Having been mainly left alone up to the 20th century, "Bali's Golden Age" under the patronage of the then dominant Gelgel kings, this small island developed its own distinctive arts, which remain touchstones of the culture and Balinese psyche and life. Tellingly, the Balinese language has no word for art or artist.
Under a regency decree, whole villages became dedicated to one craft or artistic discipline. From this we have Ubud and Batuan for paintings, Mas for woodcarvings, Celuk for silver and gold markets, and Batubulan for stone carvings. Outside of royalty, the temples were the main patron of the arts. Art has always played an important role for the temples and their ceremonies, which can be entirely given over to one form of artistic expression.
The tradition of art in Bali has largely been one of anonymity. Each individual had his craft that he performed, and class or caste was irrelevant. Artists carried out their craft to serve their community and temple not for their own personal aggrandizement. Princes, goldsmiths, and drivers would perform different parts in the same orchestra or even dance. The creation or the performance was for the glory of the village and the community rather than for personal fame. This lack of posterity permeates many aspects of Balinese life, and while they revere and remember the spirits of the dead, the Balinese do not themselves seek immortality -- just as their wood carvings will eventually rot, their soft sandstone sculptures will crumble, and termites will eat their canvases.
Much of the way art was expressed, certainly in paintings, has changed with the circumstances. The temples and rajahs are no longer the island's biggest art patrons. A new class of customer has arrived with new demands: the tourist. In the mid-1920s, with the arrival of international artists such as Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, a very traditional style of painting (wayang style), where images are depicted as two dimensional figures, emerged as a new distinctive art movement. What remains today is a combination of traditional artisans using conventional methods and time-honored customs and new and expressive art forms that are increasingly experimental.
Dance, theater, and music all blend together in Balinese culture, and no Balinese would think of a show that separated each of the component parts. The generic term for this traditional theater, as with the style of painting, is wayang, which literally means shadow. Dance, drama, and music also play a central part in ritual ceremonies and temple blessings. Their history is told and passed down through the generations in the many dramatic tales performed on a regular basis. Until the advent of television, this was how history was told.
Theater -- Of the many forms of theater, Wayang Kulit is the most well known and most often performed. This is a dance with shadow puppets, featuring intricately cut figures, originally made from buffalo parchment, called kulit, meaning leather or skin. The puppeteers project the images against a screen and depict tales from the Hindu epics, accompanied by a gamelan ensemble.
Other similar types of theater are Wayang Arja, a puppet opera set to music telling romantic stories. In Wayang Golek, wooden doll puppets are operated from below by rods. Wayang Karucil is somewhere in between Golek and Kucil, and the puppets are made from thin bits of wood. Wayang Beber uses illustrations and scrolls along with a narrator who sings and tells the story.
Dance -- As with theater, Balinese dance mainly portrays stories from Hindu epics, the Ramayana being the most common. There are over a dozen differing styles of dance and all can be incredibly powerful with many of the performers entering true trancelike states. Balinese dancing originated with religious dance, although has become increasingly theatrical, with characters that were once demons or devils now more for the amusement of the crowd.
Each movement in a dance is made up entirely of prescribed gestures. This leaves little room for improvisation, though there is much that can be enhanced by the individual dancer or troupes' interpretation, emotional intensity, and expressiveness of their features. During any dance, watch the dancers' faces, and particularly the eyes. Like many displays of art, there are certain aspects that cannot be taught.
Among the many different varieties of Balinese dance, the following are the most important: Kecak, or the Ramayana Monkey Dance, is the most famous and most powerful. A circle of up to 150 men, wearing only a checked cloth, chant rhythmically "cak cak cak cak cak" while throwing their arms up in the air, dancing round the circle or rocking on the ground, over and over, to and fro. It tells the tale of a monkey king and his warriors. Walter Spies worked with the local dancer Wayan Limbak to turn the dance into a more dramatic performance though it comes as no surprise that kecak was originally a trance ritual and had groundings in exorcisms. One of the most famous places to see this is at sunset at Pura Uluwatu surrounded by real monkeys who are as naughty as some of the characters being portrayed.
