In which anthropologist Graeme MacRae, from Massey University, New Zealand, shares his memories of his Balinese mentor, I Gusti Made Sumung.  


Among the star-studded cast of Ubud’s recent Lempad-fest of books, exhibitions and film screenings, the award for “best supporting actor” surely goes to his eldest son, Gusti Made Sumung. During the last year of his life, when I was finding my feet in Bali, I had the privilege of being the last of Gusti Sumung’s long line of foreign (not to mention the non-foreign editor of Ubud Now & Then) friends and students. The first ones were more famous, back in the 1930s, beginning with his father’s friend and patron Walter Spies and including Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Colin McPhee and Jane Belo, for whom he worked as “secretary”. Bruce Carpenter has told some of this story in the book Lempad of Bali in an essay entitled “The Gatekeeper” referring to Gusti Sumung’s role as mediator and manager of Lempad’s dealings with the wider world, which Rio Helmi has also celebrated in the pages of UNT (4 October 2014).

What I want to report here is some of the lesser-known bits in the middle, things he told me during that last year of his life, as well as his longest and closest foreign friendship, with the late Australian filmmaker John Darling (see UNT 26 June 2013).


When I first arrived in Ubud, in mid-1993, trying to make sense of what Ubud was becoming, people kept telling me that Gusti Sumung was someone I needed to talk to. So I went to Puri Lempad and was directed to his regular station on a big bare pavilion. He ordered coffee for me and warm water for himself and proceeded to ask about my intentions. He was charming and interested but I had the feeling he’d seen plenty of my kind before and wasn’t taking too much for granted. He told me, perhaps testing me, that the current crop of foreigners in Ubud were not like those of previous times. He mentioned Jane Belo and the others from the 1930s, but also John Darling, who had lived in Ubud through the 1970s and 80s. These people, he said had real interest in, respect for and knowledge of Balinese culture.

He must have decided that I had some potential, because a few weeks later he invited my family to stay in a house he owned at the uphill-eastern corner of Taman. It was a rambling ruin of semi-open pavilions and courtyards, leaking thatched roofs and unreliable water supply, facing away from the village onto a ravine where we could see the people of Kutoh climbing down a steep path to collect water from the river. Uphill were ricefields in which frogs chorused deafeningly at night and downhill was vacant land grazed by the last Bali cow in Taman. In the garden were dragonflies, lizards and beautiful but dangerous green snakes. We were unsure, so he said “come and stay for a night at full moon, then tell me whether you want to stay”. Needless to say we never left and when we asked about the rent he said “pay what you like”. Our only condition was that he feel free to spend as much time there as he chose. He came often to sit on a seat which caught the afternoon breeze up the ravine and to partake of our son’s pancakes. He sometimes called in too on the days of his monthly trips to Gianyar to collect his pension, resplendent in clean shirt and sarong with his hair even darker and shinier than usual and with the air of a boy off on an adventure.

For the rest of that year, as my research developed, I would report regularly to his pavilion at Puri Lempad, usually with questions. He would never answer directly, replying only with return questions, stories from which I had to discern the moral, or with vague suggestions that I might like to visit this temple or that village. More reports – more stories, questions, suggestions. He wanted me to understand and appreciate the deeper levels of Balinese culture, but he wanted me to learn it for myself, by direct experience – exactly the way anthropologists are supposed to learn.

I began making longer expeditions, usually on foot, further and further up the ridge between the two branches of the of the Wos river that meet at Campuan. Wherever I went I found that he was well-known, because of his days as sedehan (ricefield tax collector) in the 1970s. He was also remembered fondly and my relationship with him became a calling card that opened doors and never let me down. When John Darling came to Bali and I met him for the first time, I realised that I was retracing journeys that John and Gusti (I find it hard to leave out the title) Sumung had made together in those days. When Gusti Sumung became sick and died in mid-1994, well-wishers came from the length of the valley recounting stories of his advice and help over the years.

Before my son and wife left Bali, he arranged special trips to places he felt they needed to see – far in the north, east and south of Bali. In each case he arranged for the hire of a van and we were accompanied by his seke tuak – the survivors of his generation of old friends who used to gather each evening at a wonderfully dark and dingy warung (now long-gone, but about where Anomale Café is now) to drink tuak or brem (rice wine) and observe the passing parade. Wherever we went on these journeys he knew people and he led us on to see more and more, usually returning late at night. Through this group, and his nightly visits to the senggol (night market) that flourished in Ubud in those days, I got a glimpse of what lay behind that twinkle in his eye – the debonair, charming young man of earlier years – leading his friends onward into adventure, but sometimes also into trouble.

(to be continued)


Graeme first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual & History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997.

top image Gusti Nyoman Lempad and Gusti Made Sumung, Lempad archive photo (?)

lower image, John Darling and Gusti Made Sumung during the filming of Lempad of Bali ©Rio Helmi