(translated from Indonesian) 

Kadek Gunarta aka ‘Dek Gun’ took some time out early last week to chat with old friend Rio Helmi

Rio Helmi: I see you as part of a generation that serves as a bridge between the former still very traditional Ubud and modern days

Kadek Gunarta: It’s a heavy load! (laughs)

RH     :    You were born into a family of traditional artists – how come you were not interested in becoming an artist?

KG     :    Actually I did learn to paint when I was young. However, in my family when we say ‘art’, we don’t always refer to painting…. It can mean all kinds of things. I suppose you could say that I come from a background of artists, however it leans more to social networking…..

RH     :    Mmm…. That was the traditional context of all artists in those days, wasn’t it?

KG     : Yes, traditional… My Kelab (father’s grandfather), I Made Kari, was a pacek (a voluntary attendant) at the Palace in Peliatan and what we would now call the ‘perbekel’ (a village administrator) in Padang Tegal. His function was not restricted to being an undagi (artist, architect, artisann, all round cultural authority) or an  artist that made sarcophagi and cremation towers, he worked more in the context of community activities. There is an element of leadership involved, of social work. From then on, my grandfather and his family members took on community activities of the sort; they were more prominent in this kind of work. On my mother’s side, it is true that they were known artitsts, however this only made up a small fraction of the activities within the extended family –everything took place within a social framework. After the great grandfather that I mentioned, came my grandfather, Pak Yan Padang. He took up masks and kekawin (the ancient art of story telling). Then there was Pekak Mangku who lived in Pondok Pekak…. he took up spiritual activities. (Kadek Gunarta then mentioned several family members who were active in the artistic domain).

RH     :    But it was all essentially related to community?

KG     :    Yes, community. Indeed our family ‘stamp’, the family trademark had become “social work”. And art is but a small part of it all.

RH     :    So you feel the community activities you take on are actually in tune with what went before?

KG     :    My belief has always been that whatever we choose to do, there is always room to “give back to the community”. This is essential in community life. So, in whatever I do these days together with my wife –yoga, festivals, and so on – there is always this element of “giving back to the community” that plays a central part. This includes environmental awareness, helping people campaign, “say no to plastic”; we help out at Bumi Sehat Foundation, we partake in Bali Green. It’s ok to do business, but the most important thing is how you use your business as a tool to give back to the community. Within this framework, since everybody has different abilities, it does not matter what we do, we can be artists, social workers, environmentalists; it all fits in. Well, that is the ideal, whether or not we have reached this ideal remains to be seen; everything needs to go through a process.

RH     :    Besides bridging the temporal side of things, aren’t there also cultural aspects that you need to connect? Among other things, your marriage to a foreigner, Meghan. When you married her did you foresee your future life style to be what it is today? Were you aware of all that would be involved, or was it all unexpected?

KG     :    Generally speaking, I could understand that it was a big step to marry someone coming from a different background and culture, but I did not think of all the details as they have actualized, I did not think things would turn out exactly as they transpired; however I did realize from the start that there were certain to be difficulties. As it is, I have adopted the rights of inheritance to the house in which I live which actually belongs to my grandmother’s family. We call it ‘mengambil waris’ : although this right should go to someone in my grandmother’s family, since the person concerned is what we call ‘putung’ (does not have any descendants), I ended up in this position. So, automatically all social and customary responsibilities fall on me. I saw this from the beginning : since my wife was a foreigner, this was going to be a challenge….

RH     :    What is the positive side of this challenge?dek-goen-4

KG     :    Well, we get to see things from both sides; I come from the traditional way of thinking, and she comes from without, so it allows us to see both the positive and negative aspects of both, and we can also learn.

KG     :    What is the difficult side?

KG     :    Well the difficult side, is that  in our Balinese culture, we don’t always discuss things… Hahahahahaha [both laugh]. We just do whatever we want to do… But the wife often says “Dek, you need to talk more”. So then I say, if I talk who is going to listen to me? There are many… many issues… But the difficulty does not have to do with my wife, it is more the children.

RH     :    Oh yeah?