Barong and Rangda or the Barong and Kris dance has been mainly adapted for tourists and is a fight between good and evil with the King of the Spirits (barong) overcoming the demon queen (rangda) after the wicked queen has cast a spell on the Barong and his supporters making them stab themselves with their daggers (kris). The Barong however is able to make the daggers cause no harm and they stab themselves with no effect, but spectators, especially those in the front row, are usually left feeling as though they have witnessed some form of exorcism -- the dance's original purpose.
Legong is a graceful dance performed by young girls. Baris is a traditional war dance in which a solo dancer depicts the feelings of a young warrior prior to battle. Topeng is a masked drama with tales of mythical kings and gods. A narrator, who wears a half mask, tells the story accompanied by the gamelan with dance, fight, and a bit of humor. Wayang Wong is a shadow dance in which the players wear masks and tells an aristocratic love story between Rama and Rawana with soft delicate music. It was originally only ever performed in four royal palaces and has always been considered the most aristocratic of plays.
Music -- Bali is renowned for its profusion of musical performances and the variety of its instrumental ensemble, the gamelan: a group of players with xylophone-like instruments, drums, and gongs that can range up to 50 in number. Each gamelan orchestra has its own specific tuning and is considered a single entity. All Balinese music is based around the gamelan, an integral part of all ceremonies and performing arts. The sound is easily identifiable and identified with Bali. Musical styles vary regionally: The music of western Bali, for example, uses gamelan made from bamboo, called jegog, which grows to enormous sizes and can take up to four men to carry one instrument. There are some 25 types of varying sizes of gamelan in metal, bronze, or bamboo. Of the various different styles, the Gong Keybar, introduced in the early 1900s is nowadays the most popular form. If you're curious to see the manufacture and production of gamelan instruments, visit Tihingan in east Bali.
Wayang Style -- The classic Balinese style is wayang, which takes its origins from the shadow puppets of the same name. Clear rules determine the shapes, colors, and even the positioning of the characters -- noble on the left, evil on the right, just as they are in a performance. Paintings were traditionally on langse, which were broad rectangular cloths used as wall hangings in temples or curtains in palaces, or on ider-ider, which were similar to scrolls. This style of painting continues to flourish thanks to the drive of Nyoman Mandara in the 1960s and his government-sponsored painting school.
Other traditional styles are Batuan, which is strongly Wayang-based and involves hundreds of painted images of Balinese life; Keliki is similar to an old Batuan style showing mythical characters engaged in the struggle of good against evil, though the Keliki paintings are rarely larger than 20cm * 15cm (8 in. * 6 in.). The Pengosekan style deals with nature, plants, and insects and emerged as recently as the 1960s with influences that could certainly be ascribed to "flower power."
Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet helped evolve more abstract terms of expression during the 1920s. Their arrival coincided with a seismic cultural shift as the increasing Dutch colonial influence removed the power and money from the rajahs and the temples. This meant that the rajahs were no longer the main patrons and financial supporters of artists and as such could no longer dictate the traditional styles. This two-pronged influence led to a huge change and an explosion in the whole artistic movement. No more were artists retained purely for the benefit of the temple or the palace with their constrained and preordained styles. Now they had to cut their cloth for a new style of buyer, the tourist. This new freedom of expression brought individual displays of talent leading to fame for the likes of I Gusti Nyoman Lempod and Sudjojono whose work now commands hundreds of thousands of dollars. I Gusti Nyoman Lempod's paintings are full of energy and characterize everyday life as well as religious themes. Two other Balinese artists of note are Nyoman Gunarsa and Made Wianta who are considered to be the pioneers of Balinese contemporary art.
Pita Maha & the Modern Style -- Spies had originally been enticed to Bali from Java at the behest of the royal family. With Bonnet and one of the local princes, Cokorda Gede Agung Surapati, he established the Pita Maha, an artists' cooperative that allowed artists to develop their own expressive style and to even sign the canvas. Pita Maha means literally "great vitality," but it also means "ancestor," which resonates particularly well with the Balinese. Here they sponsored and controlled the quality of work of selected artists and sold pieces through their gallery. In later years many of the paintings they sponsored were donated to the Puri Lukisan, the oldest museum in Ubud. The war and Spies's incarceration, for his fondness for certain young Balinese boys, disrupted the movement. Bonnet's return in the 1950s never quite reclaimed the past glories, nor did the Ubud Painters group, which replaced Pita Maha. The 1950s saw the further input of Arie Smit who developed a Matisse-style of painting with lots of bright colors, fish or frogs on bicycles, and ducks with hats. Many of his paintings now hang in the Neka Museum.
