Arts for the people

P1050027And arts by the people. In many Western countries, the arts are seen as the province of an elite, for those who sip wine at gallery openings or pay large amounts of money to go to the opera. It needn’t be like that of course, but that is a perception.

In the past few days we have seen the very opposite of this at the annual Bali Arts Festival. For 30 days and nights the month of June into July is dedicated to showcasing the rich Balinese culture. And it’s all free. What is more, the performers are all ordinary people. From farmers to teachers to the girl who served you last night in the restaurant, each of them is immensely talented.

Dance troupes, gamelan orchestras and small drama clubs from all over Bali (and some from other islands) audition months before to be included in the event, which is held at the Denpasar Arts Centre.


Balinese people are creative by nature. Villages tend to specialise in a particular branch of the arts. Ubud is known as a painting centre but within that different schools of painting exist. Celuk, nearby, is a silver-making village. Mas literally means ‘gold’ but these days the village seems to focus on masks, and houses a superb (free) mask museum. Peliatan is famous for dance. Our village, on the other hand, is reputed to have the best gamelan orchestra in the area. Despite these specialisations, every village has a gamelan and teaches dance from an early age.

Children grow up absorbing these cultural values, although a friend once told us that when he was a boy he would rush home from school and pick up his paintbrushes. He regretted that tv and smart devices have changed children’s thinking, but they still watch and listen and learn.


On two visits to this year’s Arts Festival we have seen a drama group (not understanding too much but enjoying the audience reaction), human puppets in a Wayang Wong performance


and a highlight for us, which came from a small village in West Bali, a long drive from the capital.

The regency of Jembrana is far from the Bali tourist beat. Those who do venture so far west do so mainly in the months of July and August for the spectacular bull racing. We hope to rectify this gap in our travels soon. Having seen the jejeg orchestra and dancers yesterday from the village of Tegalbadeng Timur we have even more reason to hit the road. What a show! If these performers were to be seen at any international arts festival anywhere, they would be the undoubted stars. For two hours we were captivated by their skill, their music and their dancing. Above all, they were having the time of their lives playing music as complex as a symphony with as many variations in tempo and mood.

We have seen a ‘tourist’ version of jejeg dancing. It’s where the beautiful dancer invites a hapless visitor on to the dance floor to awkwardly shuffle as she struts her stuff. But when she invites a local man up on the floor it’s a whole new hilarious, cheeky event. And didn’t the packed venue love it. As one of only a handful of Westerners present, we felt so privileged to enjoy this with them. And to watch the orchestra egg them on.


Unlike a normal seated gamelan, these instruments are tall, played standing up and in construction reminscent of horses. The pipes are extra large bamboo and the decorations give a stunning overall effect.


Twenty-four hours later and we are still smiling at the exuberance of this performance; the sheer joy and pride of a job done well. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we shared the large park with happy, ordinary Indonesian families. And the arts. Not an elite to be seen.


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