Balinese Hands

Jürgen Streeck




Cultures and Hands

The life-worlds to which human bodies and pairs of human hands belong, with which they are familiar and which they know how to handle, are cultural worlds, permeated by the categories, beliefs, memories, technologies, habits and practices of the particular society. All societies contain different subgroups and practice communities within which bodily skills are acquired and passed on (say, farmers and fishermen), but there are also often, especially in “traditional”, pre-industrial societies, bodily ways of coping with and moving in the world that are shared by members of the culture at large. These historically evolved bodily styles are part of what we call “culture”, even though it is often difficult to find the exact borders of the groups that share an “embodied culture”. (Are bodily styles shaped by, say, Latin American, Mexican, Maya, or Tzotzil customs and beliefs, and is there variation between the Tzotzil villages in Chiapas?)

A classic and nicely bounded society where movement styles have been studied is that of the small island of Bali in Indonesia. Bali has attracted the attention of anthropologists and other students of culture because of its extraordinarily rich artistic production which involves a large percentage of the population in highly skilled activities such as wood and stone carving, painting, theater, dance, and the making of orchestral music (mainly with metallic percussion instruments and gongs--it is called gamelan), but also in the production of very complex food and flower arrangements to be offered to the gods. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali is a Hindu society, and the arts belong to the many gods. Practicing an art is a sacred obligation for nearly everyone,and there are many local associations and many thousands of families that devote themselves to a particular artl or trade.

This is how the anthropologist Steven Lansing, a leading expert on Bali, describes a typical Balinese village:

  Sukawati is a fairly typical village, mostly inhabited by peasant farmers. Two banjars [subsections, J.S.] are home to extended families of artists: the banjar of the Puppeteer People, and Banjar Sangging, many of whose members belong to the Carver People. The carvers practice their art on both wood and stone, creating reliefs used to decorate houses, temples, and other buildings. Most of them are also skilled at painting and drawing. They possess a rich, centuries-old tradition of sculptural and architectural ornamentation, with detailed rules about the kinds of designs and images that are appropriate for particular uses. The banjar of the Puppeteer People also includes a family of superb goldsmiths, and elsewhere in the village there are many musicians, poets, dancers, and other performers. All of these artists live side by side with farmers, laborers, and traders, who make up the vast majority of village residents. Yet the dividing line between these occupations (artist, farmer, trader, or laborer) is not very firm. Many farmers are skilled musicians or dancers, and some are fluent readers of poetry in the ancient languages. As the traditions are passed along from generation to generation, the knowledge and skill required for very technically demanding arts such as shadow puppetry or goldsmithing remain part of a continuous tradition. Depending on their virtuosity and the market for their skills, some families may be able to support themselves primarily by their art for years. But when this is not possible, artists fall back on typical peasant occupations like farming (Lansing, 1995).

Compare this to the way manual labor in contemporary U.S. society is described . The New York Times wrote a year ago:

  In this high-tech age of bio-engineering, supercomputers, space shuttles and globalized financial markets, the men and women with hands and muscles are still there, laying bricks, sweeping cafeteria floors, making hotel beds. They are the army of manual workers doing the unheralded, largely forgotten jobs that also make the nation go. They hammer the nails, trim the meat, clean the sidewalks. "Manual labor is more with us than many people think," said Kate Bronfenbreriner, a professor of labor relations at Cornell. "We will always need people to clean our streets, empty our bedpans and build our buildings. There are a lot of dirty jobs that someone's going to have to do."

I visited Bali in the summer of 2002 and recorded hours of videotape of Balinese hands: idle hands, hands of dancers, hands preparing food and offerings, hands carving wood, painting, tying spurs to the feet of fighting cocks or massaging them, or trying to make bets during a cockfight. I wanted to understand what it is like to have Balinese hands. The photographs on these pages (except for the old ones in black and white) are all taken from these recordings.

There is a study of Balinese culture (and especially the culture of Balinese bodies) that every anthropologist knows: Balinese Character by Gregory Bateson and his then-wife, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (Bateson & Mead, 1942). Bateson and Mead wanted to show

  how the Balinese--through the way in which they, as living persons, moving, standing, eating, sleeping, dancing, and going into trance, embody culture, how gesture and posture are expressive of a people’s character.

Bateson and Mead studied a single village in the highlands of Bali, Bajoeng Gedé. Bateson took thousands of photographs and shot footagel for several ethnographic films. By grouping these photographs in sophisticated ways and by examining films frame by frame, they tried to reveal what it means and how it feels to be a Balinese body, to engage with the world through Balinese hands and to possess a distinctly Balinese personality.

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bajoeng Gedé (photograph by Walter Spies)

As an admirer of Gregory Bateson, I had visited Bajoeng Gedé in 1984. At the time, nobody spoke English and I did not speak Indonesian, let alone Balinese. My pilgrimage lasted no more than 20 minutes. Still, I decided to return in 2002 to see how the village had changed. This time there were quite a few people who could speak English, and they welcomed me: luck had it that on this day the temple, having undergone renovation, was being rededicated to the gods, in one of the most festive celebrations that the village had seen in years. Luck also had it that the only other non-Balinese in attendance were the anthropologist Steven Lansing and his wife, Thérese de Vet, who had been coming to Bali for thirty years. They opened doors, took me along, and generously shared their knowledge.