YES, THERE IS A BALI
One morning, after visiting Le Mayeur the night before, a tall young woman appeared at Theo’s house on the beach. She was very pretty, a young girl unconscious of her beauty. She carried a rather heavy canvas bag upon her head which she quickly took down and placed at her feet, and stood there at the entrance, her eyes lowered. She was painfully shy; she whispered her name-Meg. Theo could only stare at her wondering who she was. Why did she come? Her smooth, brown body, clothed only in a sarong, was broad shouldered and narrow hipped. Her breasts were small but firm, those of a girl just reaching puberty. Her face had the dignity of a painting, very much like a painting by the Mexican Covarrubias. Theo wondered if she might not be the same girl. She had large eyes, like in the painting, and full lips. Her black hair was brushed back, except for a single wild lock that fell over one brow, and her pierced earlobes were lodged with gold plugs. She was no more than seventeen, a child. She spoke to Theo in Balinese, and Theo had learned enough of the language to understand what she had said-but could he be wrong. He asked that she repeat what she had said. She came, she said, to be his model, and she would live with him. She boldly announced he wouldn’t have to pay for a horse and carriage each day. She had all her belongings with her. She edged the bag slightly forward with her foot.
Theo bid her to enter. He asked who sent her. She replied that Ni Pollok had. She looked around the house, and seeing the bedroom with Theo’s bed along the wall, she entered, unrolled her sleeping mat and spread it on the floor next to the bed. Meg, with all her worldly possession in a single bag, unceremoniously moved in.
Meg proved to be a fine model and Theo was pleased with her. She would pose for him for hours on end, assuming any position that he desired. She was uncomplaining and sat on an uncomfortable bamboo stool, brushing with her fingers her long hair that fell to her waist, partly covering her naked body. The third day she was there, sitting on the stool in front of Theo, she asked if he found her unappealing.
“Why do you say that?” Theo asked.
“You prefer to sleep alone in your bed,” she said.
“But you are so young,” Theo said.
She rose up to the full height, tossed her long hair over her shoulders, and came to him. “Tell me if I am too young,” she whispered.
Theo was, at first, baffled with the attitude of the Balinese towards sex, that they have neither modesty nor immodesty. He commented in his journal: “They are not romantic when it comes to sex, and this might disturb most Europeans but it is something I must get used to.” Europeans want to possess, but not the Balinese. Being in love and having sex, Theo learned, that the two, love and sex, are poles apart in Balinese thinking. He pondered the question; can a European man ever determine that a Balinese woman loves him? He learned that the Balinese treat sex as any other part of the ordinary business of life; it has no more emotional importance as eating does. But this was the Balinese dichotomy These simple people can be jealous, which he had already leaned in the short time he was in Bali. This was where caution was needed. But the learning did not come easy.
Theo was finding the Balinese a carefree, happy people, and this he liked. They laughed easily and found humor in the most trifle of things. Theo couldn’t help making comparisons-the Balinese with the Polynesians. The natives of Tahiti and the Marquesas were forever searching for something-as unhappy, discontented people do-and they found fault in everyone and everything. The Balinese, in contrast, had what they wanted from life. In Tahiti a girl, bored with life as most of them were, could stare at a coconut all day long. On Bali she would pick up a coconut and start carving it. Theo concluded that the Balinese form a kind of group happiness, not separable by the individual. They enjoy the company of others. The principles they adhere to are not always applicable to other societies, nor understood, and certainly not to European society.
Theo wondered what made the Balinese the way they were. A perplexing question. Little by little he came to the conclusion it was their leisure and the very way they spent their free time that counted. Nature is in their favor. They are blessed with a pleasing climate so there is not the need to worry about the fundamental necessities of life, like keeping warm. There was the land itself, fertile and rich. The lands provide their needs. The people were freed from the ills of western civilization, and this gave them leisure and time to develop their arts-music, dancing, sculptures, painting and even the art of daily living. They had time for love.
A painter, a dancer, a sculptor, each day they worked in the field, and at day’s end they came back to their village without the inherent difference, or feeling, of superiority among one another. Each man was equal to his neighbor, differing only in individual talents and abilities. With leisure to create and without the lack of anxiety, they lived as free souls. This was the very reason that Theo felt he could not return to Basel.
In Bali Theo found a culture untainted by modern life but nonetheless vibrant, with nothing museum-like about it. The island was home to one and a half million people, all who lived together in unrivalled social and cultural unity. He had the feeling they were at one with their world; outward changes, such as the advent of the Dutch conquerors, seemed to have had but a superficial effect on them. After all, they had experienced similar conquests at earlier times in their history, as when the Javanese invaded the island in the 15th century. In Balinese society, literature, music, painting and sculpture, besides being advertisements of religious rituals, had a place in everyday life. Not all was explainable. Doors, for example, were hung with small pieces of white cloth covered with drawings of protective deities that were made by any talented neighbor and consecrated by a priest. The partitions facing the entrances into the compounds were sometimes adorned with rather naughty relief to keep away demons, who were thought of as being prudish. Great statues of priests stood guard at crossroads for demons can only move in a straight line and thus when they came to these statues they had no option but to turn back. The scenes painted at the bottom of cremation towers were also intended to deter demons. There was much that Theo had to learn but he was a willing student.
Theo became enraptured by the music and dance of Bali the first time he heard a gamelan and the first time he witnessed dancers at a temple. He sat up all night long in many temple courtyards watching a Legong or Kris dance. He studied the dancers’ graceful movements and the next day put them into oil paint on his canvases.
The Balinese, Theo discovered, were fond of their traditional dances, which mostly had religious significance and these depicted some of the famous mythological epics found in Hindu stories. Every village had its own gamelan orchestra and dance teams, and Theo wandered from one village to the other. At one village or another there was certain to be dances at a religious festival, a marriage or some other ceremony.
The gamelan intrigued Theo as much as the dance. Gamelan music became bewitching to him. He tried to distinguish the various types of orchestras that accompany the dances, but, after learning there are about two hundred kinds, he settled for a few favorites. As for the dances, he enjoyed them all, barong, Legong, kechak. He watched young girls, as young as four years old, learn the craft from their mothers. Their dance was more than arms and finger movements. It was many levels of articulation, the face, eyes, hands, arms, hips, and feet, all coordinated to reflect layers of percussive sounds. It was magnificent to watch, mesmerizing in many ways and all encompassed the true spirit of the Balinese.
Theo’s education took time, and time he had. He was the happiest he had ever been in his life.