I like good Darta: along the lines of Lempad

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If you are a Bali fanatic, you will be interested in I Gusti character Nyoman Darta. He had an early childhood typical of the feudal system of the days. Barely 5 years old, he was entrusted by his father to one of the princes of Ubud, Tjokorde Ngurah Puri Saren.

He took the cape like a “pair”, let’s say a young servant, but also much more, because if he lent a hand in the palace, he was also educated by his lord, like many other boys and girls in the town. But, as he was gifted, in time he was also taught all the knowledge related to the palace, down to his secrets: how to make a powerful barong mask, how to build a temple without disturbing the forces around it, and so on. .

He then passed his exams and became a teacher. He taught for twenty years, until one day he had a “visitor” from the “unseen” world. Was it in his imagination of him, during a fever attack, or as a dream, she doesn’t know. But he was surely visited by a voice, so she remembers her, that she asked him to follow her and serve her. He was a gentleman of the Neck world out there. She had no choice but to follow this gentleman. Since then, Darta has become a healer and adviser to the village of Ubud and the local princely families on matters of palace festivals and ceremonies. You are often invited outside Bali to look after temples under the custody of the Ubud princes such as the great temple of Mandala Giri at the foot of Mount Semeru in Java.

Yet, I Gusti Nyoman Darta is also known – indeed well known beyond Bali – for his illustrations in the book “Time, Rites and Festivals” (2013), in which he reveals himself capable of drawing, in his own way, in the style of the master of Bali I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862-1978).

Lempad is hands down the best visual artist in Bali. In the 1930s, probably under the visual influence of the German resident artist Walter Spies, he revolutionized the Balinese style by giving full autonomy to the line of drawing. Instead of being purely narrative and appearing “broken”, as in the ancient Balinese tradition, the line now existed for its own sake. Thus Lempad invented the “black and white” Balinese drawing.

Lempad was the “grandfather” of I Gusti Nyoman Darta, an ancestor of the same clan. They shared the same clan rituals and, above all, they were both “palace men”, or parekans of the princely house of Ubud. While I Gusti Nyoman Darta was growing up in the palace under the wing of Tjokorde Ngurah, he often met Lempad, who was visiting from his nearby house to take orders from a prince or simply to attend Balinese poetry readings or puppet shows. So they became very close. Darta has often witnessed how Lempad worked: “His joke had no end, he says.

This may be why Darta’s drawings share a line of drawing that brings to mind that of her famous “grandfather”. Not exactly. As he explains it, he hasn’t studied with the old man. He knew him and, living in the Ubud palace, often accompanied the old man on his visits to the local prince. So he could to some extent participate in the old man’s inspiration. But Lempad, born in 1862, was too old to teach his younger parent adequately. He told him instead, “Just focus on what you’re doing, he learns the stories, you’ll definitely be able to be as good as me.”

Darta did it, in her own way. Magical. She had a picture of her next to Lempad. Accompanied by meditation, this photo, she says, allowed him to grasp the creative power of Lempad, taksu.

Strange, isn’t it? But Darta had a precedent. He says he was inspired by Bambang Ekalaya, a hero of wayang puppet theatre, who learned his archery skills through a statue of his old master Drona.

This story is an offshoot of the Mahabharata which is well known to the
Balinese master puppeteers. It is originally from Java, but was imported to Bali at an unspecified time, probably in the last century. Let’s tell the story in a few paragraphs.

As all wayang lovers know, Arjuna, the most beautiful of the 5 Pandawa Mahabharata heroes, was also the best archery student of the great guru Begawan Drona — who later sided with the enemies of the 5 brothers, the Korawa, during the great and last Battle of Bharatayudha.

Bambang Ekalaya was a warrior of low social rank. He was a good archer, but he wanted to be the best in the world. And to be the best and to be superior to Arjuna himself, he had to learn from the best teacher in the world, Begawan Drona. But when he came to ask Drona to be his teacher, the latter refused due to his lowly status and also because he swore that Arjuna would be the best archer ever.

Ekalaya was not to be rejected so easily. What mattered to him was that Dorna’s power was passed on to him. So he went to the forest, where he made a replica of the Dorna statue and treated the statue with all the respect due to a master. As a result, extraordinarily and unbeknownst to Drona, he was bestowed with the abilities of the best teacher ever. Alas, Arjuna discovered that Bambang Ekalaya could shoot the target better than him and complained to his teacher Drona. The latter, who had sworn to Arjuna that he would be the best archer ever devised, then came up with a trick. He asked Bambang Ekalaya to show that he respected his teacher and was ready to obey all his requests of him. Bambang Ekalaya agreed to fulfill any request from his teacher. Then Drona asked him to cut off his index finger. Unperturbed, Bambang Ekalaya immediately cut it, rendering his archery useless. So, he wouldn’t be the best archer ever, but the best disciple ever.

Recalling this story of Bambang Ekalaya, what Gusti Nyoman Darta is implicitly telling us is that talent is not so much something innate by descent and part of one’s DNA, as something intangible, a magical power transmitted by one’s master through loyalty, discipline and identification with him. He knew Lempad, he served him as a child whenever the older man went to the palace. So she could identify with him sufficiently to capture some of his taksu power, even if she hadn’t cut her painting hand.

As for his drawings, here you will see some of his works. Drawings made to celebrate the day of the wayang theater puppet show, cinema, and other “tumpek” celebrations.

John Knife

John Knife

An observer of Bali for over 40 years, Jean Couteau is a graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and a former lecturer at the Denpasar Institut Seni Indonesia. He is a well-known specialist in Balinese culture, having written: Puri Lukisan (2000), Un Autre Temps: Les Calendriers Tika de Bali (2004) Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013, with Georges Breguet), and Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali (2018) – just to name a few. He is a multilingual writer, collaborates with the Indonesian national newspaper, Kompas, with his column “Udar Rasa” published in the Sunday cultural page (in Bahasa Indonesia). He also contributes a monthly cultural piece to NOW! Bali.

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