KG     :    Yes, the children. For example, yesterday I brought my child to accompany for a ceremony at the residence of the high priest. My wife hasprobably developed some understanding due to her experience here over the years, so she has enough knowledge to analyze certain issues. But a child is pure, so I have to fill in the gap. Meanwhile, the child has a double orientation: she has one foot in front of her mother and the other in front of me. Like yesterday, my second child said to me : “dad, I am so afraid to sleep in the night”. What can I say to her? I would like to explain things in my Balinese way, but if I do, will what I have to say be in tune with the philosophical views of my wife? Is the child ready to understand? So the child is part of the challenge because she needs to accommodate two different cultures and I feel this calls for some thought…. to ensure the child has good foundations. So when my child came to me yesterday saying “Dad, I am scared, too scared to sleep” : “What is there to be afraid of?” I learnt from early age of our “four siblings” (Kanda ‘Pat) that we believe in. So I explained about Kanda Empat’. So she got to know : “Dad, Anggapati watches over us from the front, and  behind us there is Banaspati Raja who protects us like the barong, that’s right isn’t it Dad”. So now when I tell my kid to do prayers at night, she asks me to recite the tri sandhya every night before sleeping. It has become a habit, and the challenge arises, to explain things in way that is not merely mythological; it must be accountable to scientific investigation.

RH      :    And do you feel that once he has grown up your kid will still have the same inner conviction? Since you are the person who brought this to her mind, do you think the chances are that it will become something later that “my dad used to tell me when I was still a kid?”

KG     :    I believe that whatever has been imprinted on a child’s mind at a time when it is still blank pa


per, will remain because it is some sort of a foundation….

RH     :    Does the fact that she lives in Ubud make it easier to absorb? What if you lived in Seattle or Washington?

KG     :    It would be different, very different… It is because the environment in Bali lends it to us. If we were to explain about Balinese culture  [while living] in Seattle, we would have no ‘attendants’, no environment that acts as supporting evidence. Take the barong for example : what is the reason not to cut down trees/forests? Well it because they are the domain of Banspati Raja, this is why we love trees. I try to actualize “don’t cut the rain forest away” but there is also a religious aspect to this methodology, and it can connect to the Kanda ‘Pat.

RH     :    If you were able to choose any place for your children to grow up, what place would you choose?

KG     :    To be honest, I would prefer it to be Bali. Ubud, because I was born in Ubud. So I know its values… the positive and negative sides of the conditions I grew up in.  I was born into a certain tradition –a lot of what I learnt from the old tradition is no longer there.

RH     :    You are among those who are brave enough to pioneer some changes in the Ubud area, in your own village, and in your own banjar (section of a village). Would you say that this easier for you than for others, owing to your experience of living with one foot in the outside world while the other foot is rooted in the inner world of Bali. Has that allowed you to be more bold?

KG     :    Supposing we read a book, if we read two books compared to only one, we will have a wider reference; it the same with experience. Travelling outside of Bali was exactly what allowed me to see the negative sides of Bali, to take a look at Bali from outside. We can compare the new place to Bali, and think: “Oh, this would be good for people in Bali, this would be bad for people in Bali. This has been of help to me.

RH     :    Do you think this is important for Balinese people?

KG     :    Very much so

RH     :    Do you feel that the Balinese, including people in Ubud, are a bit narcissistic, to the extent that there is this assumption that only what they have is the best.

KG     :    I used to think like this, and for me personally it creates a problem. This was because before I went abroad, I assumed just that, Bali is the best. All we knew was that ideal life was to be found here. We did not know of anything else, we did not have any comparisons, so before I went abroad, this is what I felt, “this was the reason why people came here, because there was something of the best about Bali, Ubud is Best, Bali is best…” However, once we go out into the world… Bali mebesbes (a pun on the Balinese term for being clawed and torn up)….hahahahah

RH     :    Are there repercussionso? I mean about the attitude that Bali is the best?

KG     :    Obviously, if we keep thinking Bali is the best, we will never see that Bali is  disfigured, we will never realize the damage.

RH     :    Irreparably so?

KG     :    We have to take a look from outside to know what is happening; if we only stay in Ubud we will keep thinking Ubud is the best. If we take a look from outside perhaps we will see things differently. We keep thinkng, “Everything is fine, what needs changing?”  There is a lot of that kind of thing you know, “…its fine, don’t change anything”.  So we make irrelevant changes, new products, more attractive packaging, it’s the usual Balinese thing.

RH     :    Would you like to live outside of Bali?

KG     :    It is not a question of wanting or not wanting; I just can’t live away from Bali, impossible….

RH     :    Fate?

