13 October, 2009


Kathmandu Post

October 13-I am sitting under the full moon outside the Puri Saraswoti temple in Ubud, Bali. Behind the red doors of the performance stage is the temple of Saraswoti, the gracious patron of arts and music whose presence can be felt everywhere on this island. In front me sits Arjuna in full regalia and meditation. He (actually a she dressed as a he) is about to be distracted from his focused sitting by a boar, which has been sent by the Lord Shiva to shake him out of his deep meditation. The boar shakes poor Arjuna around, and even tries to grab his sword out of his sheath in the back—to no avail. The prince awakes and shoots the boar dead, and that ugly character staggers off the stage howling.

I try to think about why the Balinese would choose this particular moment in the Mahabharata to immortalize through their song, dance and music. Surely, you think, there are a hundred other scenes more worthy of performance? What about Krishna’s immortal speech to Arjuna, given at his deepest moment of crisis? What about the fish that was shot dead through the eye? Surely that could have been shown to better effect? There is not a whisper of Krishna in this performance, however. “Krishna, I don’t like Krishna,” says the owner of the hotel where I am staying. “Everybody pray to Krishna. Pray, pray. But nobody work. If nobody work, how can we make money? So no Krishna.” This seems a simple yet effective critique of the spiritual culture that puts itself above the material world.

Later that evening, sitting under the frangipani tree and looking at the one bow that rests on the stairs, I wonder again about the adoration of Arjuna. Arjuna, the archer who always met his target. He indeed is the hero of this play, and Shiva, when he appears, is masked and wearing a furry outfit, more like a clownish version of the yeti than the grandmaster of the universe. Shiva’s only action on stage is to hand the magic bow to Arjuna, after which he departs, making funny sounds.

This, then, appears to me the difference between the Balinese Hindus and the Nepali Hindus. The Balinese are people who appreciate the fine arts, and whose homes, steps, and gardens all show the effects of this appreciation. Saraswoti’s presence is everywhere, and so is Arjuna, with his razor-sharp focus and unerring sight. Krishna, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, Ganesh graces doorways but is not worshipped, and Shiva is a mere furry character in a rather elaborate play.

The Balinese culture, it appears to me, is rather similar to those that existed in the Kathmandu Valley not so long ago. They too have rather beautiful architecture and people who can make fabulous sculptures of stone and wood. They too have potters who make amazing characters out of clay, musicians who play elaborate orchestras, and weavers who make colorful cloth. The only difference is that they’ve taken all of these arts and actively promoted them in daily life, making them visible in every inch of space that any tourist might walk though. The gardens of hotels are decorated with statues and sculptures that seem identical to those that graced the age-old temples. This, then, appeared to be the difference—that the Balinese had taken their arts and put them in their hearts and homes. Think about every hotel in Thamel being decorated with Thimi pottery and Patan brassware and stone sculptures and Kathmandu contemporary art, and you get the picture of what Kathmandu would be like if it followed Bali.

But unfortunately we’ve decided tacky plastic arts from China is more important and more interesting than what our artisans make in our own backyards. No wonder then that the sense of richness which pervades the very air of Bali is being choked in the smog of Kathmandu. We’ve embraced the worst of the new but have retained none of the best of the old. And this, in itself, forces us into a spiral where the tourists who come don’t want to spend money and that, by itself, leaves little money to invest on the arts and architecture of Nepal itself.

.Kathmandu doesn’t have to be a grimy, awful concrete jungle. It can still embrace its good weather and promote greenery and gardens with every home. The city can encourage citizens to build gardens and plant trees, and promote these values as civilized values rather than encouraging people to design bloated buildings that take up every inch of space inside a compound. Kathmandu city can encourage its artisans and promote its arts officially, making venues in which locals can also purchase these art products, making them not just the objects of wealthy, discerning foreigners. Kathmandu city can clean up its streets (the Balinese must have a magic, invisible sweepers who keep their city spotless in every single corner) and invite visitors in who would gladly pay money to see this city turn from what it is starting to become now—an awful congested heartland of garish concrete—to an oasis of aesthetic values and an artistic heartland.

Unfortunately, Kathmandu city doesn’t even have a mayor. We have a choice now, to bring the city back on track. Perhaps if the government is non-existent, its up to private citizens to take this initiative. Its really not that difficult. And it can be easy as planting a tree, or planting a fern. It can be easy as planning your house so that there’s space for a little garden.