text by David Irons
lead photo ©Anggara Mahendra
Ketut Madra of Peliatan, died peacefully in his sleep at home on Saturday night, 31 July,
2021. Born in Pengosekan during an October Galungan in 1940, he was 80 at the time
of his death. An internationally recognized painter of Balinese wayang stories, his paintings are part
of the devotional art in four public temples in Peliatan, as well as the Pura Taman Limut
across the street from his original family home in Pengosekan.
He was also known as a masked dancer of wit and grace and as the solo rebab
performer in one of Bali’s leading gamelan groups. To friends beyond Bali, he was a
gracious, charming, humorous, and deeply knowledgeable host who could connect
anyone to the Balinese teacher they needed to know.
His first lesson in wayang painting came in 1958 at the Pura Dalem in Banjar Kalah,
Peliatan. Tjokorda Oka Gambir, an early 20th century wayang artist and teacher, was
repairing a sacred mask. Madra offered to help. Gambir showed him how to mix the
correct shade of color for the face of Rangda, and watched as he worked. More formal
lessons began soon after.
That encounter led to a career that Madra later said was inevitable. He became a
master painter of wayang stories whose work is collected on four continents.
Madra first saw and heard the dramas of the gods and demons and those who serve
them through the flickering shadows of the wayang kulit and the voices of the dalang of
his youth. By the time he was five, he was going with his father, who played gender
wayang to festivals and ceremonies throughout the Ubud region. He would watch the
action not in silhouette with the crowd, but from behind the screen within the small circle
of performers who made the magic happen. That, he said, was the real beginning of the
education that informed his art.
When he was eight his father died, leaving the family destitute. He had to quit school
after third grade. He often had to walk 10 kilometers to glean rice kernels off the ground
of newly harvested fields. In those days, he also had his earliest painting lessons from
his older cousin Dewa Putu Sugi, learning to depict market scenes, temple festivals,
and harvests – the subjects of many Ubud-area artists influenced by Europeans before
and after World War II.
At 18, needing to earn his living on his own, he moved from Pengosekan to nearby
Peliatan to work as an apprentice painter with Wayan Gedah, a painter and dealer who
sold paintings and wood carvings to Indonesian tourists. When Wayan Gedah died
years later, Madra, at Gedah’s request, married his widow, Ni Wayan Lampias.
After that initial meeting with Tjokorda Gambir, Madra began the serious study of
wayang painting learning the details of color, iconography, and costume for scores of
characters, as well as the techniques and conventions of the wayang style.
While he already knew many wayang kulit stories, he always loved learning more from shadow
puppet masters, deepening his understanding of the relationships between and among
the myriad characters.
By the time he was 30, Madra was making his living and acquiring a wider reputation as
a skillful and original painter of wayang stories. As political turmoil eased in the late
1960s, international visitors returned to Bali. Ubud emerged once again as a cultural
center, and word of Madra’s remarkable talent spread. Collectors drawn to his confident
drawing, balanced design, and careful attention to detail, were also captivated by the
stories. Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, his home studio was always bustling with
apprentices learning to paint in wayang style.
“Wayang painting,” Madra once said, “tells stories that are part of Balinese culture. All
these gods and heroes and villains and servants are intensely familiar to us. How they
look, the style in which they are drawn – all mirrors the shadow theater. Making
decisions about showing characters’ motivations before I start to draw are often harder
than the act of painting.”
Beginning in the mid-1970s, his work began to be shown abroad. Nine of his paintings
and three drawings were part of the first American exhibition focused on contemporary
Balinese wayang art, “Legendary Paintings of Bali,” at Harvard University’s Fogg Art
Museum in 1974. His work has also been part of frequent exhibitions in Bali and has
also been shown in galleries and museums in Jakarta, and in cities in Australia, Japan,
the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Realizing in 1973 that his income had come to depend largely on his international ties,
Madra bought a small piece of land in Peliatan and built the first of the bungalows that
would become the Madra Homestay. That first simple, three-room house with views
across the rice fields and down to the Indian Ocean was rarely empty. He acquired
adjacent dry land and expanded the homestay until it became the “quiet place to learn
about Bali” that he had imagined. Ibu Lampias, and later his second wife, Ni Wayan
Konderi, ensured the hospitality of the homestay matched the desires and expectations
of their guests who always said they had been treated as family.
