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  • Storytelling in Bali by Hildred Geertz
  • Michel Picard
Storytelling in Bali. By Hildred Geertz. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016. xiii+534 pp.

In 1936, the anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead arrived in Bali with plans for a two-year study of "Balinese character" (Bateson and Mead 1942). For the first few months of their study they stayed with the German painter and musician Walter Spies, who had taken up residence in the village of Ubud. Upon seeing some of the Western-style paintings that Balinese had started producing with the support of Spies and his Dutch colleague Rudolph Bonnet, they decided to study them and their makers with the idea that it might enrich their insight into the Balinese psyche. Most of the painters were from the nearby village of Batuan, where Bateson and Mead moved after their stay in the mountain village of Bayung Gedé. They collected over 1,200 paintings—out of which about 800 were from Batuan— and asked each painter to tell the story that he had illustrated in his picture.

In 1973, Mead showed these paintings to Hildred Geertz and suggested that she work on them. Seven years later, Geertz decided to follow up on Bateson's and Mead's research on the Batuan painters, in order to learn about the history and the meanings of their paintings. This book on storytelling in Bali is the end result of her long-term fieldwork in Batuan between 1981 and 1988, during which she combined her study of painting with an investigation of temple carvings and rituals and of dance and drama (Geertz 1994 and 2004).

Made expressly for Westerners, and following Western pictorial conventions but drawing their themes from Balinese culture, these [End Page 202] paintings are "like briefly overheard fragments from ongoing conversations between the Balinese and the foreigners in an intercultural situation in which each side only partially understood the expectations of the other" (Geertz 1994, p. 6). Just as the anthropologists were crossing the boundaries between cultures, so too were the young Balinese painters who were inventing a bi-cultural art form. Most of their paintings illustrate popular tales taken not only from the Balinese literary heritage and dramatic repertoire but also from oral storytelling—a widespread social practice in Bali in the 1930s. In intimate family settings at night, elderly people told youngsters tales that they themselves had heard in their childhood. A true performative act, akin to dramatic performances, the telling of stories was intended to teach moral principles, to prevent or correct improper behaviour.

At the time that she was working on the Batuan paintings, Hildred Geertz had already mentioned her interest in the stories represented in them, remarking that "no one yet has made an extended study of such storytelling" (Geertz 1994, p. 122). Her new study of Balinese storytelling is based on the collection of tales assembled by Gregory Bateson, typed in Balinese by his assistant I Madé Kalér and stored in the Margaret Mead papers in the Library of Congress in Washington. These tales were transcribed from interviews with the Batuan painters conducted with reference to each of their paintings. Bateson's and Mead's major consultant was a Brahmana Buda by the name of Ida Bagus Madé Togog, who in turn became Geertz's main informant when she moved into Batuan. A prolific storyteller, he dictated the widest variety of the tales and authored most of the narrative paintings collected by Bateson and Mead. As a trained ritual specialist from a priestly family, Togog was well versed in Balinese literature and oral lore. Unconcerned about Western expectations, he did not speak "foreigner talk", in the sense that he gave no explanation of terms or customs relating to "Balinese culture" for the benefit of a foreigner, as younger Balinese would usually do when faced with an ignorant outsider. Once she had become fluent enough in Balinese, Geertz asked Togog to tell her his life story, [End Page 203] which she translated into English, rearranging his spoken words so as to make sense to a reader of the latter language (Geertz and Togog 2005).

Storytelling in Bali is divided into five chapters. After an...


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