There are two main types of woodcarving. Traditional carvings, in the
form of intricate bas-relief tableaux and plaques, are used mainly for
decorating doors, walls and columns. Small, highly standardized wooden
statues of deities and mythical heroes are also produced, designed for
use in public buildings. The second type is contemporary woodcarving, first
developed in the 1930s. Themes usually include highly stylized human or
animal figures, often grotesque, almost psychotic—expressing so well the
Balinese fear of the supernatural. These symbolic carvings evidence a very
strong, sensual feeling for nature.
For the most part, a purely souvenir variety of modern woodcarving is turned out now. Twenty or thirty talented and innovative artists have evolved their own distinctive styles, and—just as in Balinese painting—their successful creations are often assembly-line produced. Fortunately, the technical skill remains high. A dozen or so places in Mas, Kemenuh, and Sumampan, the principal woodcarving centers, sell high-quality carvings for as much as US$3500 apiece.
Some "galleries," like Ida Bagus Marka in Kemenuh, are actually large complexes of adjoining rooms containing carvings in all sizes, themes, and colors—from Rp30,000 to Rp10 million. But regardless of commercial orientation, all carvings share certain characteristics and techniques uniquely Balinese. Even the copyists work strictly within the self-imposed parameters of an established style. Virtually all woodcarvers and maskmakers accept special orders. Bring a photo or a picture of the piece you'd like copied.
In the times of Bali's old feudal kingdoms, woodcarving served as temple decoration and as the bale of the rajas. Wood was also utilized in such everyday household features as carved beams, columns, doors for houses, and implements like musical instruments, tool handles, bottle-stoppers, and hilts of kris. All these functional carvings were painted in bright colors, lacquer, or gold leaf; seldom was the wood left raw.
The 1930s, with the ever-increasing influx of tourists, saw a dramatic change in the perspective of Balinese wood sculptors. Shops, street corners, hotel lobbies, marketplaces, the airport, and harbors suddenly blossomed with objets d'art of an unequivocally commercial mold, produced to sell. In contrast to the traditional polychrome, mythological religious carvings, more realistic statues of peasants toiling, nude girls bathing and deer grazing appeared, themes that found a very ready market among the tourists. This mercenary impulse gave the art a terrific boost. An export market soon developed, which found Balinese statues turning up in Jakarta, Singapore, Paris.
One of the most striking milestones in modern Balinese sculpture was the emergence of the fluid form of figure sculpture with elongated arms and face, resembling the thinness of a Giacometti statue or a long-necked Modigliani. This style was born one day in 1930 when the artist I Tegelan of Belaluan was asked by Walter Spies to carve two statues from a long piece of wood. Several days later the carver returned with a single statue of a girl with an exaggeratedly lengthened torso. I Tegelan told the delighted Spies he refused to cut such a beautiful piece of wood in two. With Spies's encouragement and support, the abstract style soon caught on, and its appeal to carvers and tourists alike continues to this day.
During the highly creative 1930s, other techniques also developed. Competition gave rise to much experimentation. In the villages of Peliatan and Nyuhkuning (near Ubud), sculptors delicately carved animals and birds with either astounding realism or in caricature, distorting the features of a subject to heighten its special character. Often the Balinese artist mischievously sculpted a creature's face to resemble someone in the community—a stingy old man would be portrayed as a detestable beetle; a fat, ill-tempered woman as a waddling querulous duck.
One sculptor, I Tjokot, cleverly chiseled great whorls of demons, divinities, and other mythological characters out of thick tree branches, crafting his sculptures into benches, lamp supports, and trays. It's still easy to recognize I Tjokot's abiding earmark, most often hollowed-out tree stumps over one meter high. A few of this master's original works may be seen in Ubud's Puri Lukisan.
Another outstanding carver of modern times was Ida Bagus Njana of Mas, who created phantasmagoric abstract sculptures of human beings and surrealistic knotty "natural" sculptures out of gnarly tree trunks. Only small incisions on the surface indicated contours, the wavy grain of the wood contributing to the motion of the figure. Ida Bagus was also the progenitor of the fat statues of toads, elephants, and corpulent sleeping women you now see everywhere. Several of his carvings may be seen in Ubud's Museum. His son, Ida Bagus Tilem of Mas, is a talented sculptor in his own right and enjoys an international reputation.
