Finding the right path
engrossed by the intricacy of a seedling’s growth: Startled!
By an old man’s friendly call
One bright dawn in the uphills of Bali the paths of two men merged in a green paddy. The differences between them were as mountain to valley.
One was a respected and prolific Balinese sculptor and artist, then aged 108. The other a footloose Australian from an elite background “seeking a place in which to develop my obscure talents.” He was 24. Neither spoke the other’s language.
John Darling recalled the moment he first met Gusti Nyoman Lempad: “He could tell that I was trying to find an unimpeded view of the mountains. He beckoned me to follow him, and so the glory of the morning was laid out before us. We sat on the grass of a paddy bank to appreciate the short moment of beauty that precedes the day.”
The chance encounter led to one man taking the road less travelled, the other having his talent revealed to the world through television.
Eight years later Lempad died “a conscious death”. John Darling, now fluent in Balinese and a friend of the family (he lived on Lempad’s land), was asked to film the artist’s spectacular cremation in Ubud.
The result was Lempad of Bali, a film shown on TV in Australia and several other countries. Now it’s been redigitized and is available free on the Internet, along with John Darling’s book of the same name.
It’s all in an E-package that Jakarta publisher Mark Hanusz believes is probably the first of its kind in Indonesia.
The book is in English and Indonesian and has great pictures. There are apps for Apple and Android.
John Darling went on to become an ethnographic film maker, poet and lecturer, but fell ill and returned to Perth. He died in 2011.
Since she scattered her husband’s ashes in Bali, Sara Darling has been preparing John’s work for publication, supported by the Melbourne-based Herb Feith Foundation. This is named after the famous Australian scholar of Indonesian politics who died in 2001.
“The decision to make the book and film widely available was driven by a desire to fulfil John’s last wish,” Sara said. “He had an unique experience to tell because he lived in Bali for 20 years. Now it’s out there for all to enjoy, along with John’s memoirs and poetry.
Melbourne University Professor Charles Coppel said Herb Feith and John Darling were “ideal examples of Australians committed to better relations with Indonesians.
“They lived for long periods in Indonesia on Indonesian terms that endeared them to their Indonesian friends. That made them stand out among Indonesian ‘experts’ and gave a special quality to their work.”
This quality comes across in film and book, though unfortunately the latter is too short. Maybe that’s to be expected from a poet who preferred brevity, and a film director who spoke through his images.
But it leaves great gaps. We learn much about Lempad – we also want to know more of his biographer, and how such an odd couple related and communicated. “John was always a deep thinker, and at heart an artist,” wrote Sara. So was Lempad.
Other books are promised later this year to coincide with an exhibition in Bali of the work of the man who many consider the island’s greatest artist. These will celebrate Lempad’s work but are unlikely to reveal more about the other man whose destiny was set in a Bali ricefield in 1970.
Since then too many Australians have come to use Bali as their backyard party zone, cheap and exotic, an inhibition-free week at the poolside bar without ever encountering the mystery and magic of the hinterland and isles beyond.
For them the rich culture comes in roll-up canvases of saleable sameness, Kuta trinkets, so tawdry it’s clear the sellers have a cynical understanding of foreigners’ tastes and values.
Although beloved of academics, John Darling’s work was never exclusive. It was made for general viewing and no special appreciation of art or Indonesia is necessary to enjoy the film and book.
How come people like Herb Feith, a Jewish refugee from Austria who settled in Australia as a child, and John Darling, who left his homeland to study the British Empire in Oxford, fit so well into Indonesia and want to share their insights?
One of many answers has to be accepting the Archipelago on its terms, to get in sync with its pulse and absorb a different world view. Here’s a clue: “Bali subverted me,” the film maker wrote. “The way of life around me soon dominated my thinking. It became apparent that here was a story to tell and that I owed it to my friends and neighbors on the island to help them tell it.
“Poetry and film … have much in common, images, symbols, myth, rhythm and other resonances beyond the immediate.”
Here are fresh ways for Australians to see their northern neighbor, not through commerce and defence, but respect and wonder. This is the paddy path to build mature people-to-people relationships, the must-have phrase in every politician’s lexicon, so often said, so seldom done.
Elusive knowledge, A product of receptive seeing
Coming to us
In black and white
And hot and cold
And nature rhythms
Oh, what are we
Which occasionally overflow.
Lempad of Bali E book and embedded video Published by Equinox Books, Jakarta , 2014 Download free: http://www.lempad.net
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 April 2014)