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  • Saraswati in Bali: A Temple, A Museum, and A Mask by Ron Jenkins
  • Kathy Foley
SARASWATI IN BALI: A TEMPLE, A MUSEUM, AND A MASK. By Ron Jenkins. Peliatan, Ubud, Bali: Agung Rai Museum of Art, 2014. 156 pp. $35.

This lavishly illustrated text by Ron Jenkins continues his writing on Balinese material. By looking at the Pura Madya temple festival of the Arma Museum honoring Saraswati, goddess of learning, he shows how cultural preservation, religion, art, and tourism intertwine in the activities that are spearheaded in the present generation by the aristocrat Anak Agung Rai. The text combines literature, religion, cultural critique, and performance description. The essential idea of the aksara (letters of the alphabet/literacy/sacred wisdom preserved in writing) that allow the individual to access the macrocosm via their microcosmic potential is broached. The way a temple festival demands active participation and cultural sharing is core to knowledge production, consumption, and creation. Performing is knowing, and therefore activities that revolve around honoring the masks of the leonine Barong and the demonic widow-witch Rangda (Durga) become a way of activating communally shared knowledge. Agung Rai states that the veneration of the Barong and Rangda masks is “a strategy of managing diversity. … From a Western perspective you could look at all the performances and offerings and sculptures and masks of this temple festival and think of it as a giant art installation, but from the perspective of the people creating it all … [it is] a way to stay connected to one another and to our ancestors” (p. 100), as well as the tourists that join.

Jenkins has access to major artists, such as I Ketut Kodi (topeng dancer and dalang), pedana (priests), and cultural exponents, such as Rai himself; all give perceptive interpretations. Jenkins translates significant passages from topeng (mask dance) performances of Kodi, noting that “Humans live because [End Page 516] of the aksara” (p. 136). In an interview Kodi elaborates how knowledge of the aksara moves from teacher to student: “When my teacher taught me how to dance, the aksara were transferred from his body to mine. When I carve a mask I transfer the aksara through my hands to the mask, and the aksara are then transmitted to the audience when the mask is performed. In this way, through the arts … [e]veryone can be touched by the wisdom of Saraswati” (p. 137).

This text deals with aspects of wayang, including the story of Churning of the Sea of Milk, in which demons and divinities work together to create amrita, the elixir of life. Meanings of Barong and Rangda masks, the topeng mask of Sidha Karya, a figure needed to complete the ceremony that has a demonic yet sacred visage, and the kayon (tree of life puppet in wayang) are addressed. The text contains many full-color plates from the Arma Museum, one of the best collections of Balinese twentieth-century visual arts, with works by noted artists such as Ketut Liyur, Walter Spies, Ketur Budiana, Lempad, and Affandi, among many others. Illustrations and photos clarify ideas and the ceremonies. The book is written in an accessible style; however only those conversant with the symbolism of Balinese Hindu-Buddhism are apt to follow the wider philosophical-spiritual analysis: such ideas are not part of normal Western thinking on how arts operate. The book is an apologia for literacy/performance and posits the arts and literacy as a way of becoming first human and then divine.

Aspects of making and ritually charging the mask are addressed in chapter 2. Dealing with the demonic is the topic in chapter 3. The significance of visits to the sea as a spiritual cleansing is part of chapter 4; the meanings of the cockfight, ritual bathing, and so on are addressed in various chapters. The Balinese concept of ruabineda (two in opposition) is explored throughout.

The text ends with selected portions of the lontar (palm leaf manuscript) Aji Saraswati (Formula of Saraswati). While not all of this will make sense to those new to Balinese religion and performance practice, Jenkins works to make apparent the ideas hidden in plain sight in temple ceremonies.

Jenkins acknowledges the challenges of...


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pp. 516-517
Launched on MUSE
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