Gusti Made Sumung, known to most as the son of Lempad, was in fact a remarkable man in his own right. One of the first truly “man -of the-world” Balinese, his life described a fascinating arc from being a westernized young man through to being a spokesperson and champion of Balinese traditions. The second part of  anthropologist Graeme MacRae’s reminiscences of his Balinese mentor, I Gusti Made Sumung. Click here to read the first installment.

At the end of Part I,   I left you with Gusti Sumung’s talent for friendship and taste for adventure. These photos might say something about that, but now I want to change tack a little – and relate some of what he told me, especially about those hidden years between the golden decades of the 20/30s and the 70/80s but also more of my own interpretation of what this man was about.

In 1936, Jane Belo returned to Bali to help Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson with their new method of photo and film recording of Balinese culture. She needed help recording and translating data and she found “a charming young man, twenty years old, who knew Dutch and Malay as well as Balinese, and who had begun to typewrite, to act as (her) secretary”. Thus began Gusti Sumung’s career as a mediator and broker between cultures.

Between his education in Dutch schools and these foreign friends and employers, he acquired a taste for western clothing and modern habits as well as work and income. He was hungry for any contact with the wider world rather than interest in traditional life and knowledge, despite working as a guide to and translator of it. But by the end of the 1930s things had changed – the foreigners had all gone and there was little work for the educated. When the Japanese invaded in 1939, his westernised ways became a dangerous liability. Long trousers were a sign of modern thinking (just as two decades later they would become a badge of “communist” sensibilities) so he swapped them for a sarong. Fifty years later he still always wore one, usually batik and always, as others said, of polos (muted, unostentatious) pattern. He advised me to do likewise if I wanted to be taken seriously in more traditional parts.

Trip East 5

So he returned, in his sarong, to his family’s fields, disguised as a simple farmer. But farming proved more interesting than he expected and he became a serious student of the art of growing rice. And so began his rediscovery of Balinese culture.

By the end of the war he was a born-again Balinese, wary even of small signs of foreign influence such as new hairstyles or clothing. He had also become such an expert on farming, irrigation and land use, that he was appointed to a government position as sedehan – collector of taxes on ricefields for most of the watershed of the Wos valley, from Batur to Batubulan. This involved regular visiting of subaks (farmers irrigation cooperatives), pekaseh (heads of subaks) and individual farmers. At this time there were few motor vehicles and even fewer roads for them to travel on, so he travelled, as nearly all Balinese did (until the 1980s) on foot, beginning often up the ridge above the temple Pura Gunung Lebah at Campuan. These journeys often involved overnight stays and in the process he got to know the landscape, hydrology, ecology, agricultural systems, communities, temples and ritual patterns of the entire valley. It was this knowledge and the social networks in which it was embedded that provided the basis of his subsequent career as advisor, mentor and colleague to students of Bali such as John Darling, Putu Davies and finally myself. The dynamic of these relationships had now reversed – driven less by his interest in the outside world, than by our interest in his world.

The story of the family’s move from Bedulu to Ubud has been retold many times, mostly based on Sumung’s version (which varied somewhat in different tellings). While Lempad’s extraordinary artistic talents are the core of the story, what is less recognised is that Lempad was himself the son of an extraordinary man. According to Sumung, Lempad’s father, Gusti Mayukan, was at least Lempad’s equal both in artistic talent and wisdom. Sumung made no pretence at following in his father’s footsteps, although one of his sisters was a talented artist. He also believed that personal talents, like culture itself, fade with the passing of generations. He professed amazement at the differences between his seven sons, all of whom seem to me to carry parts of his character and abilities.

Bruce Carpenter and Rio Helmi both refer to Sumung as Lempad’s “gatekeeper” – mediating and managing his dealings with the world, especially with foreign buyers of his work. There is no doubt that Sumung’s great talent lay in his familiarity with western ways and his extraordinary facility in dealing with foreigners, and his life’s work was as broker and mediator between cultures – a gatekeeper not only of Lempad, but of Balinese culture in a larger sense.

The high point of this work was his collaboration with John Darling in making the film Lempad of Bali, in which he transcended the role of broker and interpreter to be an equal partner, and in some respects I think the guiding hand of the project. The film is a testament to a unique working relationship between a Balinese and foreigner – perhaps not realised before or since.

But, like many Balinese who find themselves in the position of mediators and brokers between cultures, he was at best ambivalent and sometimes sceptical about western culture. Attending Dutch secondary school was a rare privilege, in his case paid for by the Ubud palace in exchange for work done by Lempad. But while this experience clearly provided the first layer of his knowledge of the world beyond Bali, he claimed to have learnt nothing useful from it. And years later he would question the direction both the motivation and understanding of the new foreigners in Ubud and the direction of development in Bali. Likewise, while the foreigners were always welcome at his house, they were never invited to sleep under his roof. But when another one turned up, he could never resist one more conversation, one more foreign friendship, one more round of adventures.

 photos courtesy Graeme MacRae

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.