The Living Masks of Bali: Chapter 08

A Conversation with Master Mask Maker Ketut Sukerta

Smiling Mask. Since the beginning of our exploration into the art of Mask Making, I am often in awe at just how many remarkable things I learn through this art. Not merely history, or method but reflections on life as well. Simple but remarkable wisdom.

For example, we want to share the art of traditional mask carving. Showing the ‘how to’. Our experience in video editing is basic, but hopefully the content can still be enjoyed. We are filming the first videos on how to carve masks. We chose the mask that in general, every mask maker learns to make as a first step. When he embarks on a life path as a mask maker. This is the ‘Tapel Kenyem’ or otherwise the ‘Smiling Mask’.

We have had previous discussions on ‘Topeng Babad‘ or ‘Sidakarya Masks’. An important Theatrical Dance consisting of six masks that is a significant part of Balinese ceremonial culture. This Smiling Mask is the technical basis required for the rest of the Sidakarya Masks.

I sit with Ketut Sukerta one morning, discussing some key points about the Smiling Mask. Ketut explains that the smiling mask represents the faces of the community. When they are working together to make an offering. The message of the smiling mask is that ‘when you are working together for a greater purpose, you should do so with a smile and with happy feeling.

In Balinese communities, a large part of traditional culture is centred on community, working together in preparations for ceremonies and rituals. This is a community based culture.You do not work alone, there are many people. Quite naturally there are those who are happy and those that are not so happy. The masks depict the many faces of the community and impart a lesson too. The smiling mask, depicts one who is wholehearted, happy in his offering, in his work.

When someone dances with the smiling mask it is beautiful. Especially if they can carry the character of the Smiling Mask, it is remarkable to watch. Because the dance is the embodiment of happiness.

Ketut Sukerta

It is generally understood that one of the first things you learn in the art of mask making is the Smiling Mask. It is said to be the simplest one to make technically. However, if you can not master the Smiling Mask, it is supposed that you would struggle to master any mask. When you master the this, the other masks will follow.

Our conversation continued about his personal experiences. It is here through his memories and sharing that I find myself able to appreciate the depth of wisdom imparted by the Smiling Mask.

Smiling Mask
Ketut Sukerta with one of the very first smiling masks he carved many years ago.

Memories of the Smiling Mask

When I first made the smiling mask I thought this will be easy. The reality was so different. It was not easy. It looks plain and straightforward, and technically not difficult. However, the characteristic of the smile, if you don’t capture the smile, its disconnected and is not alive. The ‘smile’ is not alive. It would be static and lifeless. Without happiness. No feeling.

Ketut Sukerta

Ketut Sukerta with the raw unpolished Smiling Mask he carved recently for our training video.

I then asked him this question, ‘How did you find your smile?!’

Sometimes I would pick up a mirror. In front of my workstation, I have a mirror, I would feel my own face and see the differences in the curves amongst the different types of smiles I would make. Its important to connect with the masks’ character. Smiling, happy character.

I wondered if someone did not think about the happy feeling but is technically masterful, can he still make a good smiling mask?

Yes he can, but the result will still be different. A difference in the smile. Of course he can make a mask, but perhaps maybe not so good. Because the foundation of revealing the mask, is based on our own feelings. How can we make that mask smile if we are unhappy. I think it would be difficult to make a smiling mask come alive.

How many times did you have to make a smiling mask, before you achieved a result that was good?

Five times I made a smiling mask before I came close to a result that was satisfactory. The issue was around the cheek and the chin. If the cheek is too small, it will look like an old woman smiling with a sallow face. If the chin is too small also causes a similar result. Like wrinkled.

What advice would you give someone who is learning to make a smiling mask?

If you are disciplined and diligent, to make a mask, diligence is key. The result will be good. Do not rush, approach it with calm and consistency.

What do you think the Smiling Mask is saying?

Lets learn to smile, whatever our job, no matter how hard, lets learn to smile.

Smiling Mask

Perhaps this mask gave me a feeling towards myself. Even when you are sad, even when things are difficult, at the very least we are still be able to smile. With that smile, my burden, my aloneness can reduce a little. Any heaviness in my heart goes away little by lit

Ketut Sukerta

This post is about traditional masks in Balinese culture. Sharing what we can about this living form of traditional art in our communities today. Aside from that, I simply find beauty and simple perfection in this statement ‘ when you master the smile, you will master the rest.’ Perhaps the practice of mastering the smile as a ‘graduation step’ in mask making was not deliberately constructed to be a life lesson. It makes sense if it were driven by the technical challenge that the smile poses.

The enigma, of the life and energy behind the smile is not one that can simply be emulated by technical mastery. Perhaps it is this intangible bond, of empathy and connectedness between the mask maker and his mask that it is demanding. Appropriate and fair, as the expectations of a master mask maker is not simply to make masks, but to make masks that are alive.

The practice of mask making is still done the same way, using the same tools as our Ancestors many generations ago did. Somethings may change, but the grounding truth of each carver’s humble bond with the life behind each mask they create is in itself an art of self reflection

The Smiling Mask Part One

Smiling Mask Part One with Ketut Sukerta
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