Traditional-style pieces are still carved. These exotic, utterly imaginary compositions still hold a basic fascination for tourists: mythological characters like the great god Vishnu riding on the back of Garuda, a menacing demon brandishing a kris, and other immortal deities, villains, and legendary beasts from the Ramayana.
If you bargain, Balinese religious statues go for as low as Rp10,000. These free-standing sculptures once served as protective figures for households or as resting places for honored gods during prayer offerings and other ceremonies. Dressed in classical attire and profusely ornamented, you'll find Hanuman wrestling a serpent, a dancing Sita, and painted woodcarvings of a mythic bird to hang from your ceiling. Called "The Bird of Life," this motif is used in cremation ceremonies as the bearer of a deceased person's soul to heaven.
In Kuta, the starting price for large mythological statuary is Rp100,000, but the price will come down to Rp50,000 or less in the place where it's sculpted. The villages of Pujung, Jati, and Tegalalang, on the road from Ubud to Gunung Batur, are great places to wander around and meet carvers. Sebatu is another really active family-oriented woodcarving center (check out the huge elephants at Sedana Yogya by Iwy. Genjur). Nearly the whole population of these communities, including the children, are busy turning chunks of hibiscus, sawo, and belalu into technicolor sculptures of trees, fruit, flowers, flying angels, cartoon figures, or whatever. Prices are very reasonable (don't forget to take cash), and you'll see pieces hard to find in the high-priced factories of Mas and Kemenuh. If you want something made to order, it isn't a problem and will usually take about two weeks.
Some of Bali's best woodcarvers also come from the villages of Singakerta and Pengosekan, both walkable from Ubud. The best kodok work on the island can be found in these two villages. Batuan (near Ubud) is the place to shop for carved wood panels.
Buddha statues, still very much in vogue, come in two sizes: big ones Rp15,000, small ones Rp7000; old men and pedanda, Rp10,000; a grandmother and grandfather pair, Rp20,000. The singa (lion) motif is also seen widely. A unique collectible are lontar, the fan-like leaves of a species of palm tree. For hundreds of years sacred texts have been meticulously inscribed on these dried strips of palm, shaped like rulers. These masterpieces of illustrative art and calligraphy provide the only record of ancient Balinese culture, history, and literature.
Chess sets of carved teakwood (or bone) are also quite distinctive. Balinese wayang golek (puppets in-the-round) are larger than Javanese ones. First price is around Rp25,000, but you can get them down to Rp15,000 apiece. For carved chopsticks, some foot peddlers on Kuta ask as much as Rp8000 a pair, although you can get them as low as Rp3000-4000 a pair. They are beautifully carved with owl-head, abstract, or garuda designs. Whole box sets of 12 pairs go for only Rp15,000 first price. Don't pay more than Rp2000 a pair for low-end ones.
One abiding product is whole carved banana, durian, or coconut palm trees, colossally heavy and hanging with wooden fruit. It takes about a month to produce one of these two-meter-tall trees. The wood used is Albizzia falcata, which is easy to work with and readily available. Also found are giant wooden replicas of the "high offerings" which disassemble and fit solidly back together again. Fruits like rambutan and jackfruit come alive under the carver's skillful hands. The center for this type of carving is Tegallalang (Gianyar).
For something different, the more ancestral woodcarvings of the un-Javanized Bali Aga people of the uplands have a more primitive feel than those produced in the Hinduized portions of the island. To see traditional gamelan instrument makers carve ornate stands and frames for instruments, visit the workshop of Pak Gabeleran in Blahbatuh, and the gong kembar factory near the village of Tihingan, 10 km southwest of Klungkung.
Woodcarving is a skill requiring more precision and sureness than that of carving stone. The carver starts with a virgin block of wood which he hacks down to roughly the same size as the piece to be carved. Using very simple tools, the carver lightly taps the highly sharpened instruments. Unlike the technique used in the West, he does not use hand pressure except for really close work.
Fine-grained hardwoods such as teak (jati), and strong fruit trees such as jackfruit (nangka), the compact sawo (a beautiful dark red wood), shiny ebony (ebon), tamarind, hibiscus, frangipani, and kayu jepun are the most popular carving woods.
