Vale Nyoman Suradnya, a.k.a. Badung, larger than life, who had an even bigger heart and loved his hometown Ubud with every inch of it.  The following article by Rio Helmi first appeared in the Jakarta Post on Thursday 21st of June 2018.

A sixteen year old with almost waist long hair, loose pyjama pants, a shoulder bag, and sandals, I stepped off the only daily bus from Denpasar one afternoon late in 1971 in Ubud. Broke but optimistic I wandered south through the market which in those days spilled out on to the monkey forest road. It had already shut down for the day, the stalls with their flat bamboo woven shades empty. Ricefields began right where the football field is now, nothing downhill from there but ricefields and the narrow dirt track that led to the Padang Tegal cemetery in the forest – which is now known by its English name, Monkey Forest.

Across the pot holed main road, Ubud’s wantilan, the closest thing to a town hall, had a big banyan tree towering over it to the north. It was under this tree that two of Ubud’s most iconic warung food stalls of the time were to be found. Ibu Rai’s nasi campur (‘mixed rice plate’) on the eastern corner, and just next to it, separated by a woven bamboo bedeg “wall” to the west of it was Okawati’s who had already began to cater bit by bit to western tastes. At Okawati’s you could have ‘prut saladde’ (fruit salad) even if she only she was catering to the three or four non Balinese living in the what was still the village of Ubud at the time. Fresh fruit, condensed milk and fried peanuts. If fruit salad wasn’t your thing could also order instant oatmeal!

But most importantly that morning was the presence of a big, burly, young Balinese man with a large head and a big beaming smile. I would add that he wore a Balinese sarong, but in those days everyone did.  “Selamat Pagi” came a deep, booming  voice out of that smile. Nyoman Suradnya a.k.a. Badung,  was the first person in Ubud who befriended me.  I think he found me an interesting oddity, and he was always curious about the world around him. Young and somewhat innocent (not that we thought that) that morning we chatted on like old mates. He had a spontaneous openness and a seemingly endless sense of humor.

portrait of Nyoman from Jero Asri’s collection

Often we sat there eating Ibu Rai’s nasi campur, washing it down with a glass of steaming black coffee and finishing it all up with a clove cigarette (you could buy just one cigarette out of the packet in those days). It all added up to the grand total of 12,5 (yes twelve and a half) Rupiahs, or what we would call 5 ringgits. A ringgit was a two and a half Rupiah unit that has long gone out of print and style. Nyoman always had jokes to tell and puns to deliver. He also knew everyone in town, he would fill me in with short, pithy descriptions of who they were. And everyone in town knew him and liked him. Already then he was a bit of an icon.

One by one I got to know many of the people who would walk up from the main road up the dirt track that was to become Jalan Suweta. There were no road names, no house numbers, no electricity, no asphalt beyond the main road, and no phones.  Addresses were by banjars, subaks, temples or the vicinity of large trees. But it really didn’t matter because it was a community; everyone knew each other and where they were at any given time of day, it was an endless web of interrelationships sealed by marriages and loyalties – ‘outsiders’ like myself were a tiny minority. An outsider could be forgiven for not registering that this community too had experienced the horror of dreadful bloodletting only 6 years before during the 1965 massacres.

I drank it all in with the thick, gritty kopi baliand the long, laughter-filled chats with Nyoman. When a rather distinguished man appeared across the road from an imposing brick gateway, I learned from Nyoman – both by his change in demeanour and his words – that this was the Cokorda, the king of Ubud. I also got to know many of Ubud’s movers and shakers sitting there. This was Badung’s world. Badung too was to become a mover and shaker in Ubud.

He was a vigorous mix of romantic, emphatic Balineseness who later on would wear his sarong to Australia; down to earth practicality which had him driving trucks delivering chillies and such to Java; and an artistic calling that eventually became his ‘profession’. But above all Nyoman had a vision for his beloved Ubud: the tourists that came (we called them tamu or guests in those days) would be sensitized to Balinese culture and way of life, giving them an opportunity to immerse themselves in Ubud while avoiding the harm that was already beginning to be wreaked on Kuta and Legian in the early eighties.

