menara sawah brown

BETTY SUGGESTED that I, too, should learn an instrument. I was pleased with the idea really; though I put on a show of reluctance. Pak Raka suggested I learn the Balinese flute, called suling. This was his speciality. In fact, we sometimes heard him spoken of as Raka Suling, which reminded me of the Organ Morgan in the Dylan Thomas play. He promised to have a couple of flutes for me next day, one male, one female. So we left the music house with happy faces. The way home was past the banyan tree of the kul-kul, which had sounded relentlessly the day before, and past the village hall, the wantilan, where there was a crowd of men. Two great tree trunks, had been unloaded on the raised floor and in a walled yard behind the wantilan was a new pile of bamboo poles. Preparations for a cremation had begun.

Already, we were a little bit known in the village and people walking on the road and warung owners called to us politely, always asking where we had been and where we were going. This is the way of villagers. We walked on past our cottage towards Menara. Across the road from the Lodging House was a signpost announcing Ubud’s Museum of Art. A pathway led down stone steps, across a bridge over a deeply cut stream and mounted the opposite slope. There was a small box office with the price of admittance, 100 rupiahs, written on its side, but nobody to take the money.

The whole hillside was a beautiful, planned garden of palms and ponds and trellises. The three thatched buildings that house the art collection stood against the sky.

We had almost reached the central building, when a small, thin, barefooted woman in a kain and kebaya appeared on the path before us. She was smiling widely and bobbing her head obsequiously. She carried a ring of keys and when we had paid our entrance fee, she unlocked a carved door.  It is a large collection. The museum was established to retain some of the best painting and sculpture in Bali and the works have been donated by artists and collectors. Painting for its own sake has not a long tradition in Bali. In the 1920’s and thirties, European painters arrived and succumbed to the beauty of the island. They passed on some of their knowledge to the Balinese, wisely teaching craft and not aesthetics.

This museum, so close to the source of the work is exciting. From the front veranda of the building, you look down on the village of Ubud, a textured landscape crowded with vegetation. From the windows at the rear, you see the sinuous lines and shining water of padi fields under a wide sky and a tiny thatched shrine between living trees. The paintings are filled with imagery direct from the same scene. We were alone in the museum. The old woman who had let us in seemed to have melted back into the landscape. We wandered slowly over red-tiled floors in luxurious silence

The collection is remarkably good. Most of the pictures are literary, illustrating old Hindu legends or village life. The one clearest in my memory is a painting by Ida Bagus Widja of Batuan. The canvas is large and crowded. The focal point, near the centre is the dance of the mythical beast, the barong, and from this centre, the composition radiates. From edge to edge there are small, small figures; dancers, musicians, trees, houses, cattle, monkeys, padi fields and flowing water. But the painting is not haphazard, it is beautifully organised. Like Bali (which tourists remember as brightly coloured), its colours are mainly muted. It is a painting of the whole world of Ida Bagus Widja.

Another day, when I visited the museum, there was a band of men working, without risk of exhaustion, in the garden. They shouted jolly greetings as I passed. This time it was an old man who let me in. Like the old woman he smiled and bobbed and stooped a little to be sure his head was on a lower level than mine, and he called me ‘Tuan’ as though I belonged to a higher caste. One of the gardeners had followed me. He invited me to sit down and talk about the paintings. He too loved the painting by Ida Bagus Widja.                      He said: `I have one of his paintings in my collection’.

I asked him, `Are you a painter, too?’

`No. I am just someone who works.’

`Why do so few people visit the museum?’

`Because the guides like to take the tourists to the shops that pay commission’, he said.

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