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Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali by Jean Couteau

Book review by Kunang Helmi Picard.

The vivid cover of the square-format book immediately catches one’s attention and the fact that the author, Jean Couteau, is not Balinese.

18 Décembre 2018 - 19:55

Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali by Jean Couteau © PT Phoenix Communications, First edition 2017, Copy edited by Edward Speirs.
Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali by Jean Couteau © PT Phoenix Communications, First edition 2017, Copy edited by Edward Speirs.
Published in Jakarta last year by Alaistair Speirs of PT Phoenix Communications, it has already charmed many readers interested by tales about the island of the gods.

The cover from a 1973 painting by the late Balinese artist Dewa Nyoman Batuan and called Mandala II represents ‘God’ at its center and ‘Man’ as a microcosmos situated in a lush Balinese environment.

Jean Couteau born in Clisson (44 Loire Atlantique - France)

The author, Jean Couteau obtained a doctorate in art history and art in Bali from a French university in 1986. Couteau was born in Clisson, France in 1945 to a veterinarian father and celebrated painter and writer, Geneviève Couteau.
In 1972 Jean Couteau arrived in Bali, after accompanying his mother to Laos, where she was invited to paint portraits of the Laotian Royal Family in pre-revolutionary Laos.
Couteau was enthralled by Asia, in particular by Bali’s complex culture and society. He settled down on the Island of the Gods where he remains a resident to this day.
It is from here that the prolific author comments about cultural events in French, English and Indonesian, with an additional focus on Bali. Although Jean may seem rather Gallic in his charm, he is knowledgeable about Bali, as only a long-term expat can be.
These stories about Balinese rituals, mores and customs, are illustrated by four contemporary Balinese artists and a photographer : Ketut Budiana, Dewa Putu Kantor, and the late Wayan Sadhaas, and renowned Brahmin photographer, I Bagus Putra Adnyana. Iconography is completed by paintings from the collection of the Agung Rai Museum of Art in Peliatan.
The publisher, Alistair Speirs, reminds us that there is a state in Bali, between the visible and the invisible in which all Balinese believe : ‘niskala and sakala’ which the author explains.
Divided into several chapters the book is a melange of anecdotes plus information about the Balinese attitude to life, sex, marriage, and their daily, and metaphysical, problems. These incorporate the introduction to the Island of the Gods, the Religion of Water, Tri Hita Karana, Balinese cosmology, Food for the Gods, and a visit to the Brahmins.
In the first section, Jean Couteau tells us about his visits to the village of Keramas, when he visits Kompiang who is an Arja dancer in classical Balinese opera. Here follows a quotation from the book :
- “Kadek, what is your religion?” he asked, calling me by my Balinese name.
- “I am a Catholic, like most people in my country”, I answered. He gazed over at me over his spectacles : “So you are a Catholic ? Do you realize brother Kadek, that we share the same religion ?”
Indeed Kompiang also includes Islam in this group because holy water or tirta in Balinese is involved in each religion.

Myth, Magic and Mystery

The first chapter is followed by explanation of myths : Markandya (origins of Bali), Kebo Iwa and the real reason behind Dutch Colonialism in Indonesia, Garuda and the Elixir of Life, Purgatory in Paradise, and Minding One’s tongue.

Magic comes next with a piece on Taksu, or the connection to the cosmos, Facing Illness, the Balinese Way, Nnunas Baos or How to make a God talk, Naur Sol or the fufillment of a vow (here an amusing misspelling took place, as the word was replaced by wow) and the Tricks of Balinese Love.

Mystery comes next : The wandering Balinese soul, Ngendeg or the Awakening of the Dead, The Kuta Bombing in a Balinese perspective, In search of Elder Brothers, The Chopped Hand of the Inveterate Believer and the Seven Muslim Saints of Bali.

Life, Love and Laughs

This catalogue is completed by the Chapter named Life, Love and Laughs in which Couteau talks about the Peeping Toms of Bali, Love which is about Darmi, the victim of Beauty and Laughs which talks about Jero Ketut.
Jean Couteau’s anecdotes are coloured by the fact that he is presently married to a Muslim rector in Denpasar. Inez is from Minangkabau, a matriachal province of Sumatra, Indonesia and they have two adult children who are studying, one in France, and the other in Jogjakarta.
Amusing at times and thought-provoking, this book certainly deserves more attention and recognition on the international stage. A second edition with more attention paid to unintentional ‘faux-pas’ (mistakes) would be very welcome.

Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali
by Jean Couteau

​Published by PT Phoenix Communications, Jakarta, Indonesia
ISBN 976 - 602 - 97071-9-0

Kunang Helmi-Picard
Fatma Kunang Helmi was born in Yogjakarta, Indonesia. Education in Switzerland, Australia and... En savoir plus sur cet auteur

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