During my first of eight visits to Indonesia in 1968, my scholarship money provided sufficient funds to plan a short trip to the Island of Bali. While there I was introduced to Balinese wood carvings and over the ensuing twelve years and five later trips to Indonesia, began to collect pieces that now adorn our home.
My first acquisition was a statue of the Ganesha, the elephant god of the Hindu pantheon. (The Balinese are largely Hindus.) Although many he has many attributes in legend, he is best known because of his elephant head. He is worshiped as a symbol of intellect and wisdom, of art and science, and letters and learning. Shown here, my Ganesha statue is an outstanding piece of Balinese wood sculpture. It is meticulous carved completely by hand on a dark hardwood.
I came to own it almost by accident. In 1969 I had wandered down the beach from my Denpasar hotel when approached by a young man wearing shorts and a torn shirt. He offered me this marvelous statue in exchange for my shirt — truly a bargain for so impressive a piece. Because I had packed lightly for the side trip to Bali and had no spare, I gave him as much money as I had in my pocket and went to find a shirt I could give him. Later on that visit I was taken by acquaintances to see one of the carving studios in the hinterlands. Amidst the carvers at their work, I accused the owner using electric saws to shape the pieces initially. “Look around,” he retorted. “We have no electricity.”
On a subsequent trip I decided to add to add other Hindu gods by buying Balinese carvings in shops on Java. In one recommended store, I found two such statutes. One is of Hanuman, the central characters in the epic story of the Ramayana and frequently portrayed in celebrations in Bali. The Ramayana presents them as humans with reference to their speech, clothing, habitations, funerals, consecrations etc. It also describes their monkey-like characteristics such as their leaping, hair, fur and a tail. Because Hanuman often is shown with a white face, he is sometimes called “the white monkey.” My statute shows him struggling with a “naga” or snake, possibly a sea serpent, likely as he is on the ocean with an army from India to Sri Lanka to rescue the Ramayana heroine, Sita.
The other is a statue of the Garuda, a being who the wings, head, beak and talons of an eagle or vulture. He may be part human being. Part of his role is as the enemy of all snakes that are symbolic of death and the underworld. In contrast, Garuda represents birth and heaven; in addition he is associated with the sun and fire. The Indonsian airline is named for Garuda. The statues, bought about the same time in the early 1970s, represent continued good work of the Balinese artisans, although the wood from which they are carved is not as heavy.
Those artisans were not above making statues aimed at the tourist trade — and I was not immune from buying one about 1970. It is of a Balinese woman who is entirely nude. While the women of the island frequently go topless. they are well covered below the waist. This statue with its skinny arms and oversized head clearly was meant for the libidinous male visitor. Note, however, the attractive multi-coloration of the wood.
I also have two smaller carvings that fit well in a bookcase.My earlier purchase was of the old man carrying bundles of sticks. I was attracted to it by its depiction of common life. One often saw similar individuals, skinny and aged, trudging the dusty roads of Indonesia with heavy cargo.
I had spent a great deal of time browsing a shop about 1980, sadly noting a decline in workmanship, when I came upon a truly expertly carved piece and took it to inquire about price. “You have chosen the most expensive item in the shop. The famous carver who made this has died and there will be no more,” the proprietor said, quoting me a price considerably beyond my means. While proud of my connoisseurship, I settled on the smaller, less expensive piece shown here, of a family of three pipers.
My last purchase of a Balinese carving was a statue of two bulls locked in battle. It was an unusual piece, one I had never seen before. It also fit well into a niche in our home that needed something of interest to liven an area.
While I have not returned to Indonesia for some 32 years, I am told that the quality of Balinese carving has continued to deteriorate. Older pieces, however, are regularly seen on auction sites like eBay. For those interested in collecting, the 1988 book, “Woodcarvings of Bali” by Fred and Margaret Eiseman is highly informative.