From the Exhibition:
Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles

This painting is a Balinese representation of a lunar eclipse, but it is shown in a way that points to wider cosmic meanings of the event. The depiction is based on the narrative in the Adiparwa, the first book of the Indian epic the Mahabharata and is part of the Balinese adaptation of that story. In a famous scene of the Adiparwa, the gods and demons get together to churn the World Mountain in the World Sea. Each group goes to a side of the mountain and ties a rope around it. This rope is the great serpent Basuki. The churning produces wonderous things, including the amerta, the elixir of life, but one of the demons, Kala Rahu (Rau), steals it and starts to drink it before the others can act. Quickly, the god Wisnu (Vishnu) reacts by cutting off Rahu’s head with his famous discus, the cakra. However, the elixir reaches Rahu’s neck, so his head remains immortal and flies off into the sky.

The moment in which Rahu devours the moon goddess, Dewi Bulan, is depicted here as the lunar eclipse. Dewi Bulan or Wulan, governs spinning and weaving and is shown here with her spinning wheel. In addition to the demonic head devouring the moon, other demonic figures (called buta and kala in Bali) can be seen here hovering around as they accompany Rahu. Although originally the two were separate, in most Balinese traditions, Dewi Bulan is identified with Dewi Ratih, the goddess of love, who is the spouse of Semara.

This painting is a recent work from the village of Kamasan, in the Klungkung regency. This scene is found in both traditional—that is, older works in the style Balinese call “classic”—and modern art. Traditional art is based on the wayang, or shadow puppet theater, and the flatness of the figures and stylized nature of the iconography and gestures are a direct reference to the wayang. Most depictions in the classic style from the village of Kamasan show the lead-up to this scene, the conflict of the gods and the beheading of Kala Rahu, because Kamasan works pay closer attention to the Adiparwa story.

Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s associate Colin McPhee collected many works from Kamasan and other villages, which, through Mead, ended up in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in 1952. One of these works, which is in the style of the region of Gianyar rather than the village of Kamasan, includes the devouring scene as a continuation of the Adiparwa episode. It shows the churning of the world ocean at the bottom left and then the conflict of gods and demons, top left, in which Rahu is beheaded by Wisnu. The focus of that painting is Rahu attempting to devour the Moon Goddess. Rahu is accompanied by lightning, depicted as a group of flaming demonic heads, rather than the disjointed figures that represent demonic forces in the Kamasan work illustrated here.

In contrast to the classic style, modern images tend to depict the threat to the moon goddess in a single scene. Well-known examples include a work from the 1970s by Gusti Ketut Kobot, one of the masters of the central Balinese style identified with Ubud village. Kobot was continuing the mode of depiction already popular in the Ubud area in the 1930s, as shown in two almost identical works by I Dewa Nyoman Leper, one of the early Ubud artists. These works were collected by Bateson and Mead. They are distinctive because the demon’s head breaks through the halo of the moon goddess, and he has his teeth around her in a depiction that speaks of violent aggression. These works make the gendered meaning of the painting apparent.

A number of the modern works also show the impact of the eclipse by depicting dismayed villagers. One of the first artists to depict the mythological scene in the real world was I Made Griya of Ubud in a 1932 painting. That work was done at the time that Ubud was becoming known as a center for the arts. More recent works show the full nature of the ill-omened event, as villagers attempt to ward off the harm with performances and ritual acts.

Given that this event was previously not shown in a single scene, it is likely that the depiction became popular in Ubud before spreading to other parts of the island in the 1930s. The recent Kamasan work was most likely influenced by the Ubud paintings.

One clear example of the spread of the theme from Ubud to other parts of Bali, is a work from the 1940s or 1950s by I Sukarya, one of the masters of the Sanur school of painting, from the coastal village in the south. Again, in that work, the moon goddess is almost swallowed by the demonic head. The image of eating is reminiscent of scenes from other narratives, notably the Sutasoma, where a demon devours a semi-divine hero but is defeated by the power of the hero and must regurgitate him, in an act identified with exorcism or purification, of changing the being (matemahan=metamorphosis) from demonic to divine.

Adrian Vickers is professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. His books include Bali: A Paradise Created (2012) and Balinese Art: Paintings and Drawings 1800–2010 (2012).