In the late 1970s, Madra responded to the encouragement of Nyoman Kakul, a
preeminent dancer and teacher of Batuan village. Kakul admired Madra’s understanding
of the stories told in Balinese dance drama, and urged him to learn to perform. At age
41 (more than 30 years later than most Balinese dancers take their first lessons), Madra
learned topeng keras, the role of the rough prime minister in the king’s court. Utterly
familiar with the repertoire and motivations of the characters before his first lesson, he
danced in public a month later at an odalan in Batuan’s Pura Desa.
Dance, Madra said, was a near perfect complement to his life as a painter. Performing
in stories he had only watched and painted brought new insight to character and deeper
understanding of the spiritual and devotional nature of both kinds of work. He was
known among the Balinese for his sophisticated dalem, the refined kingly role that few
do well, and for his topeng tua, another voiceless role in which the body language of a
creaky and sometimes cranky old man creates both humor and pathos. His bondres
speaking roles in clown-like half masks allowed him to display his wit and wordplay in
satiric social commentary.
Madra performed these roles in temple festivals near Ubud, and also with the Tirta Sari
gamelan group in Peliatan, with whom he toured to Jakarta and Japan. To be a full
member of Tirta Sari, he had to be a musician, too. The group’s leader urged him to
study rebab, the two-stringed, bowed fiddle in the gamelan ensemble. A friend gave him
a rebab and a cassette of solo music. On finding that he had learned the basics by
imitating the cassette, Tirta Sari’s leader told him to buy a rebab recording with a full
gamelan – and Madra soon established himself as the group’s “string section.”
In the 1980s, Madra Homestay was the Bali headquarters and rehearsal space for
Gamelan Sekar Jaya , the ground-breaking American group and the first foreign
gamelan to tour Bali. Invited in 1984 by Bali’s Governor I.B. Mantra, the group
astonished Balinese sekaa gong members and audiences across the island in 1985
with their talent in playing traditional music and the humor of their modern composition.
While Madra was proud to have the governor attend a reception at the homestay after
the final performance, he delighted in hosting many of Bali’s leading dancers,
musicians, and teachers of those arts during more informal rehearsals during the Sekar
In the 1997 rehabilitation of Peliatan’s Pura Dalem Gde, Madra worked for months to
create seven new paintings for the three principal temple shrines. He also repaired and
remounted two pre-World-War-II paintings in the temple, including one by his teacher
Tjokorda Oka Gambir. His paintings also decorate Peliatan’s Pura Desa and Pura
Puseh and the temple in Banjar Kalah’s community hall.
In the early 2000s Madra worried that he might be “one of the the last of the wayang
painters.” Traditional shadow puppet theater, he said, is fading. It no longer had a hold
on young people that it did when he was a child. “Young people no longer learn the
stories. There are too many distractions — TV, computers, modern life. If one wants to
be a painter, modern styles of painting may be easier to learn. There are fewer rules.”
However, after his 2013 retrospective exhibition, “Ketut Madra and 100 Years of
Balinese Wayang Painting” at Ubud’s Museum Puri Lukisan , he grew more optimistic
about the future of the art form he cared so much about.
He retired from painting in 2018. Well before his death, he knew that his nephew and
adopted son Madé Berata, now 53 and a former teacher of wayang painting at ISI
(Indonesian Institute of Fine Arts) in Denpasar, would carry on the tradition of painting
wayang stories, “even though he is always interested in so many other things as well.”
Madra cared for his second wife Ibu Wayan Konderi through her nine-month struggle
with brain cancer. His own health began to decline not long after her death in 2014. He
is survived by his younger brother Ketut Madri of Pengosekan. He also leaves behind
many grieving international friends who lived for extended periods on his beautiful land
learning about Bali, and all wishing him well on his next journey.
The homestay, Madra often said, “opened my window to the West.” It also brought his
art to the attention of three generations of visitors. Long-term residents there have
contributed to international understanding of Balinese culture through performances,
lectures, exhibitions, published scholarship, and more.
Though the pandemic has crippled Bali’s economy for now, Madra’s son Madé Berata
and his wife Ibu Komang are preparing Madra Homestay’s spacious garden compound
to welcome the writer, musician, artist, and scholar working in Bali for weeks and even
months at a time. They will again host individuals and small groups, often university
students, who come to learn painting, dance, gamelan music, carving, and \
other aspects of Balinese culture.