Bali's Craft Villages at a Glance
As with art, so are crafts specific to individual villages. Be careful where and from whom you buy as many artifacts are now imported and may be machine- rather than handmade. And again, as with art, some of these are very hard to tell from original works.
Basketware & Painting: Batuan
Coconut & Bone Carving: Bangli; Tampaksiring
Gamelan Instruments & Gongs: Blahbatu; Sawan; Tihingan
Jewelry: Tampaksiring; Ubud
Masks: Mas; Puaya
Pottery: Pataen; Pejaten; Ubung
Silver & Gold: Budakeling; Celuk
Stone Carving: Batubulan
Temple Decorations (umbrellas, wind chimes, and so on): Sukawati
Weaving: Belayu; Beratan; Gianyar; Mengwi; Sidemen; Tenganan
Woodcarving: Jati; Mas; Pujung; Tegallalang; Ubud
Textiles & Weaving -- Prized for their stunning beauty, variety, and role in traditional costume and ceremony, the traditional textiles of Bali and Indonesia are woven, twined, batiked, tie-dyed, embroidered, and embellished works of art and are among the best treasures to acquire while visiting Bali and Lombok -- and anywhere else in Indonesia. Fine, authentic, handmade textiles originating from all of the far-flung islands of the Indonesian archipelago are available in antiques shops, boutiques, galleries, and markets. Religious paraphernalia, shrines, dancers, priests, masks, and offerings are all wrapped, bound, draped, or ornamented with specifically prescribed textiles, redolent with symbolic meaning. Bali is by no means unique in this regard. Throughout Indonesia, traditional textiles are ritual objects, stored wealth, trade goods, bride wealth, and tokens of prestige.
Bali itself is extraordinarily rich in textile traditions. Ikat cloths have patterns dyed into the individual threads before they are woven, with the design only appearing on the loom. The effect creates jagged borders between one color and the next and bold patterns in a wide range of color palettes. Most ikat now is made in Gianyar Regency and around Klungkung. Traditional markets in large towns are a good place to shop, or go directly to ikat workshops to buy ready stock, and to watch the weaving process first hand.
Songket is fashioned with threads of cotton, silk, gold, or silver that float on the base cloth in a variety of patterns. Again, east Bali, especially Klungkung and Sidemen, are among the best places to find good contemporary songket.
Geringsing textiles are woven only in Tenganan, using a painstaking double-ikat technique, in which both the warp and weft threads are patterned prior to weaving. The quality of antique pieces has never been matched by contemporary weavers, although a revival is underway. Antique and high-quality new pieces fetch thousands of dollars.
Buying Textiles -- When you look at textiles, in general, it's best to start at the high end (and perhaps come back to it). Develop an eye for the kind of cloth you like, then shop around. First, try the galleries at five-star hotels and reputable antiques shops in Ubud and Seminyak for antique textiles, and then visit markets and boutiques for contemporary pieces. You may well return to the high-end shops, and obtain good value there, because their owners know the world market, and are adept at sourcing the very finest examples. They are also more likely to identify textiles correctly as to origin, age, and quality. Expect reputable galleries to offer literature and anecdotal information about collectible textiles. They are your best source of accurate information.
Use your eyes. Judge for yourself. You are choosing a work of art. Ultimately, your feeling is the best guide. Whatever type of Indonesian textile you choose to acquire, choose well, and then rest assured that you have acquired an object of lasting value, for both its visible and invisible attributes.
Wood -- Wood carvings and craft is a particular specialization of the Balinese. Historically, wood carvings were for ornamentation in palaces, temples, and houses of high caste. With increasing tourist demand, attention has lately been turned to the more portable, less ghoulish, and less antidemonic items. There are plenty of carved Buddha heads, and Garudas as well as traditional styles of furniture, all mainly in local woods such as belalu, suar, or even teak. Be on the lookout for sandalwood, for its delightful and lasting fragrance. Such pieces tend to be small and detailed, with a propensity for elephants, and are slightly more pricey than other carvings. A lot of the intricate doorways that you see in many villas these days are imported from Java, the local ones having been snatched up a long time ago.
