Waving or drowning?
PART of Bali’s inscrutability, and much of its charm, comes from its difficult language, Basa Bali. Few foreigners can understand it, and not all Balinese can speak it perfectly. Most Balinese will tell you that they can barely speak it at all. That’s being coy: Balinese is the mother tongue of most Balinese people. It’s the language of daily life, which famously includes a big component of religious practice, local law, and artistic production, all of which is conducted in Balinese.
More or less. There is a lot of concern about how Balinese can survive among a few million speakers under the dominance of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Many young Balinese children living in towns now speak Indonesian to each other. Is the Balinese language in trouble?
Balinese is a rich language with its own script and complex literary forms. It is also extraordinarily expressive. It can coo like a dove or grind like a garbage truck. Its range, and central difficulty, comes from its preoccupation with differences in rank, arising from Bali’s Hindu caste system. There are parallel vocabularies to distinguish the rank of the speakers and their relation to each other and to the people of whom they are speaking. A mistake in observing any of these distinctions by using the wrong word may be felt as an insult. Imagine, for example, that you are an elderly lady, and a stranger comes up and cheerfully shouts, “Hi there, you old bag!” The same effect may result if a Balinese chooses the wrong word for, say, “water”.
Caste has been a sensitive issue in Bali since the time of colonial rule, when the Dutch hardened caste divisions and gave privileges to the upper castes. In the Bali of modern, egalitarian Indonesia, some of the pressure on the Balinese language stems from a growing feeling that caste distinctions are obsolete.
But there is much else steering Balinese-speakers to Bahasa Indonesia. The press and the education system use Indonesian. Balinese who wish to participate in national discourse write in Indonesian. The human urge for progress creates a dilemma for Balinese who want to be part of modern life and still preserve their traditions, which are held to be vitally precious. Besides, the tourism industry creates an economic incentive for Balinese to learn English and other foreign languages. It is natural that many are concerned that the Balinese language may be under threat.
Among them is BASAbali, a non-profit organisation, which estimates that Balinese is now spoken by only one million of nearly four million Balinese (http://basabali.org). The initiative arose when BASAbali’s founder, Alissa Stern, found that there were no modern materials for studying Balinese. She decided to “bring together linguists, videographers, anthropologists, language software specialists, language teachers and others who could share their knowledge of Balinese and experience with language learning programs to create something that could help people learn Balinese, understand its richness, and carry forward its traditions” (http://baliadvertiser.biz/articles/feature/2011/red_flag.html).
On the other hand, I Nyoman Darma Putra, a prominent Balinese intellectual, writer, and professor of Indonesian literature at Udayana University, is optimistic about the future of Basa Bali. In an article “The Survival of the Balinese Language” (published in the Friesian journal It Beaken in 2008), he writes: “Although nowadays the use of Indonesian has expanded at various levels of society, in Bali this does not necessarily mean that the use of Balinese has declined or that the language has been abandoned. The reality is that over the last two decades both use and promotion of use of the Balinese language have increased spectacularly, a fact that suggests the dynamic experience of Bali being a bilingual society.”
Darma Putra points out that instruction in local languages is part of the curriculum of public education, although it is given only a few hours a week. Balinese-language literary productions are sponsored by the Bali Post and a number of publishing houses. There are conferences and literary contests concerned with the conservation of Balinese language.
But the most interesting development is “kidung interaktif” in which people call up radio stations and sing Balinese poetry over the phone.
This arises from the tradition of mabebasan, or literary recitation. Until recently, this was normally conducted by a small group of elderly men, for their own pleasure at someone’s home or as part of a religious ceremony. One person would sing a line of poetry, and another would interpret the line in Balinese in a highly stylized manner. After a while they might swap roles.
This very exacting practice — at which you’d never see a tourist — requires a number of skills besides being able to sing: one must be able to read Balinese script, understand Old Javanese, and know the numerous metres of the literary genres (kekawin, kidung, and geguritan). In the case of kekawin, one must also know Old Javanese (Kawi); kidung is written in Middle Javanese or Balinese, and geguritan is usually written in Balinese.
In kidung interaktif, anyone may ring up the radio (or television) station and sing a bit of Balinese poetry. The host at the station performs the interpretation. Otherwise, the same literary exigencies apply. But there is another important difference: the callers are also women and young people, and they are from all sorts of backgrounds: “farmers, money lenders, civil servants, school teachers, housewives, pensioners, retired police, petty traders, small scale entrepreneurs, shop owners, hotel owners and their employees, unemployed people and many others…” Moreover, they often sing their own compositions.
Kidung interaktif is wildly popular—so much so that, not long after it was introduced by the state radio station RRI Denpasar in 1991, there were so many callers that different towns in Bali were assigned specific days on which people could phone in. Broadcast time went from half an hour a week to up to four hours a day Monday through Saturday. Presently there are fifteen different kidung interaktif programs on a dozen radio stations. And the practice has spread to Bali’s three television stations.
All this suggests that Balinese is thriving in what is becoming a multilingual society.