Bali’s elaborate masks provide a connection to the gods

Carrying the face of Patih Manis (above), a personality in Bali’s dance dramas, means greater than merely placing on a tapel, or masks.

“Once you dance with a tapel and carry out its character, you endure a change,” says I Made Bandem, a scholar and professor of Balinese arts—and a dancer for seven a long time. “It’s essential to ‘marry’ that masks and make ritual choices to create unity between your self and the tapel. Many dancers will sleep with the masks beside them, in order that they’ll be taught its true character.”

Hand-carved tapel are integral to Topeng Pajegan and Topeng Panca, dance dramas typically held at temple festivals and household rituals throughout this Indonesian island. The masks, together with elaborate costumes, hypnotic music, and staccato actions—typically solely of the fingers—have enchanted Balinese audiences because the seventeenth century.

The tales staged in Pajegan and Panca inform the historical past of the Balinese folks, and the characters by no means change: Their look, actions, roles, and even the order during which they emerge stay the identical. But despite this construction, topeng depart room for an excessive amount of inventive freedom. With no script and no prescribed musical association, all the efficiency (which may final round 4 hours) shall be an improvisation—dancers and musicians drawing cues from each other.

Bali has a wealthy legacy of performing arts, and the earliest report of masks dances on the island dates again to A.D. 896. The assorted types of dance, gamelan (a conventional ensemble), and shadow puppetry every have their very own operate, probably the most fundamental of which is to please the deities, and whereas they’re integral to spiritual ceremonies, some performances and varieties of dramas are thought-about extra sacred than others.

“Many of the dances that vacationers watch—just like the okecak dance at Uluwatu Temple and the barong vacationer model in Batubulan—are usually not the sacred ones,” says Brazilian performer Allegra Ceccarelli, who has studied Balinese dance and tradition below a number of the island’s most revered masters since 2015. “You’ll solely be capable to see actually sacred dances should you go to an actual temple ceremony, the place there are such a lot of features that contribute to the non secular efficiency. When a dance is taken out of the ritual setting, it turns into only a dance.”

Right here’s how you can delve deeper into this quintessential Balinese artwork type.

The spirit of the masks

“Each sacred masks carved right here in Bali has its personal spirit,” says acclaimed sixth-generation maskmaker Ida Bagus Anom Suryawan. “If the masks dancer has noticed the entire mandatory choices and ceremonies, they usually have been disciplined of their coaching, then when a dancer places on the masks for a efficiency, their physique will often grow to be a medium for the spirit.”

Suryawan, who can also be a masks dancer and expert puppeteer, works on his carving on the veranda of his residence close to Ubud. The city lies midway between Bali’s volcanic peaks and the ocean, and is commonly described because the island’s cultural and inventive heartland.

(From piñatas to masks, papier-mâché crafts carry the get together in Mexico.)

Regardless of the city’s recognition with vacationers, the air round Ubud continues to be typically laced with delicate tendrils of incense, and the sidewalks are scattered with canang sari, the floral choices made day by day to the Hindu gods. Ubud’s streets—full of autos and vacationers—are lined with jewellery shops, artwork stalls, clothes boutiques, and retailers promoting wood sculptures. Cubicles promote tickets for performances of the kecak “hearth dance” or mystical barong dance. Tucked away behind intricately carved partitions, enchanting galleries home works by a number of the island’s most revered artists.

Whereas quite a few artists have now turned their inherited crafts right into a income supply, the artwork and performances that till nearly a century in the past have been nearly all the time created just for ritual functions nonetheless stay integral to Balinese Hindu society. To the Balinese folks, a sacred masks, for instance, is way over a decorative piece of timber, and a masked dance will not be merely a spellbinding spectacle. Each present a method to attach with the gods and ancestors, and provide a dwelling, respiratory union with niskala, the unseen world.

“Ceremonies, which should embrace participation in music and dance, are nonetheless very a lot part of our lives,” says Bandem.

The cultural heart of Bali

Traditionally the royal households of Bali’s 9 kingdoms served as patrons of the humanities, and there have been thriving facilities all throughout the island. However by early final century, when many of the kingdoms had fallen to Dutch colonizers, a lot of Bali’s artists, sculptors, and designers had discovered refuge in Gianyar, the dominion—now regency—to which Ubud belongs. By the Thirties Ubud had cemented its repute as Bali’s inventive heart.

Ubud Palace is a outstanding place to start to discover the city’s inventive heritage. Museums like Neka, Puri Lukisan, and Agung Rai Museum of Artwork (ARMA) show extraordinary works by Bali’s celebrated conventional and modern artists. The magnificent—but little visited—Setia Darma Home of Masks and Puppets has amassed an unbelievable assortment of 1,300 masks and 5,700 puppets.

(Meet the final artists crafting a royal Thai treasure.)

Lots of the cities surrounding Ubud stay acknowledged strongholds for a selected craft. Batubulan, for instance, is nicely regarded for stone sculptures, Celuk for gold and silver jewellery. Singapadu is thought for its legendary dancers and musicians, Batuan for its dancing and intricately detailed work.

Mas, the village during which maskmaker Suryawan lives, is widely known for the expert wood-carvers who’ve handed their custom down by way of generations. Suryawan—like many different craftsmen within the village—welcomes guests into his residence studio to be taught carving or browse his creations on the on-site Astina Masks Gallery.

“I’m grateful to my forefathers for sharing their data with me,” Suryawan says. “And now, to maintain the tradition and traditions alive, it’s my flip—and my honor—to share it with others.”

Narina Exelby is a contract journey author who spends nearly all of her time in Southeast Asia and southern Africa. Discover her on Substack and Instagram.

A model of this story seems within the April 2023 challenge of Nationwide Geographic journal.

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