With his wife Rai, and old friend Agung Rai (family collection)

With son Putu Suadi and daughter-in-law Kadek Purnami (foreground) and friends Wayan Juniarta and Ketut Yuliarsa at home at the Nirvana homestay (family collection)

In 2006 with Xanana Gusmao and Kristy Sword Gusmao at the UBud Writer’smFestival in 2006 (photo Janet DeNeefe collection) 

Perhaps his closest friend was Tjok Raka Kerthyasa. These two, the commoner and the prince, were to have many adventures together and even the odd hilarious misadventure. Nyoman soon became established as an artist, and spent time as artist in residence in Sydney, Melbourne and Singapore. Asri, Cok Raka’s Australian wife, recalls the two of them setting off on a train to visit a town just west of Sydney. “Being Balinese, they both simply relaxed and fell asleep. When they woke up they were at the end of the line somewhere way in interior and had no idea where they were! And no mobile phones in those days, so you can imagine….”

Tjok Raka Kerthayasa (photo ©Rio Helmi)

Driven by a vision of sustainable and sensitive tourism, in the early Eighties the two of them formed Bina Wisata – which roughly translates as ‘guiding tourism’. Bina Wisata set out to not only provide information to tourists but to lead them into discovering the real Ubud: cultural and destination experiences that would cause minimum damage and benefit the community. It wasn’t a business, it was a community service. It really was in character for Nyoman: he took delight in connecting with people and helping them discover new things, and he loved his community, flaws and all.

Larger than life, he would spontaneously reach out to people on first encounter, and often changing their lives. Balinese poet Ketut Yuliarsa recalls first meeting Nyoman on a bus in Sydney. Nyoman grabbed him and said “Sit next to me. A Balinese can never hide from another Balinese!” then spirited him off to his exhibition, where he introduced Ketut to Ketut’s future wife, Anita. His homestay, filled with his laughter and love of life, was an inspiring starting point for many who would become deeply involved in Ubud and Bali. Recalls Diana Darling: “I stayed at his homestay when I was first chasing John Darling in 1980. What a lovely happy host Nyoman was.” Many too were those visitors who got their first experience in creativity by joining one of his workshops.

Time proved to be unkind to Nyoman’s Ubud. Bina Wisata was turned over to the village council’s LKMD, which at first continued to serve the community. Yet as more and more tourists started to flow into the place, Ubud’s character started to change along with the type of people it had started to attract.

I can’t guarantee that this was something that triggered the following rather astounding event. One night there was a Barong performance in the Ubud wantilan. Not necessarily sacred, at least in the hazy fog of my memory, but with all the elements present. All of a sudden there was a scream and Nyoman lept up in trance. The whole audience stared agog as Nyoman, kris in hand went flying over the gamelan orchestra, the terrified musicians ducked as low as they could as his large corpulent figure didn’t quite soar above them, sarong aflap. Honestly, to this day I can’t figure out if he really was in deep trance or whether he was just making a pointed statement – or perhaps both.

By the mid 90s mass tourism flooded this once sleepy village, drowning out Nyoman’s dream. The community took second place to commerce, culture became something of a commodity. Industrial tourism brought traffic jams, foreign investors, fancy hotels and traffic jams. Kuta had come to the hills.

Nyoman slowly began to retreat. He remained true to his vision, but its realization had became more and more remote. The likelihood of ever achieving the dream went from improbable to near impossible. Slowly but surely he withdrew more and more to the sanctuary of his home and guest house on Jalan Gotama. Here his wife Rai, as dimunitive as he was large, looked after him, and eventually his son Putu Suadi and daughter-in-law Kadek Purnami would all spend time looking after “Daddy”. Though he still loved to see his old friends, the vigor and fight began to leave him. His melancholy side began to dominate. In the last few years, as he became more infirm, it was rare to get a sighting of him outside of his home.

This month in hospital in Mas, various complications (heart, lungs, kidneys) started to overwhelm him. At 10 o’clock at night on the 14th suddenly a large flock of herons appeared above the hospital and flew around in a swooping circle three times.  It was such an unusual sight that people came out and stared. That night Cok Raka was praying at the Gunung Lebah temple in Campuhan when suddenly he saw Nyoman sitting next to him: Cok nearly jumped out of his skin. I woke up at 2.30am exactly, with a puzzled feeling that something had woken me up. I reached for my phone to check for earthquake notices, but nothing significant was to be found there. Unable to go back to sleep I got up. Then came the news that Nyoman had finally left his body – at 2.30am. It was as if he was reaching out one last time that night in his ever unconventional manner.

Now his friends are left with a mixture of relief that his suffering is finally over and a sadness that he has taken with him such a special era. We lost a gem that morning.

The body washing ceremony, attended by family and friends (photo ©Rio Helmi).