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Jakarta Post

'€˜Saraswati'€™: Culture in Action

  • Jean Couteau

    The Jakarta Post

Bali   /   Mon, July 7, 2014   /  12:23 pm
'€˜Saraswati'€™: Culture in Action

Culture is the word through which most Balinese like to define themselves: they are proud of their unique, living culture.

To this culture corresponds Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, through whom they symbolically link their tangible (sekala) and intangible (niskala) worlds.

This role is enshrined in Saraswati day, the day of enlightenment, which replays the enlightenment of the mythical origins, when the incestuous son, Watugunung, was separated from his incestuous mother, Sinta, creating in the process not only the calendar, but beyond it, the awareness of time, the need to organize religious and social life '€” thus celebrating the dawn of civilization.

Saraswati day is indeed one of Bali'€™s main festival days. It closes the year of the 210-day Pawukon calendar and is followed, on the next day, by a day of cleansing, Banyu Pinaruh, during which people go to the sea and sacred river spots. Much of this is known and has been recently explored in the book Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali.

So, why a new book on the topic? Because, to whoever is interested by Balinese culture, Saraswati is not only a system, not only a holy day, but also a festival that celebrates the goddess in many parts and villages of Bali.

In his latest book, Saraswati in Bali, a Temple, a Museum and a Mask, Ron Jenkins, a professor at Wesleyan University, United States, does not explore the myth or the calendar as complex '€œabstract'€ constructions, but as a ritual in motion.

A theatre man looking at a theatre culture, he naturally chooses to focus on the festival side of Saraswati day '€” on Saraswati as '€œperformance'€. And that is the novelty.

Instead of trying to '€œunderstand'€ Bali, like anthropologists usually do, often reifying it or losing themselves in abstruse concepts of dubious '€œuniversalist'€ value, he presents it '€œin action'€.

The Saraswati festival he shows us is not reduced to normative traditional aspects supposedly linked to the past; it adapts to change and pops up in a large variety of manifestations.

Those manifestations are themselves presented in the book in chapters that are reminiscent of the various acts of a theatre show '€” as a succession of significant scenes or moments, as they actually take place in the village of Peliatan, just to the south of Ubud.

This village happens to have a temple, Pura Madya, whose anniversary festival coincides with Saraswati day. So Jenkins has us attend one by one all the main ritual moments of the festival: the awakening of the gods, their street processions, the banter of clowns during a late night opera, the ritual cleansing to the sea on the day following Saraswati, not to mention the visit traditionally paid to balian healers, and even the making of a barong bangkal mask by a prince of Ubud.

He also adds a few explanations on the function of traditional lontar manuscripts with regard to Saraswati.

Jenkins'€™ purpose is not to conceptualize, but to '€œbring to life'€, which is obviously to him a more efficient way to cross the cultural barrier that separates modern people from traditional Balinese.

Wary of excessive interpretation, the keys he gives us simply aim at showing how the local people express their collective wisdom through ceremonies, and their understanding, '€œthrough active participation in communal song, prayers and ritual preparations rather than direct discussion'€.

Balinese '€œintelligence'€ indeed comes out as '€œaction'€ rather than '€œintellection'€. But isn'€™t that where the island'€™s renowned magic lies?

Yet, Balinese genius also reveals itself in still images, which is why Jenkins chooses to give iconography an important role in his book.

There are many photographs, of course, but a special mention must be made of the paintings. The writer is one of the few foreigners to fully understand that Balinese painting provides a trove of information about Balinese rites and stories.

Those paintings are not made simply to be looked at, but to be read and deciphered. And what one reads in them are not only narratives, but also, quite often, philosophical speculations.

Jenkins explores the relation of several of the images to the story of Saraswati and the esoteric Balinese knowledge associated with it.

One finds there in particular the visual meditations of Ketut Liyer, the holy man made famous in the film Eat Pray Love, the movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert'€™s bestselling book of the same name. The artist'€™s work shown in the book illustrates better than any formal explanation the Balinese concept of life, death, transmigration of souls and ultimate moksa (enlightenment) in cosmic oneness.

In relation to the preservation of this living cultural memory, Jenkins underlines the role played by the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) of Peliatan. The paintings in the book are all part of the museum'€™s collection.

Anak Agung Rai, the owner of the museum, is a member of the Pura Madya temple congregation. He is also one of the sponsors of the book. The activities held at his museum, as it appears in the book, aim not so much at putting Balinese culture on display, as at providing a place and means for this culture to maintain its '€œmemory'€ through the tremendous modernization Balinese society is subjected to.

The ARMA, says Jenkins, is a '€œsecular temple of [Balinese] cultural knowledge'€, whose '€œgalleries and educational programs help preserve the sacred traditions linked to Saraswati that are enacted in Pura Madya [...]'€.

Beyond the description of Saraswati proper, the challenge underlined by the book is indeed to find the means for Balinese culture to project itself into the future without undergoing alienating changes. As such, it ends up as an invitation not only to learn, but also to ponder and think.


Saraswati in Bali: A Temple, a Museum and a Mask
By Ron Jenkins
Published for Agung Rai Museum
of Art, Peliatan, Ubud, Bali, 2014
156 pages

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