onto a broader social and political canvas of the Nazi’s rise in Germany and the controversy in the U.S. “… In order for the audience to appreciate the enormity of Owens’ accomplishments – the scale and importance of his victories – we had to give them background and history; people may not know just how close these Games came to not happening, or happening without U.S. participation. As it was, the Berlin Games were the last Olympics until after World War II. The world was changing fast.”

Mr. Jessie Owens

Mr. Jessie Owens

I think another story to be told, and one worth filming, is of how Jessie Owens coped with the contradictions he faced, being alternately accepted and rejected, yet persisting through a series of failures and successes, through humiliation and honors. In 1976 he narrated a short film, Jessie Owens Returning to Berlin, here on video, about the 1936 Olympics and the Germans welcoming him in 1951 for a visit to the city. He is impressive, a fine, dignified presence, a pleasing voice, thoroughly at ease before the camera. In today’s America, with his talent and personality, he would have been a huge success at whatever he chose to do.


For weeks I’ve been reading and learning Indonesian history, discovering all sorts of the intriguing things — then last week an article reminded me of something that interested me decades ago and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I simply had to follow through and find out what new had happened.

The article is “Discoveries May Rewrite History of China’s Terra-Cotta Warriors.”

terracotta-army-china-inspired-greek-art_1-770x437“The 8,000 terracotta warriors that have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor for more than 2,000 years were the result of outside influence, new evidence suggests. Based on DNA remains found on the site, archaeologists think ancient Greek sculptors could have been on hand to train local artists – a find that could overturn centuries-old assumptions about contact between the East and the West before Marco Polo.”

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the Emperor in 210–209 BCE.

Terracotta Warriors Group, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CaliforniaThousands of clay soldiers stand in trench-like underground corridors, positioned according to rank, each soldier a unique individual with his own facial features, expression, hairstyle, the higher ranking of them outfitted with full bronze battle gear. Weapons (swords, daggers, spears, arrowheads) are included. Originally the statues were brightly colored but when exposed to air the paint and lacquer flaked off.

terracotta-warrior-knellingterracotta-warriors-portraitI once saw two of the terracotta soldiers. It was in 1988 and I had gone to the Cleveland Museum of Art specifically to see its collection of Indian paintings, unaware of the exhibition being held, “The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculptures from the People’s Republic of China.” As I remember, the two statues were placed high, on display, maybe near the entrance, and walking by them, looking up, I was stunned by their presence. A friend had been waiting for me. She came over and hurried us on. Oddly, I can still see the statues in my mind’s eye, but not the paintings. Later, thinking of them and being outside the States, I somehow thought the terracotta army was from the Shang Dynasty and read a bit about it as background, all of which I’ve forgotten. An image of the soldiers returns as I read of them again, and with new information, they are even more interesting.



bactria-and-gandhara-mapThe evidence for Greek artists having participated in creating the statues especially interests me. I knew of  Gandhara art, but this wonderful Greek-influenced statuary was much later, in the first and second centuries CE., too late for the terracotta statues.  Besides, I wondered why a civilization sophisticated enough to produce the terracotta marvels would need input from a far distant culture and one less advanced than itself. Curiosity would not stop nagging at me so I finally decided that with this question, plus the importance of Chinese influence on Indonesia and its culture, I really should take the time to learn something of China and Chinese history.

rivers-of-china-mapWhere to begin? I make sense of ancient civilizations by thinking in anthropological terms, beginning with the basic era, the Neolithic. It is a period of people living in villages, cultivating fields of a staple, usually a grain, with the hoe, raising domesticated animals, using stone tools, making pottery and weaving cloth. For China, the earliest known Neolithic was along the Yellow River c. 8500 BCE., based on millet and the pig. Silk was being produced by 5000 BCE.

By 7500 BCE a rice-based Neolithic had developed on the Yangtze River, but that is another part of China. I will return to it when writing about the origins of Indonesian culture.

The next historic era is the Bronze Age, meaning that within a landscape of farming villages there developed a military ruling elite and a religious elite who lived in cities, often walled cities, in palaces, surrounded by specialists and craftsmen, by servants and laborers while keeping control over the peasants who sustained them with food, goods and labor. The military protected their peasantry from raids and attacks by other rulers, and with the religious elite, served as the ultimate judicial authority. The invention of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, had made possible weapons more effective for warfare and axes and blades stronger and more durable than stone tools for clearing and working the land. Metal-working required new sorts craftsmanship, and since the ores are rarely found together, it created the need for trade and for traders, a new occupation of men, and some women, who ventured out beyond the community, in contact and negotiations with people in other societies.

