Mask-making is one of the oldest art-forms in the world. In Bali, masks (topeng or tapel) have been used for centuries in the performance of sacred theatre and dance, to tell epic Hindu tales of the battle between good and evil. They’re also used to ward off evil spirits, disease and natural disasters, and to celebrate the life-cycles, seasons and harvests.
Masks are most commonly used in the Balinese Topeng and Barong dances (see ‘Dance & Drama’). An enormous range of masks can be found all over Indonesia, where they’re still commonly used for funerals, ceremonies, dances and exorcisms. Javanese and Papuan-style masks are also available for purchase in Ubud.
The villages of Singapadu, Batuan and Mas near Ubud are well-known as mask-making centres.
Mask-making techniques are passed down from father to son, and as many as 30 different instruments are used to carve them.
The masks are made from wood and brightly painted and decorated with hair, teeth, goat-skin and sometimes gemstones, depending on their role and purpose. They can take the form of gods, demons with fangs and bulging eyes, or animals (most commonly pigs, buffalo and lions) and are either in the shape of a full-face or half-face.
Traditionally it took several months to produce just one ceremonial mask, which was decorated with as many as 150 coats of paint. However when tourists started showing interest in Bali’s masks in the 1970s, a new industry was born and since then, they’ve been produced more quickly.