The Living Masks of Bali is our series that explores and celebrates Balinese traditional masks. We return today with a close-up look at Topeng Tua, the Old Mask. A conversation with Dancer and Mask Maker Kadek Sudiasa of Mas Ubud.
I’ve mentioned before in our previous article ‘The Subtleties of Topeng Keras’ that human beings have had a proclivity towards creating their image since ancient times. The oldest known mask is over 9000 years old and is carved out of stone. 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. Throughout our Indonesian islands, it would prove this statement true. On each island, there is likely a rite of passage or ritual still practised today that involve the mask, in dance or ritual.
Topeng Tua translates to ‘Old Mask’. It is one of six masks that make up the ‘Topeng Babad Mask Dance‘. Throughout the performance, Topeng Tua comes out second in order of appearance. This is the order which Kadek Sudiasa and I have agreed to emulate in our articles. After Topeng Keras, we meet Topeng Tua.
Topeng Tua, a Dancers’ Intimacy, with Kadek Sudiasa
When was the first time you danced Topeng Tua?
“I danced the Topeng Tua for the first time after graduating from high school. Pekak Tutur was my teacher. I recall that I was not able to grasp the character of Topeng Tua at all. This relates to ‘age’. I was young and it is not easy for the young to get the true character of the old. When young, you are automatically full of energy and ‘heat’. The concept of age. I could not get that character at all. At that time, I was in my youth, we are still full of energy and heat.”
My teacher also said this of Topeng Tua,
You have to feel what it is like to be old.. that age is what’s important. choreography is important, but capturing the spirit of the old is even more so.Pekak Tutur
Is it common for the young to dance Topeng Tua?
“The role that compliments young dancers is usually ‘Topeng Keras’. It is often difficult for the young to comprehend being old. Though not often, it can be achieved. I have seen some young dancers who truly capture the spirit of Topeng Tua and they dance the dance with a good feeling and the right energy.”
Virtues of the Pandemic for Traditional Balinese Dance
“During the recent pandemic..our young traditional dancers had little activities in school. So the dance flourished. A lot of small sub-communities started to emerge as they focused their energies on learning the dance. They have to observe the movements.. the details in the movements of the elderly.. it is our job to observe and to feel. and bring that to the dance’’
Audience, My Teacher
“We dance.. the one who judges is the audience, Sometimes we don’t realise that we get carried away by the music or the atmosphere. At times, our movements can be too aggressive or energetic. The audience can see this better (if they are concentrating on the dance). When I get feedback from the audience, if it tells me something that can help me improve, I am happy. That is what I hope for.”
I thought it quite profound. I mean, the dance and wisdom passed down through Balis’ traditional masks are already profound. But herein lies another aspect of unexpected profundity. Traditional arts are fused with traditional communities. It is a living practice. Just like the young generation of Bali today, maybe web developers or accountants, they are also dancers of the Mask.
The youth that learns traditional Mask dance, are taught something incredibly deep and complex. They are open to an experience that compels them to do what we all try to avoid.. age. They have to bypass decades of slow exposure to age and learn in an intense compressed time, learn to be old. Learn to feel old, learn to perceive the world through old age.
They are fighting a natural flow and have to learn to exist outside of their point of experience. This is such a deep exercise of true empathy, if they are to get the spirit of the dance.
What is the question you would ask Topeng Tua?
“It is not to ask a question.. when I see the spirit of Topeng Tua… ‘Wardha Mantri’, a minister, the king’s advisor. I think of his experience. He has vast experience. From his youth protecting the king and the kingdom.. until now he is still protecting the King, He has survived and has reached old age. He can become a spiritual guide to the King.”
Topeng Tua is a spirit that knows the saltiness of salt. For me, I would have a request, not a question. That he may always guide and protect us. He is powerful. If he was not powerful he would have died on the battlefield and not survived being a minister to the king for so long.Kadek Sudiasa
“It is proof of his power and capability. Now in his old age, he is a spiritual counsellor and this is the cycle of life. In old we get closer to God and Nature. My hope is for the Spirit of Topeng Tua to share his experience and knowledge with the people now. That is not a question, but my hope.”
When was the First time you felt his presence
“Perhaps it was my own self fulfilling beliefs. I was a dancer of Sidakarya but Wali not yet. It was after I had married that that was the time I would dance Topeng Wali. After I married, and only after that, did I feel that the character of Topeng Tua began to come and enter me. Slowly. I was able to feel how an old person would walk. He is so very different from Topeng Keras ‘Hard Mask’. His steps are heavy, there is less energy. You have to have will to lift your legs. So it was after marriage that I was able to feel his character from within.”
“Maybe the cycle has to be like that. We have to go through certain experiences first. We have to learn first how to raise children, and how to accompany and balance our partners. How to resolve the differences. Perhaps it is necessary to go through this before you can truly understand age.”
The Dance is born From the Mask
In previous conversations with Kadek Sudiasa, I have asked which comes first, the mask or the dance? and he has answered that the dance is born when the mask is born. so it must have been profound to make the topeng tua as a mask carver, after so many years of knowing him through the dance.
“Topeng Tua has a lot of characteristics that have to come into the mask.. wise.. loving..compassionate.. spiritual.. calm. I as a mask maker, I feel that whoever sees the spirit of Topeng Tua,.. should feel that his heart is calm.. that is the character that I think needs to enter Topeng Tua.”
“Some mask makers feel that there is a hardness and more assertiveness in Topeng Tua and these are all personal hallmarks of each mask maker. The mask cannot be separated from the Mask Maker. I veer towards Topeng Tua who is calmer and more compassionate. When you pick up the piece of wood for the mask, you already can imagine the lips and the wrinkles around the eyes. Topeng Tua does not openly smile, but he appears to be smiling. The smile is seen from the inner peace within his character.”
The Power of Topeng Tua?
Topeng Tua is quite honestly, one of my favourite masks. There is something akin to peace when looking upon the Old Mask. But I don’t think this is simply because of a mask of an old man. That is why it is so profound. Topeng Tua is Time. Topeng Tua is experience. He is Wisdom and somehow, Topeng Tua is love. When I see the dance of Topeng Tua and the mask, I am not looking at a mask, I am not seeing a dancer. I somehow feel that I am loved. I somehow feel that I am not alone in the mire of the world. In my whimsy, I imagine if I were a child, there is still a gentle, guiding shelter.
Learn more about the art of Traditional Masks of Bali in our Living Masks of Bali Articles. Through conversations of shared experiences with the artists and dancers whose lives are centred on their wonder and power.