We took our second trip to Bali last June, and I finally got to visit the town of Mas – Bali’s ancient mask carving village near Ubud. Balinese mask making is steeped in history and tradition. Before a man can become a carver, he must go through a purification ceremony and understand the rituals associated with the sacred masks.
We had the good fortune to visit legendary mask maker Ida Bagus Anom who has a workshop in Mas. Born in 1953, Anom lives in the same compound where his ancestors have lived more than 700 years. He learned the art of mask making from his father Ida Bagus Ketut Gelodog who also passed on the traditions of dancing and puppetry.
IB Anom is a local legend – his traditional masks are used by Topeng dancers and pantomimes all over Bali. He is also known internationally and was featured in National Geographic’s 1989 documentary “Bali: Masterpiece of the Gods”.
Sacred Balinese Barong masks are made from the pule tree. A ceremony is done asking permission of the tree’s spirit, to use the wood for a mask. The sacred aspects of the mask come from the wood, the consecrated mask maker, magic letters inscribed into the mask, and a ceremony which bestows the mask with spirit power. This process can take up to four months. Most villages in Southern Bali have at least one Barong mask in their temple.
In his 1937 book “Island of Bali,” Miguel Covarrubias wrote that masks used in the Barong dance, “have great power in themselves and are kept out of sight in a special shed in the death temple of the village. They are put away in a basket, wrapped in magic cloth that insulates their evil vibrations, and are uncovered only when actually in use, when the performer-medium is in a trance and under the control of a priest.”
The masks IB Anom carves are also made from the pule tree, whose wood is flexible enough to be shaped into a mask and light enough to wear on the face. Each mask has over 40 coats of paint (20 coats, sanded and then another 20 coats) and takes several weeks to construct.
Unpainted masks are used for decoration (not for dancing). They are mostly made from waru wood which is a kind of hibiscus known for its variation in wood grain.
In 2001, Anom was invited to Japan to train with one of Japan’s greatest mask makers. This visit transformed his work as evidenced by this mask of Javanese Queen Gunapriya Dharmapatni (married to King Udayana Warmadewa and mother of Anak Wungsu who famously ruled over a very peaceful and prosperous time in Bali 1049 – 1077 AD). This mask was painted using matte Japanese paints (as compared to the shiny lacquer of traditional Balinese masks).
For a more in depth study of Balinese masks, check out “Balinese Masks – Spirits of an Ancient Drama”. It is a nice introduction to this rich tradition and has many beautiful pictures.
To find Ida Bagus Anom go to the town of Mas (near Ubud) and look for his workshop on the edge of a football field on the main road. Beware of artists with similar names. (Ida Bagus, for example, is the name of male members in a particular Hindu caste.) However a reputable taxi driver should be able to find Anom’s famous workshop quite easily.