The texture of the grain determines the nature of the piece to be carved. Dark ebony, particularly pieces with striped grain, are best suited for vertical shapes or faces. Rarer are pieces made of unpolished ebony (sanded and brushed only) where you can make out the grain in the wood. The blackest ebony might be used to depict a subject of great dignity. Satinwood, a light striped, beige-colored wood native to Bali, may inspire pieces of a softer theme. The grain often follows a skin pattern or veins in the arms of the statue.
Traditionally, if the statue is not to be gilded or painted it is made smooth with pumice and given a high polish by rubbing it with bamboo. These finished carvings were once treated and stained with oils to achieve a pleasing subtle gloss, but now Balinese artisans find that neutral or black shoe polish produces much the same result with half the effort.
Walking down the lanes of the carving villages, you can hear the gentle hammering, sanding, and spontaneous chatter of the woodcarvers. They sit crosslegged on the floor surrounded by piles of freshly carved wood chips and rough, uncut blocks as chickens peck their way around the tools. The sweet aroma of clove cigarettes and coffee fills the air.
Carvers are paid by the day (Rp5000-10,000), polishers earn about Rp100,000 per month. Top-class carvers earn 60% of the selling price. These master carvers usually do not jealously guard their creations but share ideas willingly with sons and assistants. They invite apprentices to study carving under them. These pupils eventually turn out accomplished pieces patterned after their teacher's style.
Students can get a lot out of learning woodcarving under masters like Muka and Anom in Mas. These teachers charge Rp10,000 per day for a lesson, and if you go every day, you can learn to carve your own mask in about three weeks. The carver guides and supervises your work.
Most students buy their own knives so they can continue carving at home. Because of all the carving activity on the island, Bali is one of the best places in Indonesia to buy a set of carving knives—chisels, gouges, scrapers, mallets in every shape and size. A complete 30-piece set, made from flat steel, costs Rp30,000-35,000. The steel in better sets (up to Rp190,000) comes from ground-down automobile springs or concrete reinforcing rods and keeps its edge better than stainless steel. The better sets include 18 tools, two wooden mallets, and three finishing knives. Ask around the carving villages or buy them where Muka buys his.
Look for a carving that radiates a vitality, that possesses an inner life of its own. Some figurine carving is unique with faces of painstaking detail. Always bargain; high, fixed prices are intended for the tour bus participants who don't have time to bargain. If the price is reasonable, buy it. In Candidasa, where prices are low, Rangda masks cost as little as Rp25,000 (but start at Rp50,000). In carving centers like Mas and Kemenuh, carved banana trees cost Rp75,000, or you can walk down the road and find the same tree for Rp35,000 (starting price).
Explore Denpasar's Art Centre (Taman Werdi Budaya, Jl. Nusa Indah in Abiankapas, a suburb of Denpasar) before making any purchases. Here you'll see a wide range of carving. Also visit the row of antique shops in Klungkung (east of the Kerta Gosa), and the Arts of Asia Gallery, Jl. Raya Tuban, Denpasar, tel. 752860 (see Darwiko).
For a souvenir style carving, head to Denpasar's Kumbasari Shopping Center, a rabbit warren of shops bristling with carvings—most the tall, thin, Lempad-inspired type. Decent statues run in the Rp35,000-45,000 range. Mahartha, Jl. Ir. Soetami 8, Kemenuh, is a very talented family woodcarver in the neighborhood of Mas who speaks English, Dutch, and a little French.
The gallery of Ida Bagus Tilem, one of the great Balinese carvers, is located in Mas. Many of his carvings are not for sale, and the ones for sale are very expensive. I Wayan Sila sells beautiful carvings for a reasonable price. While in Mas, check out the Tantra Gallery too.
In Gianyar, Dutch priest Pater Maurice runs a carving school where you can see the finest carved teakwood panels, some several meters in length. They are priced by the cubic meter. Smaller ones are also for sale.
If the seller claims that an article is made of pure sandalwood from Nusatenggara Timur, there's a 99% chance it is some cheap imitation like coffeewood, even if it smells like sandalwood. Also beware of bargain prices for "ebony" carvings. True ebony is expensive, very dense, heavy, and has a glossy, reddish-brown striped surface. If the statue is painted, it's difficult to detect defects in the wood. Check for cracks and make sure all attached parts—like wings, crowns, and feet—are properly fitted. Have the carver explain any discoloration. To prevent the wood from cracking and shrinking in more temperate Western climes, some dealers have drilled a large cavity within the statue to allow moisture to escape. The bottoms of truly old statuary have not been touched.