In China, the smelting of copper was discovered early, c. 5000 BCE, in several Neolithic cultures. Tin ore is relatively rare but small deposits were found along the Yellow River, accessible to Bronze Age civilizations. The earliest was the Xia dynasty. c. 2070 – 1600 BCE, followed by the Shang dynasty, c. 1600 – 1046 BCE, the earliest dynasty for which there is archaeological evidence. The Shang dynasty, a period of small kingdoms, was followed by the Zhou dynasty, c. 1046 – 256 BCE, characterized as a feudal society, meaning one with a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval beneficium), a unit of land, with its peasants and natural resources included, to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal, and the man who granted the land become known as his liege or his lord.

qin-shi-huang-di-portraitstate-of-qin-mapQin Shi Huang Di, the man whom the terracotta soldiers were to serve in the afterlife, came to the throne of the kingdom of Qin in 246 BCE at the age of 13. Within 25 years his military forces had conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China under the Qin Dynasty. He was the First Emperor of China. During his rule he standardized coins, weights, and measures; interlinked the states with canals and roads; and is credited with building the first version of the Great Wall. He died in 210 BCE.

The Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE, followed the Qin Dynasty. It ruled for four centuries and is considered a golden age in Chinese history. China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters

A good article on the Bronze Age with pictures of bronze artifacts is here.

The Iron Age, the era when iron objects were first produced, is a third archeological Age based on technology but less consistently related to a type of social organization.  Iron tool and weapon use began between c.1200 to 600 BCE, depending on the region and on when the knowledge was developed for smelting iron ore, removing impurities, and for steel, regulating the amount of carbon in the alloy. Other Iron Age innovations were the potter’s wheel, the rotary quern for grinding grain, and the wood lathe.

In the Mediterranean region, c. 1300 BCE, iron technology developed during a time of disorder and violence known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade routes for tin ore were disrupted and bronzesmiths responded by turning to the more abundant and accessible iron ore. Meteorite iron had been known and used for making swords. As the technology evolved, iron became cheaper, stronger, lighter and forged iron implements eventually superseded cast bronze tools and weapons. For some reason, the process seems to have been slower in China than in Europe. Nevertheless, in the Yellow River region during the Spring and Autumn Period, 722 – 481 BCE, farming was revolutionized by the use of cast iron tools and oxen to pull the plow. The food supply increased and population increase followed. Iron objects, such as handcuffs and collars for slaves or criminals, were found in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb but the terracotta warriors’ weapons were bronze, not iron.

terracotta-army-china-inspired-greek-art_3The Chariot and four horses fascinates me. I have here a picture and discussion of a similar chariot and charioteer in India being taken into battle by four horses, possibly in the 4th century BCE.

From the Cleveland Museum of Art website —

“Some of the most famous ceramic horses are those found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (reigned 221-208 BCE). In three separate pits, more than 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, and chariots and tens of thousands of bronze weapons (swords, daggers, spears, cross-bow triggers, and arrowheads) were excavated. They would have been brightly painted, though much of the color is now lost. In the center of the chariot, a chariot driver holds the reins in both hands. On either side of him are two chariot soldiers. Standing with their feet placed to balance their weight while the chariot is in motion, one hand holds the side-rail of the chariot the other a weapon. Since the charioteer has both hands on the reins, he cannot protect himself. He wears a special uniform with long-sleeved armor to protect his arms and hands and a high collar to protect his neck.”

From a Shang Dynasty archeological site

“The light chariot, with 18 to 26 spokes per wheel, first appeared, according to the archaeological and inscriptional record, about 1200 BCE. Glistening with bronze, it was initially a prestigious command car used primarily in hunting. The 16 chariot burials found at Xiaotun raise the possibility of some form of Indo-European contact with China, and there is little doubt that the chariot, which probably originated in the Caucasus, entered China via Central Asia and the northern steppe. Animal-headed knives, always associated with chariot burials, are further evidence of a northern connection.”

greco-bactrian-kingldom-200-bce-map-by-talessmanxian-mapIn later centuries, about 200 BCE, other Indo-European contacts, this time Greek artists from the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, today’s Afghanistan, traveling north of the Taklamakan Desert, arrived in Xi’an, Qin Shi Huang’s city, to show his artists the art and science of modeling the human body. Men of Bactria had already led expeditions into Xinjiang, northwestern China. The historian Strabo wrote: “they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni.” Several statuettes and representations of Greek soldiers have been found north of the Tien Shan, and are on display in the Xinjiang museum at Urumqi.

