The Living Masks of Bali: The Subtleties of Topeng Keras

The Living Masks of Bali: The Subtleties of Topeng Keras

Explores what lies within the character of ‘Topeng Keras’. One of the sacred Masks that appear in Topeng Babad. One of Bali’s oldest and most sacred Dance Mask Rituals. A chapter in our series The Living Masks of Bali.

The Mask, a Human Predilection

9000 year old stone masks. Article on Bali Masks by Dewi Dian Reich

The Mask has existed since prehistoric times. The earliest masks we know of trace back over 9000 years old. They were carved out of stone and found in the Judean desert. Throughout the different ancient tribes of the world, there is a commonality that we find.

Pictured Left: 9000yr old Neolithic stone mask. Photo by Israel Antiquities Authority

Human communities have recreated their image onto the mask. Believed to carry a strong link to the spirit of our ancestors. We, as a race, regardless of culture, language, or geography have this much in common for thousands of years. Ancient masks are often related to dance rituals and sacred rites. Where ceremonies are performed to retell the stories passed down from our Ancestors or with burial rites. It is closely linked to the Ancestral Spirits, whom are said to be representations of the Gods.

The masks that have existed in Balinese society since the 15th century are closely related to Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies. Art in Bali is embedded and central to religion and culture. The mask dances that are performed here are Sacred Art. It overflows with nuances of the spiritual. The traditional masks of Bali are symbols of the Gods, Ancestors and Spirits

The Living Masks of Bali Continues with Topeng Keras

So that is a little background, to bring us back to a chapter that I’ve been longing to continue for some time. Two years ago, we started a series of articles ‘The Living Masks of Bali’. Its intention is to share this incredibly powerful and beautiful sacred art of Bali. By way, less academic, and more direct through the sharing of first-hand experiences and insights of those who are part of this amazing sacred art. Whether as a dancer or mask maker.

Sawidji Gallery Kadek Sudiasa Topeng Keras

Meeting Topeng Keras, through Kadek Sudiasa

A couple of months ago, we began to spend some time with Kadek Sudiasa. A Balinese Traditional Dancer, musician, carver and mask maker. The depth of Kadek Sudiasas’ talents is as enriching as his modesty and simple sharing. Without this we would not have the intimate view to share with you.

The Living Masks of Bali chapters continue and we begin with the power, charm and dignity of Topeng Keras, the ‘Hard Mask’. When Kadek agreed to collaborate with us and share his knowledge and experiences of the Dances and the Masks, he chose ‘Topeng Keras’ as the first Mask for us to explore. He chose this with good reason.

Topeng Keras, a Conversation with Kadek Sudiasa

The Subtleties of Topeng Keras by article and photography by Dewi Dian Reich
‘Topeng Keras’ The Hard Mask. Photography by Dewi Dian, Sawidji Studio.

Topeng Keras is one of 5 characters that appear in the Topeng Babad Ceremonial Dance (refer to ‘Topeng Babad Today‘). Amongst these are Topeng Ratu (the Kings’ Mask) Topeng Tua (Old Mask) Topeng Sidakarya (Sidakarya Mask) Topeng Bondres (Common Peoples’ Mask). Kadek explains that according to the rules of mask making in Bali, the first mask is Topeng Keras. Topeng Keras is a ‘Patih’ (Minister of the King) The word Patih or Pepatih is a regent title that was traditionally used among Austronesian polities of insular Southeast Asia. In the first place, it denoted the chief minister of a kingdom or a traditional regency. The word originates from the Sanskrit word Patih meaning maintainer, master or guide.

Why is this mask the first mask?

This is the first Mask to appear in Mask Theatre. A phrase ‘Tabeng Wijang’ refers to the meaning that he is a ‘perisai dada dari Kerajaan’ (shield and armour from the Kingdom). The character of Topeng Keras is a ‘Patih’. This is the shield and armour of the King. He appears first, because, in the correct order, a King would not be exposed in a vulnerable situation, his guards and shields would preceed him so that a King is not exposed to danger. The Hard Mask, appears first as he deals with any new elements or threats that may be directed at the King.

The Subtleties of Topeng Keras by article and photography by Dewi Dian Reich

A dancer often speaks about the ‘life’ of a mask. Whether the mask is alive and whether that energy within the mask partners well with the dancer. Kadek shares that in his experience you cannot find the true face of the mask in one or two tries. The face of the hard mask must be discovered by the mask maker. For it to be alive. It exists outside of the mask maker. The mask maker is a tool to help the mask realise itself.

Topeng Keras comes alive through the dance. Photography by Dewi Dian, Sawidji Studio.

