Many times I’ve thought to myself: What makes Bali such a popular tourist destination? Is it the surf? Is it the shopping? Is it the weather? Is it the nightlife? What is it? What makes Bali different from the rest? What makes people keep coming back and telling others to visit? The answer is in one word: CULTURE.
This is what really stands out about Bali – its traditional culture and way of life. There is nowhere else in the world like it. Let’s take the Balinese performing arts as an example. At the last government estimate there are more than 40 different types of gamelan ensembles and perhaps more than a hundred dances. These numbers are on the increase all the time as people think of new ideas and concepts. In terms of performers, there must be more musicians and dancers per capita in Bali than any other island, nay country, in the world. Impressive stats, I hear you say. It’s not all sunny days however. Amongst it all there are in fact a number of important forms of traditional performing arts which are gravely endangered. Ironically, rare art forms such as legong, gambang or gambuh are seen as a fundamental part of music or dance in Bali.
Yet all the time I keep reading articles in glossy tabloids exclaiming: ‘What is all the fuss about “Ajeg Bali” and “cultural preservation? It’s alive and happening in front of our own eyes – they still have the ceremonies, don’t they?’ Apart from not doing there homework (one writer interviewed ball boys and scrabble players as part of his ‘in-depth’ survey), they are tragically missing the point. For sure on the surface, there are still lots of ceremonies and pretty offerings. Yes, kids are still learning gamelan and dance at community centres around Bali. What is not being asked, is the details: What are they learning? Is there any depth in the understanding? How long do the kids learn for? Is there any continuity? You’ll find that most kids who learn dance these days are only scratching the skin of tradition. Most of them will learn Tari Kelinci (bunny rabbit dance) or Tari Cendrawasih (bird dance) which in the Balinese world of dance are very simple dances. Anything traditional requiring years of practice and discipline, such as Legong, is not attempted.
Journalists who suggest that talking about ajeg is unwarranted are simply doing more harm than good. Such claims can only breed apathy and complacency. People will start to think that all is fine and dandy and nothing needs to be done. If this were the case, gamelan repertoires and dances wouldn’t be disappearing. If Balinese culture wasn’t under threat, why would Ida Pedanda Made Gunung even waste his breath going on Bali TV every day to talk about the dilemmas of Ajeg Bali?
“What can I do to help?” I hear you squeal… Get involved! Learn some gamelan, learn some dance, ask your friends to teach you how to make offerings or write Balinese script. Put aside a little time to learn about your cultural environment. When the Balinese see that outsiders really care, they will realize that their culture and traditions, not nightclubs and shopping malls, are their most valuable assets. Ajeg Bali, oi, oi, oi!
© 2012 Vaughan Hatch