KG     :    No, not that. Perhaps it is my lifestyle. I feel that I am part of a community that brought me up and I don’t find this outside of Bali. We could say that everybody here belongs to each other, community feeling is still strong, there are strong family ties, so yes, because I have lived like this right from the beginning it is difficult to leave behind.

RH     :    What is the biggest issue in Ubud? Not only for you personally, but in general: the economy? community? environmental issues?

KG     :    Commercialism. To me, Ubud is like a piece of cake that attracts a lot of people. So, with all these people coming here, there is bound to be friction: socio-political, economic, etc. As a local person, I sometimes feel a lot of the information in guidebooks is outdated, they promote an image of Ubud that belongs to the past. So people see it as such. Meanwhile, the people who live here have become part of this tourist destination, so we are somewhat obliged to match this image.


 The cremation tower made for the Ubud palace in 1967 by Dek Gun’s great grandfather (photo courtesy Dek Gun)

RH    :    Yes, exactly…that’s marketing for you…

KG     :    Yes, so a lot of our people end up thinking that the measure of somebody’s well-being relates to the amount of money they have, the assets they possess… So you can imagine all they need to go through in order to be able to live up to this measure…

RH     :    And stupidly, even while seeing this, we ourselves can still get trapped by this benchmark.

KG     :    Yes, it is the same all over. Once the overall community has adopted this mentality, each of us according to our individual capacity can easily fall prey to this kind of vicious circle, this vortex.

RH     :    Since you see things in this way, in your opinion can Ubud face these modern day challenges just with local resources? Or do you think there is need for recourse to new ways of thinking from outside?  To what extent would things be sustainable if expats were able to fit in?

KG     :    Well it is all relative, it all depends on our individual capacity….  Luckily, I happen to have been born and brought up in a traditional Balinese environment, so this is where I am grounded. After this, I went through a transition because I married a foreigner. Then, I went through further transitions because I entered tourism circuit; so I was able to see the challenges and that I had to take on certain responsibilities. If there are communities of outsiders who wish to contribute, we need to give them a proper framework – “this is how to adapt it to the Balinese way” kind of thing. That way they wouldn’t be so exclusive because if they were they wouldn’t have grassroots access.

RH      :    Yes, but that is still idealistic… in reality there is bound to be friction…

KG     :    Oh that’s for sure!

RH     :    The reality is that challenges are sure to arise in sustaining local identity, this relates to local resources, but on the other side, there is also the need to inject new ideas. Do these new ideas necessarily have to be solely channeled through local inhabitants? Nowadays there are many expat circles such as ‘Hubud’, etc… They all have the idea to save Bali, however, if we take a straight look at things, the majority of a couple of million Balinese people are not interested in what foreigners think. That does not mean that their ideas are worthless, does it? On the other hand, expats sometimes do not understand the local context; they don’t recognize the social dynamics and so forth. So, what happens with this deadlock?

KG     :    The other day I told the Dinas Prov Pariwisata Bali (The Balinese Provincial Office for Tourism) there was a strength that could act in our favor. There is this community, the people who love Ubud, and there are a great deal of them living here, who want to contribute towards the progress and viability of the future of Ubud; but they are perhaps not yet on the right foothold.

RH     :    Do you see a bit of arrogance in their case? They have no foothold, but they feel they can do something…

KG     :    No, arrogance in what way? I don’t see things from a point of view of arrogance, I see them as wanting to do something…without having enough background. Take my case as an example, if I was told to move into new territory, which is want happened the other day when a friend invited me to join his business: “Just move to Jakarta instead!” I am not a Jakartan, I am not familiar with its culture, why would I want move there, for what? According to what I see, it is this kind of thing that needs a lot of attention. Whatever the number of expats living here, the community of people from outside who live in Ubud and wish to contribute to Ubud and its people, nobody can put down roots unless they have real ties to the place, or direct benefits are perceived by the local community. They would always end up an exclusive community here, so my concern is how to rack our minds and find a way to receive them, to allow them to partake. If they are good at media, then feed them with true materials to disseminate; in this way the news that gets circulated will be proper information. When talking of Ubud as it was 20/30 years ago, I often say those were the days when we could still say that Ubud belonged to the Ubud people.

RH     :    It no longer feels like that to me these days…

KG     :    Today, whoever is in Ubud, whoever wishes to see Ubud survive, must become an Ubud person, meaning they should join in taking care of the place; we all flow out to the same estuary since after all, we all came to Ubud looking for that extra something we believed we had found here.