How often in considering the history of this region of the earth we are led back to Alexander the Great. In 330 BCE, with an army of Macedonian and Greek soldiers, he invaded territory in today’s Afghanistan as part of his war against Persia. Greek soldiers settled down in this fertile realm, defeated enemy armies and founded the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Although cut off from Europe, for three centuries they carried on with Greek culture. Greek was the language of government and the elite. One of their cities, Ain Khanum, excavated in 1970s, showed a complete Greek city with an acropolis, amphitheater, temples, and numerous statues. Their coins are among the most beautiful ever made. The Greeks of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which included Gandhara, transmitted the art of sculpting human likeness to India, and most likely to Qin.

Quoting Lukas Nickel

Ancient Chinese records tell that 12 giant statues, clad in “foreign robes” “appeared in Lintao” in what was the westernmost part of China. (The word “Lintao” can also mean any place far to the west.) The records do not say how this appearance happened, who brought them there, or who exactly the statues depicted; they do reveal the statues were larger than life and so impressed Qin Shi Huang that he decided to build 12 duplicates in front of his palace by melting down bronze weapons that had been used for war. Thus, we know that he, unlike other ruling elites in China, knew of and favored a foreign mode of sculpture.



In separate pits near his mausoleum were found a few dozen statues of half-naked acrobats and dancers on which the sculptors attempted to render a bone structure, muscles and sinews to depict a person in movement. Further, “This comes close to an understanding of the human body that was employed at the time only in Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Europe and Asia.” Nickel argues that creating this sort of realistic sculpture is not something that a sculptor could learn without some practice, that it took the ancient Greeks centuries to master it, and “The creation of a believable human body preoccupied generations of Greek sculptors. It was a complex artistic and intellectual process that did not happen overnight.”

Researchers salvaged traces of European mitochondrial DNA from skeletons buried near Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, confirming the Greeks were there.

China had no tradition of building life-size figures with realistic details before the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, and none since then.

I love the 1st and 2nd century art of Gandhara, much of it Buddhist. More on that in another essay.

For people who are fascinated with words, how we borrow them from other cultures and how the meanings of a word changes through time and circumstances, I’m adding an addendum to a discussion in my previous essay.

It has to do with Musyawarah, a word I heard in Java in the 1980s and met again in reading about the decision-making process villagers in Bali use for organizing their many and complex community activities. It reminded me of my first cross-cultural experience with a community organization where I quickly learned my Anglo-American approach to organizing a meeting did not work in a Mexican-American community. The approach that did work was closer to Musyawarah, a word that has come into my personal vocabulary to replace phrases describing a complex process for group decision-making. I discussed that here.

Yesterday, talking with a friend about Musyawarah, he said that although he had never used the word, Arabic has Mushawara, and we wondered if the meanings were the same. Surely the word in Javanese derives from Arabic. As early as the 8th century, Arab merchants had sailed to the Indonesian islands to trade and often to marry and settle in, bringing Islam and Arabic with them, establishing Muslim communities, converting the royalty until finally, by the early 16th century, Islam had replaced the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit dominance.  Mushawara as a word entered the Indonesian languages and was used, somewhat changed, for already existing behaviors the Indonesians had not as yet named.

I went on-line, searching for Mushawara, its meaning and how it is used. This is what I found –

— The Virtual Mosque defines Mushāwara as Consultation. Their translation from the Koran on the meaning of Consultation in private and public life is well worth reading. I summarize, briefly and in secular terms, this view on Consultation — A leader’s consulting with followers should be a standard practice within the family and the community. Consulting with followers makes them feel important and respected, generates good feeling toward the leader, gives the leader information and additional perspectives, allows the leader to better know his followers, and makes followers feel responsible for actions taken.

— In Kerala, India, the Muslim community, about a quarter of Kerala’s population, has an organization of Sunni scholars and clerics called the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama. (Ulama is Arabic for a body of scholars with specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology.) They call their supreme body and working committee The Mushawara, The Consulate Body. It consists of 40 eminent scholars who are drawn purely on the basis of their Islamic scholarship, religious piety, faithfulness and devotion.

