Wayang: How to Paint a Legend

One of the last masters of the Balinese art is ready to pass on the secrets of his craft.

In January 1973, after three days in Bali, I found a small house to live in near Ubud. That first week, local families welcomed me to temple festivals where I stayed up till 4 a.m. watching masked dance and shadow-puppet theater (wayang kulit). I understood nothing. I was heading home after thousands of miles of sailing, but I could not leave. Bali had me.

This fall, all that the island gave me returns with the exhibition “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting,” opening at the Museum Puri Lukisan on October 7. While the show, which I am guest-curating, includes pieces by a dozen artists who painted Balinese Hindu myths and legends over the last century, it especially honors the work of the brilliant wayang painter I met 40 years ago. Madra’s art, now as then, releases and refreshes the old, great stories that nourish the spiritual heart of Bali.

I bought my first Balinese painting in March 1973 off the living-room wall of a young art dealer and the next day arrived on Ketut Madra’s doorstep. Over coffee, we began a conversation about his work and the legends of Bali that continued for the next nine months and has carried on ever since.

Before I left that day, Madra described the painting I’d just bought: “The young white monkey Hanuman, long before he acquires all his magical powers and becomes the leader of the monkey army in the Ramayana, is told by his nymph mother to seek only the reddest, ripest fruit. He awakes early the next morning hungry, and the largest, reddest fruit he has ever seen is before his eyes. He leaps to the horizon and tries to eat the rising sun. Sang Hyang Surya, god of the sun, warns him not to burn his mouth.”

For the rest of the year, I visited Madra at least two or three times a week. He often recalled being transfixed by the ancient stories he first saw through flickering light and shadows. At five, he always accompanied his musician father to the shadow-puppet theater at temple ceremonies. The boy saw the leather puppets playing gods and demons not in silhouette, like the rest of the crowd, but from behind the screen, within the intimate circle of performers who made the magic happen.

He learned wayang painting from Tjokorda Gambir, who had been one of the first Balinese to experiment in the 1930s with applying the materials, styles and subjects of European pastoral and romantic realism to Balinese themes. But Gambir abandoned the new ways and returned to the wayang traditions of Bali’s epic myths.

Madra often notes that while “there is room for great originality in wayang art, it also has exacting rules.” One must draw scores of individual characters’ faces and bodies correctly, paying close attention to iconography and costumes and to conventions that govern gradations of skin color and shapes of eyes and mouths and even teeth.

By the time he was 30, Madra was making his living and building a reputation as a skilled and original wayang artist. Indonesian and international collectors, attracted to his confident line, balanced design, sometimes-exuberant colors and attention to detail, were also captivated by the stories.

The painting of Hanuman and Surya displays Madra’s technique. He begins in pencil. When satisfied with the image, he inks the outline using a sharp bamboo point and then, with a stiff, fibrous bamboo edge, adds shading to enhance detail. Color, if needed, comes last. With simplicity, elegance and narrative power, he seizes a moment in a far longer story, evoking what comes before and after the scene he paints.

“All these stories,” he says, “are intensely familiar. Deciding what to draw and how is harder than the act of painting.”

This is just as true whether he is creating a modern interpretation of a wayang legend for a collector in Jakarta, Tokyo or Paris or painting the same story as an altarpiece for a local temple. There are few Balinese artists today who do both, and none exceeds Madra’s skill.

“Shadow theater is not as popular as it was. With TV and the Internet, young people often lack patience,” says Madra, now in his mid-seventies. He hopes the October exhibition will show “there is still a future in [wayang painting]. There are shadow-puppet masters who know these stories. If a girl or boy has the passion to make this art, I could still teach them.”

“Ketut Madra and 100 Years of Balinese Wayang Painting” runs October 7 to November 7 at the Museum Puri Lukisan; Jl Raya Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia; ketutmadra.wordpress.com.