Commemorate a year of Ni Rondji's died

Love in the time of fantasy

by : 
Janet DeNeefe 

I thought I would continue my journey down memory lane, of Ubud personalities and culture-crossed lovers.
Drumroll, thrust aside the red velvet curtains and voila. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Antonio Blanco and his wife, Ni Ketut Ronji.
In Ubud, Antonio Blanco needs little introduction and is perhaps Ubud's most famous international artist, after the likes of Walter Spies and Bonnet. Blanco has affectionately been called the Dali of Bali and indeed he was! During the *70s, when I first visited
Ubud, a visit to Blanco's gallery was a must, not only for his famous erotic art but also for the Blanco floor show. Wearing a beret and dramatic clothing, he was every bit the artist and more.
Blanco was born and raised in the Philippines by his Italian mother and Spanish father. After graduating, he moved to New York to study at the National Academy of Art. It was here that he developed his legendary skills in portraiture. "In New York I was slavishly studying nature, trying to create a foundation for Antonio Blanco."
Art was not the only thing Blanco was studying. In no time at all he had fallen in love with a fellow student and after a short time was married. The year was 1948.
Not one to be tied down, Blanco's boundless spirit of adventure beckoned him to other parts of America and eventually to the islands.
He landed in Hawaii with his wife, eager to paint. It was here that his love affair with his young wife drew to a close.
Blanco quickly immersed himself in island life and all the trappings, if you know what I mean. "I got roped in with beautiful Hawaiian girls. I cannot live without women. The fragrance of a woman's body; I lust after and require that." C'est la vie!
The dashing Blanco set sail again with the gusto of Errol Flynn. He was determined to visit Bali after reading Covarrubias's, The Island of Bali, but, by a strange turn of events, only made it as far as Japan.
After a year of tea ceremonies and, umm, romance, in Tokyo, Blanco continued his island-hopping and finally landed in Bali, the land of his dreams. He arrived without a penny, on the dry, bedraggled shores of Singaraja, the island's northern port, circa 1952. "It didn't look like the real Bali, the Bali I had been called to see."
A fellow passenger, sensing Blanco's despair or maybe it was his forlorn "where are all the pretty girls" look, urged him to accompany him to Ubud, to no less than the Ubud Palace. In the palace grounds at Puri Saren, Blanco felt instantly at home and moved in.
His gracious host, Tjokorda Agung Saren Sukawati, treated him with a generous dose of Balinese hospitality and Blanco was duly impressed. Who wouldn't be!
There is no doubt that Blanco had his fair share of charm. He was dashing, debonair and talented. He felt very much at ease in this verdant artist's colony. Blanco stayed at the Palace as a guest of the royal family until one auspicious day when he went for a stroll through the village with the Tjok Agung Saren at dusk.
An enormous full moon bathed the town in a soft, romantic light. They reached the land where Blanco's house now stands. This place would be wonderful for a home and studio, said Blanco. "It is for you: Do it, as I own the land!"
Once it was settled, a local team gathered with plans to build a simple bamboo hut. (Villas were unheard of then!). Stones were brought from the river bed to lay the foundation for the new rustic abode. Imagine the sight, of the charismatic Blanco, lazing in the grass, watching a stream of young topless beauties carrying piles of stones from the Tjampuhan River to the building site. "One of the girls was so beautiful, that I became totally obsessed with her."
Enter Ni Made Ronji. Ronji was the builder's young daughter whose home was near Blanco's land in Penestanan. She was 16 years old at the time, Blanco was 30.
Once the house was built, Ronji began working for Blanco. In the mornings, she would bring him simple rice cakes filled with pumpkin and would then clean the house, under the watchful gaze of the young artist. Ever so slowly he coaxed her to become his model. She became his friend, his inspiration. In time, they fell in love.
A year later, in 1955, they married.
Sitting in the caf* overlooking the Tjampuhan valley on the grounds of the Blanco museum, I chatted to Ibu Ronji. Even in her late 70s, she is still a classic beauty and exceedingly elegant. I asked about her wedding all those years ago.
"My uncle didn't approve. He wanted to lock me up. But my brother wanted me to marry Blanco."
"How about your mother," I asked, knowing only too well how a Balinese mother is not someone you want to upset.
"Meme always told me I must take care of myself." A woman of vision, you might say.
Blanco and Ronji each had their creative desires. He required time to paint while she insisted on learning Balinese dance. On remaining Hindu, there was no bargaining either. Ronji was committed to the family, the culture.
Shortly after they married, Ronji began learning the Oleg Tambulingan dance with the renowned Antonio from Tabanan, her elegance further highlighted by Antonio's careful choreography. They hired a tutor, and she began taking classes for she had never been to school.
Theirs was a passionate love affair and there is no doubt they were a handsome couple. Spark and fireworks flew when they were together. Ronji was the perfect match for Blanco's theatrical outbursts.
My husband, Ketut, remembers the verbal outbursts they used to have when he was a young boy. "Blanco was very kind to us," Ketut recalled, "He always let us play in his garden and gave us chocolates to eat!" Trained as a magician, he was also famous for his magic tricks.
What was Blanco like to live with? I asked. "He was a poet; romantic and eccentric. He had a quick mind and always had plenty of ideas." Ronji reminisced.
The world opened up for the young girl from Penestanan. All the world's a stage, after all. They became friends of Bonnet, Le Mayeur and president Sukarno, who issued Blanco with a permanent residency in Indonesia. They travelled to Singapore, Japan, Hawaii and then America, where they lived for a few years, before returning to Bali.
Wherever they went, Ronji looked glorious, wearing a kebaya and a sarong." Blanco insisted," she said. "He was proud I was Balinese.
"I didn't have to create fantasies, I lived them," stated Blanco of his early wedded years. The fantasy continued. They returned to Bali and slowly established Blanco's gallery. Four children were born: Tjempaka, Orchid, Antonio and Maha Devi.
Guests filed into the Blanco museum to see the famous couple. Ingrid Bergman, John Steinbeck, Koo Stark (remember her) and countless others. The walls of the gallery are a journal of all the rich and famous who visited.
On a trip to Singapore in the *80s, they met Michael Jackson. They met presidents, politicians and actors all vying to buy some of his celebrated whimsical artwork, set in their equally celebrated frames.
If Ronji was his muse, she eventually became his manager, running the museum and all the other duties a beautiful artist's model must juggle.
Blanco painted right up until his death in 1999. He was 88. And while he might be gone, he is certainly not forgotten. His spirit still lives in the grounds of the Blanco museum.