GIFTING IN THE BALINESE TRADITION
an Edenic place where picking tropical flowers and exotic flora is an
OK thing to do. A paradise where environmental police simply don't exist;
it's a cultural given that all natural ingredients are up for grabs, providing
they are skillfully crafted into service as offerings in honor and gratitude
to the forces of the invisible world, to Spirit, to the Bali God.
Indemnified by CC -- cultural correctness -- I felt encouraged to participate in the Balinese offering tradition. However, it was a good thing there was no reason to rush it photographically; I hadn't a clue as to how my inspiration would manifest on film. In fact, my own offering images didn't come clear until practically the end of my two week stay at the Sacred Mountain Sanctuary situated under the gaze of holy Mount Gunung Agung in a remote valley near Sideman. The Sanctuary's extraordinary parterred gardens, river and wandering waterways generated uncountable blooms, airborne essences, and an evocotive audio track playing day and night.
With my senses being gifted moment-to-moment, I observed the display of offerings island-wide: on the ground at street crossings to insure safe passage; on doorsteps to bar evil spirits from houses; on parked motorcycle seats as antitheft systems; in rice field shrines to insure bumper crops; in the elegant temple complexes everywhere; and of course, piled high on the heads of women, temple bound in processions along the roads.
Taking a lesson from village ladies in the making of "kwangen" offerings, I then participated in a traditional ceremony at the high altitude, misty Pasar Agung temple. Giving in to tourist trappery in buzzy Ubud, I shopped 'til I dropped, oversupplying on sarongs and woodcarvings. Shooting incoherently along the way, I spotted offerings and assimilated the spirit and aesthetic of Balinese gifting. My own offering images were yet unformed, incubating somewhere in soul.
Contributing to the imaginal, cultural curry were traditional dances with complex costumes including gaudy, gold printed fabric that caught my fancy; textiles have always been an attraction to me photographically. A kind Balinese jaquard, the pink, yellow, green, red and purple cloth embossed with bold, gold figurative and floral motifs were to be found not only on dancer's costumes but decorating temples and other public spaces.
As a dynamic, optical counterpoint, a black and white checked material dressed shrines, as well. Called poteng cloth, it symbolizes the duality of light and dark, good and evil. The "yin" fluidity of the jaquard motifs and the "yang" starkness of the poteng graphic became relational to me. I hastened to purchase meters of both fabrics which I squirreled away in my room.
Along with the vintage sarongs I'd impulse purchased, these yard goods draped my secluded, bamboo villa with its sublime prospect out over rice fields and up to Mount Agung. Beneath the slated floorboards, a visible irrigation canal trickled, geckoes climbed the mosquito netting at night, while creepers pulled out all their stops.
Closing in on the last day, I was ready to pull out my own photographic stops; offering images were emerging in meditation practice. I scuttled a final daytrip temptation to commercial dispersal in Ubud, and got my camera gear and fabrics pulled together. Tomorrow I would remain at the Sanctuary for a private, photo-offering retreat. The November monsoons dumping in the early afternoon, I planned an early start.
The locus for my offering retreat was an open air, thatched pavilion or "barong" down by the river. Spreading out yoga mats to stabilize the flexible, bouncy, bamboo flooring, I established a tripod and camera, and organized my fabrics for easy access. With gear at the ready, including reflector and fill-flash, I then calmed the system with meditation enhanced by deep drafts of the ambient sounds and smells. Decompressing, a sense of time released and creative anxiety dissipated.
Choosing a meter of the jaquard, I spread it before the camera aimed on an angle to the set-up to avoid tripod legs in shot. Next I positioned the black and white poteng cloth over the patterned one and negotiated the two fabrics. Tweeking a mid-range zoom into a precise composition, I was ready for the floral gifts from the gods on offer throughout the Sanctuary.
Hopping off the pavilion into the gardens, I forayed for the finishing touches of my first offering photograph. Being in an ultra-relaxed state, I was guided by the Bali gods to the appropriate leaves, grasses, and blooms as if by a Spirit sensor. Deliberating over the ingredients seemed not to be necessary; a kind of "beelining" became the movement of the day. Losing track of time, a welcomed stillness came over me. I remained in this creative zone all morning as successive still life offerings unfolded before the camera. Spirit was definitely in the details.
The technical details flowed, as well. Despite the fact there was no direct sunlight available under the pavilion, I found I could get a little hit with a small, gold reflector held at close range on the flowers and other foreground elements as I bracketed each set-up at both half and full-stop increments. A small flash unit on on extension sync cord worked well; I progressively backed off the light output by up to two stops.
By early afternoon my retreat was monsooned out. I finalized my favorite offering image: a monochromatic arrangement with white flowers and fine grasses interweaving the composition. The fill-flash popped the blooms from the background. A stripy, almost creepy looking orchid became the centerpiece as a final gesture.
The exotic, otherworldly orchid had been a gift from Batuan, one of Bali's cultural elders. Days before, Batuan had climbed a massive tree, plucking a specimen just for me; I wore it for days. Still firm, it flew home hanging on a plastic water glass in the airplane drawing much attention from flight attendants. Finally gone limp, I bid farewell to the orchid prior to landing in Los Angeles.
Gifting -- the Balinese way -- bestowed upon me these photo-offerings. Indeed the still lifes had a long gestation period: nearly two weeks. Seems as if I needed to incubate in quiet observation of the indigenous offering tradition and marinate in Balinese culture before these images clarified in consciousness.
How seldom we allow ourselves the luxery of time; taking time is a gift we grant ourselves. Only time teaches us that a little stillness goes a long way creatively -- enabling the invisible, interior world to manifest gracefully through our destination photography.