‘Before I began making masks, I bought a mask. I serviced it many times and still I could not find the true character of the man. Because character is very important for the dancer. It is what brings it alive for the dancer. In the end.. in my own journey,. I ended up making masks of my own. This processs for me personally, is one that takes time. I have to find the character that is right for me. I really need to find the right character. This has to happen for it to be right for me and for the mask to be right for dance.

The Balinese Mask Dance is sacred. It is to remember and respect our ancestors from before.. that is the most important thing to remember.. because all characters of masks today, all of that is connected to our Ancestors.. Whether it is Majapahit or Balinese kingdoms,, all of them are connected to our ancestors.. the character.. the stories.. it is with purpose, so that this generation does not forget our Ancestors.. their glory and their histories..

Kadek Sudiasa

What is the character of Topeng Keras?

The Hard Maksk is character embodied. He is the patih of the kingdom, a fortress. He has the responsibility to protect a kingdom.  However, despite a name that bespoke inflexibility and perhaps an unmoving power to the point of harshness. This is not the true character of Topeng Keras. This is where we take a moment to appreciate the depth and subtleties of the Hard Mask.

A clue as to where his underlying subtleties comein is from another Mask in the Topeng Babad, the Old Mask. Topeng Keras is a chacrater defined by duty. As a fortress and protector, his chacracter embodies this. As the minister to the King, he is responsible for keeping the King and the Kingdom safe from physical and perhaps military threats. In a hypothetical timeline, Topeng Keras is in fact a younger manifestation of Topeng Tua. For the Old Mask is the spiritual counsellor to the King. Something that the Patih will one day become.

Are all Topeng Keras the same?

The chacracter of Topeng Keras is variable, there are many types of Topeng Keras. The imagination of the mask maker also contributes to shaping Topeng Keras. “Do I wish to make him handsome? Do I wish to make him fearsome? the character of the mask maker also goes into the mask.

The choreography of the dance

‘If I am asked to make a mask like another mask.. I cannot do that.. It has my character and spirit’ we imagine the hard mask. As a dancer, we can imagine the movements and tone of the dance and we can appropriate the shape of the face to bring the best character of the dance.

Kadek Sudiasa

The choreography that is danced by Topeng Keras is very similar to ‘Tari Baris’. Tari Baris is a dance representing soldiers. However in Topeng Keras Dance,.it is the character of the maha patih. He is not a soldier.. he is a leader. The choreography is similar to the Baris Dance with firmer assertive simpler moves.

The Dance and the Mask

I asked the question that kept humming in my mind. Is the dance captured in the mask?  Or is the nature of the mask what determines the nature of the dance? And the answering words reveal just how alive the mask and the dance are, as part of a living embodiment, two parts of one whole.

Before we dance with a mask we need to get to know that Mask.. The Mask is who dances. The dancer is just a blank canvas.  So when you make a mask you are creating the dance.. the dance is born when the mask is born… without that that the mask is just a wooden mask…

Kadek Sudiasa
Dancer and Mask Maker Kadek Sudiasa after the dance of Topeng Keras.

That is our conversation with Kadek Sudiasas. The first, hopefully in a series of many. Where we make effort to understand the spirit, nature and character of each mask. Not academically, but through the living. The memories, sensations and experiences of those who are the direct keepers of this majestic and beautiful tradition. Our dancers, our mask makers carry on the teachings and stories of our Ancestors alive. It is through their voice as they traverse the same challenges of our changing times. Whilst still keeping strong the spirit of our living masks.

A side note. Considering the very real changes that affect the survivability of Balinese traditional arts.

Traditional arts face a very real but seemingly not urgent threat. It is recognised, but perhaps the true dangers are not yet felt profoundly. If we continue to look at it from a position of comfort and assurance because we are still confident that it surrounds us. The statistics speak differently.

There are programs initiated by different administrative bodies to help revitalise traditional arts. 20 years ago, 80% of the villagers of Mas were active wood artisans. Amongst many would be mask makers. During a recent workshop, Kadek noticed that instead of the hundreds, there were no more than 30 active artisans who attended from his municipality. The same factors are affecting the art of mask making as it affects those of traditional painting.


There are fewer and fewer of the new generations that go on to continue the legacies and skills of their parents. Choosing other fields of study, primarily within tourism and or building and construction.Also, we know it may be inevitable. But nonetheless, we hope that in the least we can safeguard the continuation of our Sacred Art to the best of our capacity. The continuance of the old wisdom is even more important now to keep alive and thriving.

Impressions of Topeng Keras with Kadek Sudiasa at Sawidji Studio. There is no substitute in words that can do justice to the tangible power and beauty of a Mask Dance that is alive.

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