In many ways Ubud is the heart and soul of Bali. Centrally located amongst picturesque rice paddy terraces reflecting most shades of green, on a plateau 300 metres above sea level, it is also considerably cooler than the rest of the tiny island. But its real attraction to the visitor is as Bali’s artistic and cultural center.
Bali Settled by a Royal Court
Bali has a unique and revered cultural history. When the Hindu Majapahit Empire on nearby Java was in danger of succumbing to Muslim invasion in the 15th century, artists, intellectuals, musicians and priests of the royal court all fled to Bali, where they established a colony. The colony flourished, to create the vibrant and colourful society that is Bali today – nowhere more evident than in and around Ubud.
Balinese Wood Carving a High Art
In the hills of Bali the craft of woodcarving has been elevated to high art. To view the best work it is advisable to make the short trip to outlying villages of Ubud, such as Tegalang. Here wood carving is a family affair, passed on through the generations; proudly displayed all over the village are amazingly intricate horses, fish, birds and of course Hindu deities carved from a plethora of local woods including ebony and mahogany.
Don’t be shy about bargaining for the best price – it is expected. But check customs regulations before purchasing – there’s nothing worse than having a gorgeous decorative piece seized on arrival back home because it’s carved from the wrong wood.
The visitor will also be tempted by inspiringly exotic carved mahogany furniture in the classic Balinese and Javanese styles – on sale for ridiculously cheap prices. Wandering amongst them, most visitors cannot help but wonder what Somerset Maugham-style flourish they could bring to a living room. Once again buyer beware – depending what country the items are being shipped to, fees and import taxes can be up to double the actual price of purchase.
Ubud an Asian Art Mecca
Traditionally, Balinese painting was restricted to the kamasan style – a visual narrative of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabhrata committed to cloth or bark. Such artworks were created collaboratively and hence anonymously. A notable stylistic element is the lack of perspective used in these artworks – a figure in the distance, for instance, will be the same size as one in the foreground – creating a unique two dimensional effect.
In the 1920s, however, Ubud became an enclave for renowned artists from around the world. As Tahiti was to Gaugin, so was Bali to German artist Walter Spies and Australian Donald Friend. Under their influence, local artists began adopting western techniques – but with a Balinese twist.
A modern traditional artwork will be painted on canvas with the same lack or perspective, but be more likely to evoke a sense of social awareness as it depicts scenes of everyday village life. Artists still work collectively so these intricate works are rarely signed.
Exotic Balinese Music
Also rare is the evening that traditional music does not permeate the streets of Ubud. Musicians can be seen in action at village cultural centres, often accompanied by traditional dancers. Like most of Indonesia, the gamelan orchestra is prominent.
Balinese gamelan, which features bronze gongs and bamboo xylophones, is louder, swifter and much more aggressive than the offerings of other Indonesian islands. In some clubs one can also hear popular dance styles such as gamelan gong kebar and jogged bumbung which incorporate Western influences. Bali also has its own musical style called kecak, a form of singing that imitates the sounds of monkeys.
Beautiful Balinese Dancers
Monkey dancers appear as well in the tek-tekan musical troupes. Sometimes up to two hundred strong, these musicians whip up a frenzy on bamboo instruments as giant demon puppets manipulated by earthbound puppet masters hover sinisterly overhead.
But by far the most acclaimed form is traditional Balinese legong dance. Accompanied by the gamelan, dozens of young Balinese women in shimmering traditional garb move sinuously in perfect synchronization.
Often entire stories from the Ramayana and Mahabhrata are told through hand and eye movement. To behold such a spectacle, especially in the courtyard of an ornately carved stone Hindu temple is to truly understand where Rodgers and Hammerstein found the inspiration for the mythical island paradise of Bali Ha’i in their classic musical South Pacific.
The great drawcard of Bali is the exotic but laidback lifestyle afforded by its gorgeous beaches. But to discover the true essence of this enchanting island one needs only to venture into the hills of Ubud.