Making Topèng Masks

Masks are central to Balinese dance-drama. Quite apart from their use for the religious figures of Barong and Rangda, best known to visitors through versions of Calong Arang performed for tourists, several genres of dance-drama require masks. These include such versatile forms as Topèng Pajegan and Topèng Panca, Bondrès and Prèmbon (Mixed Topèng and Arja, Dance Opera). Masks transform actors so much that these dance-dramas bring a particular intensity to performance.

Performing with masks requires extraordinary expertise. This involves not just bringing the mask to life, but becoming one with the character embodied in that particular mask. This requires the actor holding, looking at and working with the mask until they become 'married' and the actor can bring the mask to life. So making masks requires corresponding skill because for any character each mask should be individual and subtly different from every other.

For this reason mask-making is a highly skilled activity which requires decades of apprenticeship in order to become a master craftsman. The wood is carefully prepared from one species of tree Pulé, which is light and strong, and is carved with simple steel implements. The best craftsmen use several coats of natural colours - e.g. white from deer or pig bones, black from the soot from coconut lamps, red from Kèncu, imported Chinese minerals. The final product is a work of art.

Below are photographs showing some of the key stages of making masks and, because the mask must fit perfectly, shaping them to the actor's face. They are of the master craftsmen I Wayan Tangguh and his sons I Madé Sutiarka and the Topèng actor I Ketut Kodi from Br. Mukti, Singapadu, Gianyar.

Making a set of female masks

© Mark Hobart 2015