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article imageBali exhibit at Asian Art Museum San Francisco has ancient charms Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jun 29, 2011 in Entertainment
San Francisco - Long before the Rogers & Hammerstein musical the “King and I” introduced American audiences to exotic Siam, (now called Thailand); there was Bali. A San Francisco museum is currently showcasing Bali.
An island setting, situated between Java to the west and Lombok to the east, Bali was a distinct kingdom when medieval Europe was being invaded and reshaped by Viking conquests.
Eventually, Bali and the surrounding archipelago would become part of the ancient trade routes allowing for a flow of commerce of goods to connect from China to India. In addition to the travel back and forth of things such as spices, silk and artisan items, religious ideas were also exchanged.
Trade with India brought the influence of Hinduism resulting in the development of nine sects of religious expression and belief among the Balinese.
It is their sense of religion and custom that is of importance and significance to the Balinese people, even to this day.
On June 7, this reporter had the privilege to join in on a docent tour for an exhibit now on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco entitled, “Bali – Art, Ritual, & Performance.” It has been well received as written up this past May in the New York Times.
The sound of gamelan instruments played in the background as soon as the door to the exhibit hall opened. Brooks Szolyga invited visitors to join her for a docent tour.
Bali is now a major tourist destination to Westerners. But the exhibit gives witness to the fact that Bali and the surrounding islands like Java and Lombok were a civilization to be reckoned with as they struggled amongst themselves for power between kingdoms, dynasties and ruling classes from 1019 to 1597.
The earliest evidence of human population on Bali can be traced to prehistoric times some artifacts dating as far back as three thousand years ago.
By the 9th Century rice was grown and the Balinese had developed a complex irrigation system. The art, music, ritual and dance reflect the respect for the cycles of life and are a compilation of layers of centuries of history, struggle and influence these islands had upon one another.
In the 1500’s Dutch seafarers discovered Indonesia. They were charmed by the paradise they had found. Over time their enchantment turned to greed as they sought to conquer Bali and the surrounding area.
The struggles for power within the Balinese and Javanese royal circles gave the Dutch the advantage and after many attempts at resistance, Bali and Java fell to Holland’s rule.
Szolyga noted several times during her docent tour that the Dutch had collected many of the artifacts in the exhibit during skirmishes and conflicts.
As in other instances of European domination, the native peoples demonstrated dramatic defiance by tossing the would-be conquerors their most precious possessions. Ivory, Jade, precious stones were hurled at the Dutch as they advanced into palaces and temples.
One artifact on display that fascinated Szolyga most was the compelling figure of “Rangda,” the widow-sorceress. (The name “Rangda” in Balinese translates as ‘widow’). Bulging eyes, matted hair, fangs, long fingernails and a tongue of fire characterize the formidable entity of Rangda in ceremonial dances and rituals.
Natasha Reichle, the Asian Art Museum's associate curator of Southeast Asian art explained to this reporter later that the figure is based upon a historical widowed queen from the 11th Century named Mahendradatta. She was the mother of King Airlangga. According to legend she was banished from the palace for practicing magic.
A complex figure in the legends and religious mythology of the culture, “Rangda is an antagonist,” noted Reichle.
She is often associated with the graveyard, conjuring and magic. Yet archaeologists note that this Durga-like deity (as from Hindu tradition) has a myriad of myths and interpretations to her role.
At over 23 inches high and 16 inches in width, the intricate carving in wood of Rangda is exquisite. It stands alone in a display case. Many of the visitors to the exhibit that day were overwhelmed by the richness not certain where to start as all of the carved figures and artifacts in the exhibit are of a highly detailed craftsmanship.
The six or so that gathered around the artifact of Rangda as Szolyga spoke about Rangda’s role were intrigued, The sheer mixture of the fine craftsmanship and dramatic effect that leaned towards the grotesque puzzled and fascinated them.
Barbara and Jean Fremineur visiting San Francisco from Scottsdale, Arizona were impressed by the exhibit and were pleased that Szolyga and others who make up the docent team were there to provide tours.
Individual audio tours with a head-set are available. But many visitors like Jean & Barbara Fremineur prefer an actual docent because they can ask questions all of which are graciously answered by each docent.
Szolyga explained that every aspect of Balinese life is cause for a dance, a ritual, a celebration or a commemoration of some kind relating to the ancestors, forces within nature and the deities.
Death of a loved one is most important because the ceremonies upheld and carried out by the people allow the soul of the departed to ascend to heaven.
The spiritual and the temporal intertwine weaving an elaborate system of customs and beliefs that make Bali one of the most unique places to visit.
A few people in the group said they had been to Bali and enjoyed it very much and like some of the first Dutch sailors in the 1500’s, they did not want to leave.
Travel author Ryan Ver Berkmoes who writes for Lonely attested to the beauty and complexity of Bali and that region of Southeast Asia. He talked to this reporter by phone after the docent tour. “Traditional life of Bali is unique,” he said.
I know of people (Westerners) who have lived there for decades, he said, who have studied the culture and lived among the people.”
“But they still find the religious system of believe and customs complex,” said Ver Berkmoes.
The people have a gentle nature with a lot of integrity. But Ver Berkmoes noted Bali has changed a lot, even in the past 15 years he has been traveling to the island since 1993.
“I go there two to three times a year and with the recent economic growth a tourist can find Starbucks and McDonalds,” he said. Parts of Bali today are very modern and savvy.
“Yet I tune all that out because there is beauty and a joy there,” he said. Like any modern traveler the distance and traffic is hectic. But what is most important “when I have finally arrived and I am there I am relaxed,” he said.
He marveled at how the Balinese people are able to maintain their rich culture and beliefs while adapting to a changing world influenced by advancing electronic technology.
As this reporter thanked Szolyga for her tour, Jero Made Renten and Garrett Kam pointed out to Szolyga that the two umbrellas that greeted visitors at the exhibit’s entrance were not correct.
As participants and consultants to the exhibit Renten and Kam wanted to ensure “everything must be in right order.” Each color banner, arrangement of flowers and artifact has a meaning. Offerings of flowers, etc. must be placed in the right spot that way the spirits know they are welcome and that customs continue in proper order as they have for centuries.
Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance began this past
 February 25 and will continue until September 11, 2011
This exhibit is the First Large-Scale U.S. Exhibition of Balinese Art of its kind. Visit the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco web site for more details.
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