Secrets of Bali:
New Light on the Morning of the World
2010, 312 pp., 110 line drawings, 1 map, glossary, bibliography, index, 21.5 x 14 cm., softcover.
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-118-3 $30.00
(E-book edition $11.99)
Book review by Michael Hitchcock
(IMI University Centre, Switzerland)
(In ASEASUK News 50, Autumn 2011)
This is the second time that I have been asked to comment on this book as my positive assessment of the pre-publication draft appears in the foreword of the published version. However, what I did not have chance to examine was the overall appearance of the book and, in particular the charming and very accurate line drawings. What I wrote in my original review was that fortunately for the reader Secrets of Bali was not in the slightest bit secretive and that the outcome was an accessible and wide ranging guide to the island’s culture and history. I also noted that the casual reader could dip into it to answer specific questions, while an enthusiast could read the book from cover to cover with equal pleasure. My viewpoint has not changed with publication, but what has is my realisation that the addition of the drawings brings a whole new feel to the book.
The drawings rely on spare outlines, sometimes with shading, and remind me of the illustrations that were once common in ethnographic treatises until the rise of inexpensive photography and in particular digital photographs. By the early 1990s electronic drawings and diagrams were also becoming quite common in ethnographies of Southeast Asia and it appeared that the hand drawn illustration had largely fallen into abeyance, though I included line drawings alongside photographs in my book on Bima, Sumbawa (Hitchcock, 1996). What this volume shows us is that the drawing is far from obsolescent as an analytical and communicative aid since it guides the eye to key elements of material culture in a way that the photograph cannot. This author is well aware that this kind of debate has been around since the 19th century, but it is refreshing to consider it in the context of a user friendly compendium on Balinese culture in the 21st century.
The drawings work because they focus on key details much in the way that a limited depth of field excludes visual confusion in photography. We may liken this to the very helpful observation by Clifford Geertz (1973), namely that one of the ways of interpreting culture is through the use of what he termed ‘thick description’. The drawings in Secrets of Bali work in a similar way as they provide us with insights that strengthen our understanding alongside a well informed text. Geertz was largely thinking of ‘thick description’ in terms of the written word and he was writing before the rise of the critical debates on visual anthropology that appeared in the 1980s. Interestingly, the drawing seemed to slide out of these debates, though it has a very long history in the interpretation of culture. This book serves therefore to remind us that hand drawings can do certain things that other media cannot do so well and this is particularly the case with regard to mythology. The artist can, for example, imagine what a demon or a goddess might look like thus providing the reader with the fullest possible insight. A drawing can also lay out the intentionality of a site’s design revealing very clearly the orientation of great temples such as Pura Besakih, something that this reviewer has tried very hard to capture in photography with limited success. The drawing is not a substitute for the written word in ethnography and what makes this book a delight is how the two work together so well to provide an accessible and very accurate overview of Balinese culture. I would imagine that like one of its forerunners, Miguel Covarrubias’ Island of Bali, which also makes widespread use of drawings, Secrets of Bali will be around for some time. It is a delightful and highly informative book, and it is a pleasure to have this review copy.
Covarrubias, M. (1937) Island of Bali, New York: Knopf (Reprinted by Periplus Editions 1999)
Geertz, C. (1973) The interpretation of culture, New York : Basic Books
Hitchcock, M. (1996) Islam and identity in eastern Indonesia, Hull: Hull University Press
[Read a review from the Bali Advertiser]
[Read a review from Tropical Life Magazine]
[Read a review from Hello Bali Magazine]
[Read a review from The South China Morning Post]
[Read a review from Bali & Beyond]
[Read another review from the Bali Advertiser]
[Read a review from The Bali Times]
[Read a review from The Jakarta Post]
[Read about the remarkable life of co-author Murni]
[More Orchid Press Reviews]