— The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Islamic organization. (Tabligh is Urdu for mission or to preach and Jamaat is Arabic for a Muslim religious assembly) It originated in India and has most of its adherents, numbering in the many millions, in South Asia but is increasingly global. It is a proselytizing and revivalist movement that focuses on urging Muslims to return to orthodox Sunni Islam, particularly in matters of ritual, dress, and personal behavior. It has been called “one of the most influential religious movements in 20th century Islam.” For a Tablighi Jamaat congregation, during a Mushawara (discussion or Consultation), the Shura (consultative committee) decides on all matters, large and small. A Mushawara is held daily. (taken from “Islamic Revivalism: Encounter the Modern World, A Study of the Tabligh Jama‘at” by Jan A. Ali)

— Quoting the Muslim chaplain in a major U.S. Midwestern university —  In Muslim tradition, there is a deeply rooted sense of Mushawara (seeking counsel), and Naseeha (advice). Chaplaincy aims to advise and lead a community, which indeed is the concept of seeking Naseeha and Mushawara. In essence, chaplaincy is an integral part of service to our faith community and while we may not have the same name for the profession, we do have a similar practice in our faith tradition.

— The website of an Islamic financial advisory firm includes a Mushawara meeting in its services, as well as a meeting with Shariah Auditors and guidance from Shariah-Scholars.

And what are my thoughts on this? Apparently, for these Muslims, certain words are so central to their belief system that they must be expressed in Arabic in an otherwise English text. Clearly, Mushawara is one of those words; it is defined, illustrated and explained in the Koran. Nasheeha is less clearly defined.

“Consultation,” their translation of Mushawara, has a number of meanings in English. One part of the definition in my Webster’s dictionary has consultation being the act of consulting. To consult means to deliberate, to consider. Interestingly, though, in old English the meaning was more concrete; it meant to call together, as in gathering the senate (supreme council of the Roman republic) and asking it for advice. I like to search in my etymological dictionary for the origin of words. Consult, and related words such as Consul and council, originated in ancient Rome and had to do with government and formal organizations.

Given this original meaning, Consultation seems a reasonable translation for Mushawara in the Koran. The book is sacred but the activities described for Mushawara are secular; they relate to family and political relationships. They are of the wise patriarch calling upon his subordinates for information and for keeping them engaged as faithful followers.

A later meaning of Consultation was a conference of specialists, e.g. lawyers and medical practitioners, to discuss, decide, plan. Generally, when I use the words consult or consultation, it means seeking the advice of an expert on a particular matter. I wonder how the Muslim groups using Mushawara and calling it Consultation would describe the process of what they actually do and how they interact in their meetings. Is it in the patriarchal mode described in the Koran, or is it in the mode of a leader guiding a consensus-building, free-flowing discussion that includes an exchange of information and ideas?

In Indonesia, to suit the Indonesian culture, “Mushawara” was transformed into “Musyawarah.” In Bali it is a method of decision-making for a system of food production that evolved over the centuries in that particular environment, discussed here. No one individual or family controls the rice irrigation system; it is owned by all the communities and is managed by the landowning families talking to consensus when they gather at the temples to keep informed, make decisions and do the work required.

I had thought of Musyawarah as an effective approach to decision-making for small groups in small communities, but doubted it could be adapted to decision-making for large, complex organizations.  In a paper in the Social Science Research Network Kawamur Koichi argues otherwise.

“This paper analyzes customary practices of consensus decision-making, called Musyawarah-mufakat, as a basis of democratic stability in Indonesia. Musyawarah and mufakat (deliberation and consensus) are a traditional decision-making rule in Indonesia which has often been observed in village meetings. This paper argues that this traditional decision-making rule is still employed even in a modernized and democratized Indonesia, not only at rural assemblies but in the national parliament as well. Furthermore, this consensus way of decision-making provides an institutional basis for democratic stability by giving every parliamentary player, whether big or small, an equal opportunity to express his/her interests. On the other hand, this system of Musyawarah-mufakat decreases political efficiency in the sense that it takes a long time to deliberate drafted laws in the parliament.”

Hmmm. The word Mufakat – Is it Arabic or Indonesia? — —  but enough for now. I could go on forever thinking about the origins of words, and more importantly, about decision-making in modern, democratic societies — but haven’t finished thinking and writing about my time in Bali and what I learned there.

