Tjok Raka Kerthiyasa, member of the royal family of Ubud has served for years as the bendesa adat or head of the traditonal culture and religious council of Ubud, and is now also a member of local parliament. He and his Australian wife, Jero Asri, have two sons, a daughte, and three grandchildren. The family lived in Sydney for a few years before moving back to Bali. In the 1970s Tjok Raka and Jero Asri were amongst the few in Ubud to welcome foreign guests to their small guesthouse, Cecak Inn, which has since morphed into the Ibah Hotel.
RIO HELMI: How do you feel watching the current development, particularly the interaction or meeting between expat and and Balinese culture in Ubud? What stands out for you?
TJOK RAKA KERTHIYASA: For me looking back, there was a kind of common interest in developing a village with a tourist industry based on art and culture. We got a lot of input and ideas which were pretty much in line with the local norms. Objectively speaking, this was because those expats admired the culture and because they had a deeper interest in understanding the real thing. So there was an exchange and interaction of ideas involved in innovation that not only didn’t deviate from local norms, but also provided an economic benefit for the people.
RH: And now?
TRK: Now it seems a bit far from that because of current conditions. Amongst the community most people seem to be going their own way, striking out on their own.With the exception of those activities which are still connected to obligations to the Desa Pakraman, Banjar or Parahyangan (physical village statutes, the hamlet community, and the religious statutes) of their various communities. Before people use to talk and interact more, discussing ideas, getting input for example on strategizing how to keep the culture alive.
RH: So the spirit of the community has changed.
TRK: Because the ‘system’ has changed automatically spiritual values change too.
RH: So the community as an integral whole has changed?
TRK: In the context such as the banjar, in the temples etc it’s still there. But in terms of the individual awareness now, social closeness, that has changed. Before we were ‘cooperative’ now we are ‘complicative’. That’s what’s changed, that has an impact, psychologically too because we find our world more complicated.
Left: Tjok Raka and Jero Asri at their wedding. Right: With children and grandchildren.
RH: You yourself are in two worlds. You undertsand the Western world as your wife is a Westerner, and your children expeienced two cultures and so forth. Has that created any conflict in your life, or conversely has that illuminated it in a way in which one can live a life that fulfills both roles – as a Balinese and as a citizen of the world?
TRK: Well of course there are both sides to the coin. As to the children, they can see things in a more objective way and have a personal point of view. So I get a lot of positive input from their opinions – about attitude towards family, about culture and so on. But in terms of tolerance, in Bali normally this is not a personal issue, because there is an emphasis on (social) obligations. So one’s personal likes or dislikes are not decisive factors, it’s one’s existence within the group that is important. That requires some processing. Even in Bali, due to the current system of education, I often have to give some counseling on that subject. In their daily lives people have to work hard – what do they get from the community? So we come to the crux – amongst fellow citizens, what do they get in terms of protection (benefits) etc from the government?
RH: So what do they contribute, and what do they get?
TRK: Well that’s the law of humanity, or say the law of nature. Balancing things out is what is needed.
RH But if you look at the youth in the villages, even in the towns, there seems to be a feeling of disappointment, as if they have been pushed aside. Is that true? For example there seems to be an epidemic of drinking amongst them…
TRK: You can’t take the example of one or two and apply it to all. In my work in the cultural field I often get to see what their real attitude is. When they are needed by the community they still respect their duties. So the drunken behaviour comes down to their individual upbringing. But in the cultural context they still are committed to upholding their culture. But what’s shifting is the actual culture itself, because there is so much focus on material things. What does the community get?
RH: There is a senseof disenfranchisement amongst the children of farmers for example, as they don’t get the same opportuniites as the children of business people. The farming life is tough and miserable.
TRK: That’s true. That’s why in the field of cultural activities in various areas, including Ubud, there is a trend in changing the system so that a more equitable system can be realized for those membersof the community who are weaker economically.
RH: How do you do that?
TRK: We use the lowest common denominator – and so those who are more fortunate are tested, will they chip in more and help the less fortunate to complete the community needs?
RH: So a kind of progressive application?
TRK: Yes. I have changed things, whenever there is a large odalan (temple ceremony) I introduce this system to that community and explain that a big ceremony should not be an obligation that is burden, that the basis is devotion doesn’t burden members of the community.
RH: But as to the youth, they are the future generation, what should they do? We can’t simply hold on to the exact same format forever? Even now we can see signs that the outer form is similar but the spirit isn’t there…
TRK: Just a “festival”… Yes that does exist. That’s why in Ubud every three years we do an evaluation which also involves the youth. As a member of local parliament I meet with nearly all the youth organizations for Q+A. They can contribute their thoughts to government programs.
RH: What is their response to that?
TRK: Great! I use this research and and their input during discussions in parliament.
Sometimes in the villages people are afraid to be seen as being critical of the government. I open that up, I tell them you have to have courage.
RH: There are still traumas (from bygone political eras)?
TRK: Yes, there is still trauma. Even in culture and traditon the youth have to be more open. They have to be critical and innovative within the systems that are there.
RH: Coming back to adat (tradition), you as the bendesa what can you tell us about situations like at the Pura Dalem Puri (where a hotel has been built exactly opposite a royal cremation ground). Is there no way we can avoid that in the future, or has that become a done deal?
TRK: If it’s done it has to be corrected. If it is wrong in the future it has to be avoided so it isn’t repeated. So how to fix that, it can’t be something coming from one or two people or groups. It has to be a common awareness shared with government executives, legislators, and the people. The status is a bit weak because often they just seek out the approval of the local community.
RH: Sorry, who are ‘they’? Business people?
TRK: Business people when they look for their permits, if the local community approves, the permit is issued. Which includes the case of Dalem Puri temple too . You can’t use just the approval of the community as the main grounds for issuing a permit, because it is the government that knows the rules. If you just go to the community, it’s easy – these days money talks. So the people who don’t understand they just sign off. So if the community makes a mistake the government should tell them.
photos ©Rio Helmi except for family photos courtesy of the family