Balinese architecture has developed characteristic gorgeous gates, airy pavilions, mystical statues, and romantic gardens. This holds true even in the 21st century, where we find Bali at an architectural crossroads between Mannerist splendor and minimalism, and ever at the cutting edge of international tropical design.
The buildings, tropical gardens, and temple umbrellas that leaped off the travel posters in the last days of the 20th century are still to be found, albeit beneath a thick veneer of other new and differing styles. The "New Look," for which Bali is now equally famous, is a result of decades of experimentation with modernism and the notion of "New Asia."
All Bali's many looks somehow derive from the island's architectural traditions of outdoor living, pavilions in all shapes and sizes, and walled compounds. "Bali style" is essentially a courtyard architectural style, inherited, no doubt, from the Chinese, with indigenous and the Hindu-Javanese influence. The original architectural style of Bali, which can still be found in the mountain villages near Lake Batur, was simple and almost severe: low-eaved, high-pitched-roof single unit dwellings made of bamboo and timber sitting on packed mud or stone plinths. The dwellings are arranged on terraces, according to clans and castes, and set in rows, aligned with the mountain-to-sea axis. Villages such as Belantih, Songan, and Terunyan still exhibit this style. Similarly the temples of this mountain Bali culture (called Bali Aga) were almost Zen-like in their austerity (the old Pura Puseh at Bayung Gede is one example).
As classical Javanese Hinduism was introduced into Bali in waves, starting as early as the 10th century, and as people started to populate the flatter coastal regions the rows of simple, single hut dwellings grew into courtyards of multipurpose pavilions -- following the South Indian model -- which eventually grew walls and gates in the Chinese or Javanese style. Chinese influence had been strong along Bali's north coast through trade since the beginning of the first millennium, and that region's architecture retains a strong Chinese character. The terraced sanctuaries and worshiping grounds of the animistic ancients slowly became Hindu temples, but retained much of their original nature; shrines remained oriented toward the mountains, the abode of the pre-Hindu gods, even as they grew towers, gates, and shrines, modeled on Hindu-Javanese prototypes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when many Balinese palaces were razed after the series of horrific puputans of 1906 and 1908, Dutch colonial architectural styles started to take hold. Influence in the north, with neoclassical bungalows, is still visible in Singaraja and the mountain village of Munduk; other examples are in Denpasar in the south. The building of the Art Deco Hotel Denpasar in 1935 could be seen as the start of the modern era of Balinese architecture. From then on, all the island's princes -- always keen to adopt, absorb, and adapt -- wanted colonial-style pavilions and little pensiones, modeled on the Hotel Denpasar, sprung up across the island.
Other "princes" had started arriving in Bali by the 1930s: a colony of foreign artists and scholars who wanted to live like the Balinese, but in a palatial manner. Many settled near Ubud, where local prince Tjokorda Agung Sukawati proved a great patron and mentor (he was a cofounder of the Pita Maha Art Foundation). Walter Spies invented the modified wantilan, the traditional cock-fighting pavilion found in every town square, during this time, in an attempt to get his baby grand piano between the columns of his home. The Balinese Dream Home movement started during this Happy Valley -- esque prewar era. The Le Mayeur home is now a museum, and Spies's home in Ubud is now the Hotel Tjampuhan. Musicologist Colin McPhee's home is now the Taman Bebek Hotel in Sayan. And the Hotel Denpasar still stands, largely untouched.
Within a brief period of time Bali began exporting ideas for tropical resorts to the entire world. Even the Brutalist Bali Hyatt in Sanur, completed in 1973, provided a platform for the next generation of tropical hotel design stars who went on to create culturally referenced resorts highlighting local architecture and materials around the globe. The main lobby of the Bali Hyatt remains today as the largest single pavilion on the island, a masterpiece in coconut and bamboo.
Since the 1930s, a trend to do better than the Balinese at creating glamorous architecture and interiors was embraced by dream-home owners, hotel developers, and architects -- both foreign and Indonesian. Hotels became the new temples of Bali, just as the Balinese were deserting their traditional architecture in favor of more Western home designs. Balinese villages and south Bali suburbs today are littered with examples of Hindu wedding cake, Ghost Train Gothique, and Imelda Marcos Modern interspersed with pure Hindu-Balinese temples, and the occasional Majapahit palace and traditional courtyard home.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.