Update –

The friend who said Musyawarah could be from the Arabic Mushawara saw in the paragraph above Mufakat being defined as deliberation and consensus. He suggested I find out if Mufakat is also spelled Muwafakat. And it is. I found on-line “A Dictionary of the Sunda Language of Java” by Jonathan Rigg.

In the dictionary — Mupakat, Arabic, Properly Muwafakat, also Mufakat, to agree, to be on one mind, to unite efforts, to form a joint resolution

I continue to ponder over why Bali is so attractive to visitors, including myself.jawaharlal-nehru-and-rabindranath-tagore Jawaharlal Nehru called Bali “the morning of the world” when he visited Indonesia in 1950 and the poet Rabindranth Tagore said, “Wherever I go on the island, I see God.” But Bali is more than a beautiful landscape; the island is something of a Shangri La where outsiders want to live as well as to visit. And how did this come to be? I figured out the basics of Bali’s centuries old social and economic system, outlined here, and the impact of tourism here, then continued reading into the large and never ending literature on Balinese history until I felt I understood something of what made Bali different – and what that difference is, or was. Amazingly, I find myself engaged to the point where I cannot let go and move on to other places where I worked and was involved. I read about Bali and one memory after another occurs to me, of a similarity with another culture here or of a difference there, and I want to get it all down into writing.

For example, I read about how the Balinese organize their irrigation farming and community activities and encounter references to musyawarah, an Indonesian word I heard some thirty-five years ago in Java, and memories from even longer ago than that are revived.

Musyawarah is the name for a social process I first observed in the 1950s, and having no one word for what was happening, described it with phrases and sentences. I was studying the urbanization of a Mexican-American community of migrant farm workers, Spanish speaking, who were taking jobs and settling into a Midwestern city rather than return as usual to their home base at the Texas border. In my second year of being with them, a number of the younger women asked me to help them organize a woman’s social club for the community, and it became quite an experience for us all. Among other things, it was when I discovered my expectations for how a meeting should be run were a product of my Anglo-Saxon culture. In meetings as I knew them, if an issue arose and different points of view were expressed, the members held a discussion, then took a vote and the minority accepted the outcome, the majority view, as that of the membership. In our Mexican-American club, in our early meetings, when we needed to make a group decision we held a discussion and took a vote, after which those who lost the vote walked out of the meeting, emotionally if not physically, without comment, angering the majority and leaving each side with secret, and not-so-secret suspicions.

I could not understand what was happening, so Consuelo, my close friend, explained for me the factions in the community and the older women and their feelings. When I expressed the idea of the minority staying on and maybe later even persuading others to their point of view, it drew a blank with her. Obviously, the concept of the loyal opposition was not in their culture and to save our club we had to work around that fact. With another woman, we devised a set of procedures that suited our Mexican-American women; essentially, every group decision had to be discussed until we all agreed on the same thing. It was a time-consuming, tiresome process and sometimes resulted in an action so innocuous it meant almost no action at all, but we stayed together, had good times together and accomplished good works, such as persuading and helping Mexican-Americans get to the polls and vote during local elections, have their voice heard. It was the first time Spanish was heard in the municipal hall. Unusual for that community, our social club survived for years, for long after I had left.

I called the procedures we invented “talking to consensus.” With some added features it was “musyawarah,” the process for group decision-making used by the Balinese. In later years, I observed the same process being used elsewhere, in other cultures, in tight but stratified groups, as with medical teams. The discussion went on and on and on until finally the decision reached usually was what the top man (almost always a man) wanted anyhow, but at least everyone had a say and was heard, small concessions were made along the way to the hard-to-convince, no one lost face and everyone was responsible for the outcome of actions taken. Musyawarah became part of my personal vocabulary.

Another feature of Balinese society I think about is the way in which foreigners respond to the place of art in Balinese culture. I read here that  “Life in Bali is based on art. It’s so essential that there is no word for “art” in Balinese. It is difficult to explain the relationship that the Balinese have with art to someone who has never seen it. The Balinese carve, weave and paint beautiful objects for daily use – they become objets d’art in the most pristine sense of the word. The Balinese have a kinetic, green, tangible relationship to art.”

