Bali Sacred and Secret by Gill Marais

Author and photographer Gill Marais is a world-traveling photojournalist of long standing. She began her career with SIPA Press in Paris, specializing in the field of culture, medicine and travel. Her book about travels with a Tibetan doctor, The Amchi, has been published in France, England and India.

Born in South Africa, she married a French diplomat and made France her home for over forty years. Marais’s work has taken her through North America, North Africa, Kenya, the Middle East, Europe, Russia, India, Pakistan, China and South East Asia.

I am convinced that her 2006 photo book, Bali Sacred and Secret, is a token of a passionate gratitude to Bali. The work is a distillation in text and photos of 17 years of privileged access to both the daily life and sacred ceremonies of the Balinese people. As one leafs through the cavalcade of riveting images, one is impressed by the author’s humility and sensitivity.

Gill Marais is an old Bali hand who has counted among her mentors, sponsors, friends and neighbors some of the great contemporary names in Balinese scholarship and spiritual and cultural leadership: Linda Garland, Lorne Blair, Jean Couteau, Diana Darling, Michel Picard, Rucina Ballinger, Leonard Leuras, Ratu Ida Pedanda and Balian Usada Tjokorda Rai of Negeri, to name just a few.

The woman’s privileged connections explains how she was able to penetrate the inner sanctums of temples, to gain access to sacred events, and to enlist the trust of her subjects. The author would sleep in temples, endure rains and mud, fleas and red ants, heat and cramps as well as undergo numerous equipment and technical failures to get her shots. Without her friends’ guidance, doors would not have opened and hundreds of these precious images would never have seen the light of day.

The spontaneous, insider feel of the photos are mindful of an all-time great master of candid photography, the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), who was to also leave a enduring photojournalistic record of his visits to Indonesia and Bali during the time of the country’s newly won independence. Being French herself, I posit that Marais was also influenced by the technique of “street photography” that Cartier-Bresson developed.

It was Cartier-Bresson who said that when you’re taking a photograph of another person, you are really taking a photograph of yourself. This is evident in his “street” portraits where his subjects allow their inner natures to be revealed and who so obviously and disarmingly trust the photographer. In Marais’s work is Bresson’s “velvet hand but with the eye of an eagle” technique at its best.

Published by Bali’s own Saritaksu Editions, this full color coffee table picture book also serves as an invitation and challenge for those who visit Bali to delve beyond the veneer of commercial tourism to see the depths of a living culture.

It is obvious from the photographs that the Balinese have carefully maintained their ability to be finely attuned to God and to the realm of nature through traditions both sacred and secret that supercharge the island with so much spiritual energy.

The images portray a kaleidoscope of uniquely Balinese experiences and enviroments. A good many are of sights seldom seen nowadays in Bali, revealing a mystical world of theatre, magic and ritual. There are rare scenes of women bathing, tooth filings, chaotic rites, musicians playing gamelan, people worshipping, laughing, eating, dancing, posing in costumes. There are vignettes of death and cremation, of men fighting cocks, of performers grimacing or radiating serenity while deep in trance.

The first chapter, The Setting, is devoted to Bali’s physical setting, its convoluted landscapes and surrounding seas. There are haunting tableau of misty temples, valleys, rice fields, mountains and rivers as well as the island’s back lanes, yards and hollows where you can almost hear the cocks crow and dogs bark as day begins.

There are dramatic depictions of Bali’s extravagant ornamentation, handicrafts and arts, shots of the aboriginal Bali Aga, of the Hindu priest class, the quiet dignity old people, of family life, children, teachers, farmers, shamans, painters, sculptors, wayang puppeteers. One extraordinary photograph shows a prince proudly riding atop his mother’s cremation tower on its way to the sea for the queen’s second burial, the happiest day of her life.

The “secret” in the title alludes to the immutable, underlying, often unseen forces of Balinese culture. In Bali, the sacred is given form that is visible and tangible, whereas the secret remains invisible to those who either ignore or deny its existence and have no reverence for the dimension that transcends the world of appearances and disorder in daily life.

In the hands of such a skilled photographer and writer, one is reminded that what intrigues us the most about Bali are its people. The book’s remarkable panorama of images are also a reminder that this island and its culture are utterly unique, adaptive and resilient.

Bali Sacred & Secret by Gill Marais, Saritaksu Editions 2006, ISBN 979-96975-8-1, 248 pages, boxed, 29.75 cm x 27.30 cm, epilogue, bibliography, acknowledgements.

Available for Rp800,000 in Ubud at Ganesha and Ary’s bookshop, Buddha & Silk, Rendezvousdoux, Ubud Musik, IBAH Luxury Villas, Komaneka Fine Art Gallery, Alila Hotel, Pasifika Museum, Villa Semana; in Peliatan at the ARMA Museum and Gemala Jewelry; in Sanur at Kopi Bali House & Bali Hyatt Drugstore; in Kuta at Gramedia in the Bali Galleria.

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