Beguiling Bandung

The capital of West Java brims with culture and art

By: By Gary Bowerman

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Like most picturesque journeys, the first part of the road from Jakarta to Bandung is flat and uninteresting. But as Indonesia’s capital dissolves into memory, the highway climbs toward volcanic pinnacles that guard over deep, forested valleys covered in rice paddies. Pastel cottages with terra-cotta roofs glint in the midday sun, coloring the hills. Then, as the road winds upward, the rice fields give way to a more luscious crop, assam tea.

Child musicians play Javanese folk tunes for travelers. // (c) Gary Bowerman
Child musicians play Javanese folk tunes for travelers.

The hillside city of Bandung is growing fast, yet it retains its small-town charm. Broad avenues are flanked by handsome European trees, and the downtown area boasts one of Asia’s most impressive collections of art deco buildings.

After touring the art deco district and admiring the grand, white Dutch municipal buildings in the center of downtown, clients should grab a cab and head north to the NuArt Sculpture Park. Opened in 2000, it is the home, studio, garden and showcase of Indonesia’s most famous sculptor, Nyoman Nuarta.

The approximately 7½-acre park is filled with twisting rubber trees, sloping lawns and a grand manor house decorated with marble staircases and broad balconies. But the prize attractions are Nuarta’s bold copper and brass sculptures. An incisive social commentator as well as an artist, Nuarta’s works express his thoughts on local and global issues. The NuArt Sculpture Park contains works that span his career, including artistic depictions of life under Indonesia’s former military dictatorship and the Chinese practice of cutting off living sharks’ fins to make soup.

Travelers can often find Nuarta working at NuArt on one of two bold projects that are currently making headlines across Asia. In Bali, he is creating one of the world’s largest statues, the Garuda Wisnu Kencana. Standing 475 feet high and weighing 3,000 tons, the ornate sculpture features a Wisnu deity bestriding an eagle on a giant stone plinth. Already, it has occupied 17 years of Nuarta’s life, and remains only one-third finished.

The Wisnu sculpture is currently under construction in a reclaimed quarry in Bali. But if clients stop by the NuArt Sculpture Park, they may see Nuarta working on another mammoth project, as I did. I was fortunate enough to have the amiable, gray-haired sculptor show me around his garden, and explain his pride and joy — a sculpture of a giant head.

"This," he said with a glint in his eye, "is the head of Noah."

Nuarta’s latest project is destined for central Tapanuli, Sumatra, where he will shape a 196-foot, open-armed statue of the biblical figure, Noah, that will stand atop an ark-shaped hotel. The Noah’s Ark project will sit atop a jungle-clad cliff overlooking the bay. Nuarta hopes to create an iconic image for Sumatra, similar to the Christ the Redeemer statute in Rio de Janeiro.

Across the city, a contrasting cultural highlight is the Saung Angklung Udjo center. Set across a cluster of thatched West Javanese bamboo houses and gardens filled with rubber trees, the center was set up by a local musician in 1966. Today, just as when it was opened, Saung Angklung Udjo functions as a cultural museum, arts center and a place for musical education and performance.

There, children from across West Java are taught to play and perform the angklung, a traditional Indonesian instrument made from bamboo (best described as a cross between a harp and a set of Andean pan pipes). When the students have achieved a graduated level of musicianship, they perform for visitors, and I had the chance to experience their talents on a recent visit.

It was mid-afternoon when a young orchestra of angklung players gave an energetic concert of traditional Javanese folk tunes. To charm the tourists, the child musicians even threw in a few quirky covers of American pop songs. The rhythmic adaptability of the angklung and the quality of teaching at the center has resulted in the orchestra performing across Asia, Europe and North America. A future tour is planned for South America.

At the end of the concert, the children, each dressed in colorful costumes, took audience members by the hand and led us on stage. As a tropical rainstorm lashed against the thatched roof, we danced a nervy jig together. Despite the inclement weather, Bandung beguiled us to the very end.