But — except for their highly productive agriculture in an unusually benign setting that allowed them far more leisure time for crafts and religious rituals than any other peasant society I know of, the Balinese are essentially like everyone anywhere else. It is a basic fact of life that peoples everywhere and throughout human history have “… a kinetic, green, tangible relationship to art.” Balinese art is folk art; people in all the societies I know and know about have folk art but rarely have a name for the artistic beyond the functional.

cave-art-aurignacianConsider early Homo sapiens painting on the walls of caves, c. 30,000 BCE, propitiating the spirits of animals they hunt and incidentally producing great art. In college, in my first anthropology course I was impressed with the beauty of ancient tools used by the hunters, like the Solutrean point in France, 22,000 years ago,

clovis-pointsand Clovis points in the Americas 13,000 years ago, beautiful beyond any functional requirement. In Neolithic villages with agriculture and domesticated animals, beginning some 12,000 years ago, craftsmen/women made tools and weapons, pots, baskets, cloth, objects for religious rituals, structures to live in, all useful and many pleasing to the eye. In towns and cities of the past,

a lady's needlework

a lady’s needlework

women with leisure handled cloth with care and imagination, adding beauty to ordinary useful items, and women today continue those crafts as hobbies, to sew and quilt and do embroidery as a craft and an art. Today travelers collect those lovely items people from traditional societies made for use; we display them in our homes and call them art.  (I wrote here about my collection of women’s artful craftwork. )

Why do I, and other people, find ordinary objects from traditional societies so much more attractive than things we have around us today? Could it be because through long experience with shaping and firing a pot, heating and hammering metal, weaving and decorating fabric, doing a dance, playing a musical instrument, singing ancient songs, performing a ritual, doing ordinary activities within the community, people naturally understood the materials and ideas from which they made things, things that “have stood the test of time.”acrylic-sofa-table-in-acrylic

We live today in a world of the continually new. When plastics, for example, came on the scene in the 1940s I found things made of it downright ugly, but gradually the nature of the material, its limitations and potentials, became better understood and now some items in plastic, such as a table made in clear acrylic, can be quite attractive. (but most aren’t)

My first encounter with folk art being collected, and sold, was in 1962, in Oaxaco, south Mexico. It was also the first time I was in a traditional peasant village. Ravi and I had driven to Oaxaca with our two small children to visit a friend, an anthropologist doing a study in the villages, and we stayed in the city with a middle-class family from the old urban elite.

black-ware-from-oaxacaThey were a family who had centuries-old ties with certain villages, probably a landlord-sharecropper relationship that modernization had severed. Nevertheless, the husband/father knew the villages and used his knowledge and love of the local craftwork to stock his popular tourists’ shop with relatively simple but exquisitely shaped and textured pottery. I was struck by the means through which he acquired the pots he sold. He found in the surrounding villages the potter he considered to be an artist as well as a skilled craftsman, agreed to buy every pot made for him and displayed for sale only those he thought had turned out well. The price and lifestyle differences between village, city and tourist economies allowed him to support the folk artist while running a business to support him and his family.

Balinese village economy remained intact into recent decades and the crafts never ceased being part of the farmers’ lives. Weaving, metal working, ceramics, painting, stone masonry, wood working did not move, as it did in Europe after medieval times, to the city to become the full-time occupations of independent craftsmen organized in guilds. In Bali, a highly developed, centuries old folk art remained in the villages, as if ready for foreign artists in the 20th century to discover and to set up artists’ colonies around them in Ubud and Denpasar. Here for a discussion of Balinese art after there arrived in Bali new materials and new ideas for creating works of art, plus outsiders to purchase the art.

In my very first hours in Bali in 1978, walking about in Denpasar, near my hotel in Sanur, a boy, maybe twelve years old, came along beside me, speaking English. He had across one arm a pile of paintings done on cloth and was trying to talk me into buying. bali-hanumanIt was my first time seeing Balinese art and the paintings of pretty girls he showed me I dismissed as overdone and touristy, bali-barongbut two paintings did catch my attention. On the way from Paris to Jakarta I had spent time with family in Delhi and naturally noticed the paintings with Indian themes, one of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and a second vaguely Indian. When I bought them the boy asked me if I would like to come to his village and meet his grandfather, the artist. Sadly, I could not arrange it. Ravi had the paintings framed and I keep the Barong hanging in my study. (I’ll try to do better photos of them.)

The dance and myth around the Barong is explained here. Here for a touristy but fun presentation in Ubud.

