Bali’s elaborate masks offer a connection to the gods
Costumed dances and visits with artisans reveal the complex culture and traditional crafts of the Indonesian island.
Wearing the face of Patih Manis (above), a character in Bali’s dance dramas, means more than simply putting on a tapel, or mask.
“When you dance with a tapel and perform its character, you undergo a transformation,” says I Made Bandem, a scholar and professor of Balinese arts—and a dancer for seven decades. “You must ‘marry’ that mask and make ritual offerings to create unity between yourself and the tapel. Many dancers will sleep with the mask beside them, so that they can learn its true character.”
Hand-carved tapel are integral to Topeng Pajegan and Topeng Panca, dance dramas often held at temple festivals and family rituals across this Indonesian island. The masks, along with elaborate costumes, hypnotic music, and staccato movements—sometimes only of the fingers—have enchanted Balinese audiences since the 17th century.
The stories staged in Pajegan and Panca tell the history of the Balinese people, and the characters never change: Their appearance, movements, roles, and even the order in which they emerge remain the same. Yet in spite of this structure, topeng leave room for a great deal of artistic freedom. With no script and no prescribed musical arrangement, the entire performance (which can last around four hours) will be an improvisation—dancers and musicians drawing cues from one another.
Bali has a rich legacy of performing arts, and the earliest record of mask dances on the island dates back to A.D. 896. The various forms of dance, gamelan (a traditional ensemble), and shadow puppetry each have their own function, the most basic of which is to please the deities, and while they are integral to religious ceremonies, some performances and types of dramas are considered more sacred than others.
“Most of the dances that tourists watch—like the kecak dance at Uluwatu Temple and the barong tourist version in Batubulan—are not the sacred ones,” says Brazilian performer Allegra Ceccarelli, who has studied Balinese dance and culture under some of the island’s most revered masters since 2015. “You will only be able to see truly sacred dances if you go to a real temple ceremony, where there are so many aspects that contribute to the spiritual performance. When a dance is taken out of the ritual environment, it becomes just a dance.”
Here’s how to delve deeper into this quintessential Balinese art form.
The spirit of the mask
“Every sacred mask carved here in Bali has its own spirit,” says acclaimed sixth-generation maskmaker Ida Bagus Anom Suryawan. “If the mask dancer has observed all of the necessary offerings and ceremonies, and they have been disciplined in their training, then when a dancer puts on the mask for a performance, their body will usually become a medium for the spirit.”
Suryawan, who is also a mask dancer and skilled puppeteer, works on his carving on the veranda of his home near Ubud. The town lies halfway between Bali’s volcanic peaks and the sea, and is often described as the island’s cultural and artistic heartland.
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Despite the town’s popularity with travelers, the air around Ubud is still often laced with delicate tendrils of incense, and the sidewalks are scattered with canang sari, the floral offerings made daily to the Hindu gods. Ubud’s streets—packed with vehicles and tourists—are lined with jewelry stores, art stalls, clothing boutiques, and shops selling wooden sculptures. Booths sell tickets for performances of the kecak “fire dance” or mystical barong dance. Tucked away behind intricately carved walls, enchanting galleries house works by some of the island’s most revered artists.
While numerous artists have now turned their inherited crafts into a revenue source, the art and performances that until almost a century ago were almost always created only for ritual purposes still remain integral to Balinese Hindu society. To the Balinese people, a sacred mask, for example, is far more than an ornamental piece of timber, and a masked dance is not simply a spellbinding spectacle. Both provide a means to connect with the gods and ancestors, and offer a living, breathing union with niskala, the unseen world.
“Ceremonies, which must include participation in music and dance, are still very much a part of our lives,” says Bandem.
The cultural center of Bali
Historically the royal families of Bali’s nine kingdoms served as patrons of the arts, and there were thriving centers all across the island. But by early last century, when most of the kingdoms had fallen to Dutch colonizers, many of Bali’s artists, sculptors, and architects had found refuge in Gianyar, the kingdom—now regency—to which Ubud belongs. By the 1930s Ubud had cemented its reputation as Bali’s creative center.
Ubud Palace is a remarkable place to begin to explore the town’s artistic heritage. Museums like Neka, Puri Lukisan, and Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) display extraordinary works by Bali’s celebrated traditional and contemporary artists. The magnificent—yet little visited—Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets has amassed an incredible collection of 1,300 masks and 5,700 puppets.
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Many of the towns surrounding Ubud remain recognized strongholds for a particular craft. Batubulan, for example, is well regarded for stone sculptures, Celuk for gold and silver jewelry. Singapadu is known for its legendary dancers and musicians, Batuan for its dancing and intricately detailed paintings.
Mas, the village in which maskmaker Suryawan lives, is celebrated for the skilled wood-carvers who have passed their tradition down through generations. Suryawan—like many other craftsmen in the village—welcomes visitors into his home studio to learn carving or browse his creations at the on-site Astina Mask Gallery.
“I am grateful to my forefathers for sharing their knowledge with me,” Suryawan says. “And now, to keep the culture and traditions alive, it is my turn—and my honor—to share it with others.”
What to Know
Neka Art Museum and Museum Puri Lukisan hold a range of art and cultural workshops, including mask painting, keris (ceremonial dagger) making, traditional painting, and Balinese dance.
Arma Museum hosts Kecak, Legon, and Barong dance performances three times a week; dance performances are held daily at Ubud Palace. Tickets available at the door.
Ganesha Bookshop and Neka Art Museum sell a comprehensive range of books about Balinese art and culture.
The Bali Arts Festival, the island’s biggest celebration of art and culture, will be held from June 18 to July 16, 2023.
A version of this story appears in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.