by Diana Darling
Older expats in Bali are mourning the passing of Carole Muller, who died in her sleep in Sydney at midnight 22 December at the age of 81.
Made Wijaya called Peter and Carole Muller ‘Tuan’ and ‘Nyonya’ — colonial terms of respect that perfectly registered Peter and Carole’s seniority and superiority in his young eyes, back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Peter was (and still is) a distinguished Australian architect, elegant and a bit remote in manner, although he could be very funny when he was with close friends. Carole was his wild-maned, fiery-eyed, outspoken wife, a long-budding anthropologist whose subject was “settlement patterns of traditional Balinese architecture as a non-verbal form of communication.” In the 1970s Peter and Carole built a house in Campuhan, Ubud, and were among the leaders of Bali’s small expat community. In Australia they lived at Glenrock, an imposing spread near Canberra, and then at Bronte House, a National Trust manor in Sydney. Their last house together, after a long story, was an apartment in one of the Finger Quays on Sydney Harbour. It juts out over the water and looks like a museum of Asian art.
above: Carole and Peter at home in Bali. photo courtesy Helen Simons. below left: Carole at a birthday party with Made Wijaya (foreground). Photo courtesy Helen Simons below right Carole at a wedding. photo courtesy Nyarie Hassal-Abbey
Peter and Carole led a style of life that was patrician and grand without being frightening. Their hospitality was legendary. Carole was a wonderful cook, and kept house as if by magic. They had tons of friends, naturally, and you always met interesting people at their gatherings. Indeed when I first met them in 1980, travelling with some friends on my first trip to Bali, they took us out to dinner in Kuta with John Darling, Made Wijaya, and Rio Helmi.
Carole had a powerful anthropological curiosity, which she shared with her friends as a sort of overflowing enthusiasm. It was she who first told me, perhaps at that dinner, about the Balinese concern with levels of the human body in architecture: a wall or a shrine or a pavilion had legs, a body, and a head — that was the divine order of things — and for that reason the Balinese would never store their sarongs on top of their shirts, or put their books (which belong to the head) on the floor. I immediately re-ordered the shelves in our hotel room, a tiny example of anthropology shaping behavior.
Sometime in the 1970s Carole wrote a master’s thesis which her professor, Anthony Forge, described to me as “brilliant,” and she was driven throughout the 1980s to continue her research. But this conflicted with her passion to participate in Peter’s architectural projects — the Bali Oberoi (originally a private estate called the Kayu Aya) and then the iconic Amandari (originally something else as well). Tensions grew between the couple, and eventually they broke up. Their friends were astonished and delighted when they got back together again, years later, to look after each other in their old age, in that amazing flat on Sydney Harbour.
By this time Carole’s health had taken some bad knocks. She was a survivor of lung cancer but had trouble seeing and walking. Peter had trouble hearing, but gallantly helped her in the production and publishing of several books of her work— Bali Aga Villages: field work in the 1980s and Nusa Penida: an adventure in 1990. The photographs — which are all her own, except for those shot by Rio Helmi from a helicopter over Nusa Penida and the Batur caldera— record a past that is vanishing, and for this we are very grateful to her.
The last time I saw Carole was some years ago in Denpasar at a seminar of Bali studies. She was lame and nearly blind, but participated energetically, with the help of her friend Sylvia Sidharta. Carole had a streak of steel in her, and a streak of silk. I hope that she is dancing freely now and researching the sights of heaven.
Lead photograph courtesy Victoria Aplin