Temple_detail_in_baliThe Barong is a truly ancient myth, a male spirit in the likeness of a boar, a tiger, a serpent or a lion. The lion form is from the Gianyar Regency subculture; Ubud is located in Gianyar and therefore the lion Barong is most familiar to tourists. In an important ritual dance Barong protects the community against a powerful evil witch, Ranga, who is aided by Durga, Indian goddess of death. (I resist the temptation to do a psychological analysis of the myth.) Hanuman is part of the culture introduced through the India-influenced Majapahit Empire, beginning in the 1300s. He is in both the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Craftwork from traditional societies intrigues me. Over the decades I acquired, besides my collection of fabrics, things of copper, bronze and brass; baskets; some pottery; a few knives; a bow and quiver of arrows; an ancient handmade gun; a Dayak blowgun (but no kris) and other items, not really a collection, just things I enjoy seeing and thinking about. I will comment next on the Bali crafts and folk art.

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.”

Balinese art contemporaryBali stone carvingGeertz 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

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. — —

Bali kamasan painting 2The 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.

bali tourist map -- Kuta and SanurBetween 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.

Traditional Bali fishing boatEventually 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.

Bali cock fightingBali gamelon practiceExcept 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. Bali dance groupEveryone 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

Dancer — from an antique painting

Dance in a village

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. Bali dancer RamayanaAs 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. bali dance face 2I 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? Bali dance faceOur 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.


bali in indonesia map

The villages of Bali were different from any I had ever seen anywhere else, and I soon became yet another visitor totally charmed by the Balinese and their lifestyle.

In 1860, the famed naturalist, and Charles Darwin’s co-author for The Origin of Species, Alfred Russel Wallace, sailing from Singapore, landed at Singaraja, the Dutch port in northern Bali, and Bali, Tabanan, Jatiluwihtraveled inland to study the flora and fauna. He wrote of Bali: “I was both astonished and delighted; for as my visit to Java was some years later, I had never beheld so beautiful and well-cultivated a district out of Europe. A slightly undulating plain extends from the seacoast about ten or twelve miles (16 or 19 kilometres) inland, where it is bounded by a fine range of wooded and cultivated hills. Houses and villages, marked out by dense clumps of coconut palms, tamarind and other fruit trees, are dotted about in every direction; while between them extend luxurious rice-grounds, watered by an elaborate system of irrigation that would be the pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the 1930s, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson lived in a mountain village and in a town, Ubud, in south Bali, studying and writing articles on Balinese culture.

Ubud Palace

Ubud Palace

The artists Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies, and musicologist Colin McPhee all spent time there, with Ubud as their center. Their accounts of the island and its peoples created an image of Bali as “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature.” Western tourists began coming to the island, first arriving by ship at Singaraja and after 1966 at the international airport near Denpasar.

I had barely heard of Bali before going in 1978 as a consultant to evaluate a national health care program being introduced there and in villages across Indonesia. This was the first of four visits to Bali, the last in the mid-1980s, always on an assignment, staying in an ordinary hotel, during the day walking about in a village observing and interviewing, always too busy to do much as a tourist, which was fine with me. Being with the ordinary people was entertainment enough. Pictures here.

But what was it about the villagers that charmed me so? Why was Balinese traditional life different, why the physical and social environment so orderly, pleasant, egalitarian, so much of it touched by art? One explanation occurred to me. It had to do with the effects that irrigation farming has on a society (I wrote about that here, in discussing the original city of Bangalore) but I needed to do some reading and additional thinking. To begin –

Borobudur, late 7th century, plow and bullock

Borobudur, late 7th century, plow and bullock

Central Java

Central Java

For more than 2,700 years Indonesians have used wet rice farming to grow their basic food crop. Javi and Bali, especially, are suited by their soil, climate and water sources to achieving the high yields that support a dense population, the prerequisite for a complex civilization. The climate is hot, averaging over 25°C all year round; the volcanic soil is fertile; rainfall is high during the west monsoon, from October to April, so the rice fields are naturally flooded for one crop, and from December to March, during the dry season, water is brought to the fields from a river or springs to grow second crop of rice or maize, sweet potatoes, lentils. Steps in the farming cycle are explained here.

bali terraced rice fieldsIrrigation is used throughout Indonesia but Bali’s is different. Beginning in the 9th century and continuing through the centuries, the Balinese developed an irrigation system known as Subak, the components of which are the forests that protect water flowing from the mountain tops; terraced rice paddies connected by a system of canals, tunnels and weirs; people from village communities using handmade tools to build, plant, harvest, drain and maintain it.

topography map

Bali topography map

Lake Batur and temple

Lake Batur and temple

Management of this large system, some 20,000 hectares, is exercised through a hierarchy of temples, the centers of control located at critical points either high on the mountainsides at the source of water or at points along its way downhill to the paddies below. No one person controls the system; it is owned by all the communities and is managed by consensus among the landowning families when they gather at the temples to keep informed, make decisions and do the work required.

