Denpasar Moon is a 20-year-old song and it encapsulates my Bali experience when I did some backpacking there in 1993. But mention Bali to an adventurer particular about “virginity” and he may give you a scornful stare. The island now receives hordes of foreign and domestic visitors all year round. There is practically no low season here. Though my uncle who owns a resort here lived through some difficult times after the bombings, filling up rooms here is no longer a problem these days. The whole place is thoroughly commercialised and the purists can only dream of the good old days. What these people don’t realise, is that the “good old days” actually didn’t really exist before tourism started.
Like many exotic Asian destinations, Bali was and still is touted as a Garden of Eden. Unknown to tourists who are more interested in the night life and beach life of this unique Hindu island in a sea of Muslims, Bali has a rich and intriguing culture. There is another group of tourists. They visit every temple, watch every performance and take notes when the guides talk. They are fascinated with Balinese culture. But also unknown to many of these culture buffs intrigued by this exotic Asian culture, Balinese art and culture as we know it, was more or less collated by Westerners.
Listen to the English version of Denpasar Moon. Is this some Western translation of the Indonesian “original”?
No. This is the original singer and composer of Denpasar Moon, Mr Colin Bass. Surprised? There’s more.
Bali was no Garden of Eden. It was once a savage land plagued by famine, natural disasters and ruthless despots. Most of the people were malnourished and illiterate. Survival was a major challenge. Few people were in the mood to paint, sculpt or dance. The island provided European traders with slaves and the spectacle of bare-breasted Balinese women.
The Balinese put up strong resistance against Dutch colonisation in the early 1900s, embarrassing the heavily armed Dutch army on several occasions with their clever maneuvers. But superior Dutch weaponry and Balinese in-fighting brought the island to its knees, In the last days of the kingdoms that fell one by one, members of the royal families committed mass suicide in a savage ritual called the puputan. Choosing death over dishonour, the defeated Balinese nobles would rather die than to live as slaves of the Dutch.
After savage Bali was successfully pummeled into submission by 1908, the Dutch went on to ban slavery, widow sacrifice, caste system, cow sacredness, opium and cockfighting while preserving the rest of Balinese culture. The brought on Bali’s unique brand of Hindusim. It bears only some resemblance to the original form of Hinduism still practised in India, but it suite the Dutch whose aim was to promote tourism.
Many of the Dutch administrative staff posted to Bali started to study Balinese culture in depth, but hungry and divided, the Balinese people had no universal standards for their artistic pursuits. Writers, artists and anthropologists began to arrive from Europe to unravel the mysteries of this alien culture and provide their own interpretation. Perhaps the most prominent of these Western artists who not only made Bali his home but also created the bulk of his finest works here was German artist Walter Spies (1895-1942).
Compared to most European scholars who only had half-baked notions and understanding of Bali and its culture, Spies was as talented as he was sensitive and sincere. His feelings for Balinese spirituality were real. Not only that, he was determined to pick up the fragments of Balinese culture he saw and reorganise them. Bali saw a renaissance period under Spies’ guidance.
However, Spies also had pragmatic reasons for living in Bali. As a homosexual, he found acceptance within the Balinese community which was generally tolerant to his sexual orientation.
Spies built his own dream home and workshop in the tranquil foothills of Ubud. He lived like a king and was waited upon by young “butlers”. News of this great artist’s bohemian lifestyle in the tropics soon reached Europe and America. Spies was visited by writer HG Wells and the legendary Charlie Chaplin. With pure passion, Walter Spies turned his little haven in Ubud into a centre for artistic lifestyle. When writers and scholars visited Ubud and wrote about it, their main source of information was none other than Spies himself.
It was through Spies that an emergent form of Balinese art was promoted. He encouraged local artists to broaden their scope and themes. Balinese art evolved from the repetitive depiction of Hindu mythology to the images of daily life in Bali. Until today, many Balinese artists still recognise Walter Spies as the father of modern Balinese art.
During World War 1, Bali was a convenient escape for Europeans and Americans disillusioned with Western societies. It was also an attractive destination for homosexuals. The Dutch authorities soon took notice of the trend and decided to crack down on “moral decay”. A witch hunt was started. Spies was arrested, tried and jailed. With his father’s connections, Spies was released early, but not the other homosexual artists.
During World War 2, Germans were seen as enemy aliens. Spies was on a German ship bound for Colombo when the vessel was attacked and sunk. Spies’ death was regrettable, but his legacy in shaping the image of artistic Bali lived on. By then, Bali had already found its feet. Dead or alive, Walter Spies’ work had already been immortalised.
© Chan Joon Yee