Critically, Subak is imbued with symbolic and religious meaning, especially at the temples, expressed in the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana, which brings together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. The system became sacred, as do objects and ideas when they symbolize the good for everyone, the social above the individual. In 2012, Subak was enlisted as a UNESCO world heritage site. An article here on protecting the Subak.

An anthropologist, Stephan Lansing, using his considerable analytical skills and listening to the people of Bali, came to understand the Subak system and has explained its genius to the outside world. It is a system in which upstream owners of land share equally with downstream owners because they would lose if they did not; all of the owners must coordinate planting and fallow in complex ways to control the flow of water and to prevent an outbreak of pests that would destroy all the crops. Everyone contributes equally to the inputs and benefits equally from the harvest. The complexities of Subak are explained here in a brilliant summarization of Lansing’s writing, plus an account of how he helped save Bali’s heritage from international misinformed agricultural engineers. I highly recommend your reading it. This near debacle of an efficient, effective traditional system had me remembering why so many Third World socio-economic development programs failed.

I think it no coincidence that the Subak system began and took form in a time preceding the series of HinduBuddhist influenced Balinese kingdoms that ruled Bali and the Lesser Sunda Islands from the early 10th to early 20th century. The high yielding agricultural system supported population growth, prosperity and the establishment of cities, each with a ruling class and a sophisticated court culture.

Majapahit architecture

Majapahit architecture

Buddhism and Hinduism came to Bali through contacts with the larger and more powerful kingdoms of Java, from the 9th century  Medang Kingdom, the period of Borobudur, to the 13th to 15th century Majapahit empire. As the Majapahit empire waned, Islam spread in Java, primarily through increasing numbers of traders from the Indian state of Gujerat bringing their Muslim faith with them. I can picture them marrying local women and settling down, establishing small communities, building mosques, all analogous with what the Portuguese did, less successfully, in Makassar a century or two later. It is known that Muslim traders married into and converted royal families. However, Bali remained Hindu and became the refuge for fleeing Hindu courtiers, nobles, priests and artisans. (During my 1980s travels across Sumatra, Java and Sulawese, when I went walking in the towns where my hotels were located, looking into the shops, I found Chinese and Indian shopkeepers. The Chinese stayed separate in marriage and religion. The Indians were Muslim and married locally.)

Oddly, I have found no concrete evidence of Indonesian empires spreading through warfare, no paintings or carvings of warriors and battles. The one archer in a Borobudur bas-relief is a scene from the Indian Ramayana. How unlike what I have been reading about civilizations in India and further west.  I will return to this. It fascinates me.

Wayang, puppet theatre

Wayang, puppet theatre

Bali dancers 1929

Bali dancers 1929

So – I have the outline of an answer to my question of why Bali is so special. It is because of the basic Balinese community, the Banjar, that evolved within the framework of a unique system of irrigation, the Subak, that produces an abundant and a dependable supply of food for everyone in the society on a schedule that allows for a great deal of free time and leisure. And there was no need to arm against aggressors from outside. With influences brought to them from India via Java to add to their original culture, the Balinese developed and elaborated a rich artistic tradition. In the village, as a folk art, the boys play in the gamelan orchestra and both girls and boys dance. They are taught and they practice and practice; ordinary boys and girls acquire the skills of professional performers, and they put on performances to celebrate ritual occasions. The court culture has the puppet theatre and painting and the carving of wood and stone.

The Banjar community, about a hundred households, continues as the hereditary owners of the Subak. I think it may have historically been the village but is now is a sub unit of the larger village. Importantly, it remains the basic social unit in the society and has retained its unity as Bali grows in population and has become part of the modern world. A picture of the banjar today and how it controls interaction between tourist bars, nightclubs, shopping and the local society is here.

I have a second question: Why, at least in the years I was in Bali, had tourism not undone that traditional culture, detached it from its roots, changed the people and the culture, as had happened elsewhere? I think I found part of an answer to that question just a few days ago, reading Margaret Mead’s ethnography.

I’ll consider the second question next. — —