Gusti Nyoman Lempad, by Adrian Vickers

The recent collaborative book, Lempad of Bali (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2014) is probably the most important work yet published on a single Balinese artist, and it has been a great pleasure to be part of it, along with Bruce Carpenter, the late John Darling, Hedi Hinzler, Kaja McGowan and Soemantri Widagdo. 

Gusti Nyoman Lempad was legendary not only as a radically different artist form the 1930s, but also as the architect who created Ubud, and for his longevity. While there are different estimates of his age, at his death in 1978 he was either 116 or 106. Two other books on Lempad have also come out this year. Although neither of these has much scholarly weight, they do illustrate the range of work of Lempad and his school, which mainly consisted of his family.

I was asked by the instigators of the project, Soemantri Widagdo and Bruce W. Carpenter, to help out with the captions, in particular with identifying the narratives that Lempad depicted. This proved to be a lot more than I had originally imagined, and in the process I met with a more profound set of insights into Balinese perspectives on life than I had imagined.

While a lot of people are familiar with the fine line and elegant simplicity of Lempad’s work, I only know of one unpublished engagement with his philosophy. This was a 1988 Honours thesis in my department here at the University of Sydney, by Putu Barbara Davies, who had met with Lempad and worked closely with his son, Gusti Made Sumung. 

Gusti Sumung, “the gatekeeper” as he is called in our book, provided Putu with access to a set of drawings by his father of the Japatuan story, a tale rarely told in contemporary Bali, but one which had been important in the past. Japatuan is about the journey of the eponymous hero and his brother through the afterworld, in search of the spirit or soul of his deceased wife. 

After going through hundreds of Lempad’s works, I could see the common threads in what Putu shows to be his treatment of this work, and his other visual story-telling. Lempad was concerned with gender, with attaining wisdom and power, and with moving between the world of the senses and the world beyond. In his art, the three are combined.

Lempad SiladriLempad Siladri

Working with Bruce Carpenter, we have classified Lempad’s work into several groupings of narratives: the Ramayana and other Hindu tales; the connected Buddhist tales of the Sutasoma and the Brayutstory; the stories such as Dukuh Siladri (or Suladri) Japatuan and Jayaprana that Balinese see as belonging to more recent history; and other folk-stories like the Tantri and animal fables. Lempad also depicted scenes of dance-drama, of daily life, erotic scenes, and of the afterlife. These categories are hardly exclusive. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which participation narrative stories come from: is the handsome hero being seduced from his meditation Arjuna of the Mahabharata, or the Buddhist prince Sutasoma? Within the Ramayana, Lempad provided images of scenes not usually depicted, for example one showing Rama and Sita with a female with subtle demonic characteristics, who could be Rahwana’s sister from the beginning of the story, or Wibhisana’s daughter Trijata protesting Sita’s innocence from the end. Some of the scenes of daily life may in fact be taken from episodes of the story of the commoner Brayut. Erotic scenes may be self-standing, or part of stories such as theJayaprana, to illustrate the love of the tragic Jayaprana for his beautiful wife Layonsari. Depictions of people assuming the female demonic form of Rangda may be representations of the Calon Arang dance-drama, or of the story from which it is derived, or of scenes where people assuming the shape of the witch queen, notably Dayu Datu in Dukuh Siladri and Gede Basur in the Basur. Such narrative uncertainty shows how little we understand the depths of Balinese narrative traditions, and how much of them are rapidly disappearing, since it is difficult to find Balinese who know all these stories in the same depth that Lempad did.

Lempad dealt with his key themes in a range of ways. Differences in gender he connected with forms of power. His two known complete versions of the Dukuh Siladri show this well. The gender contrast is not just with the wise hermit, Siladri and the evil witch, Dayu Datu. Positive female power is represented by Siladri’s adopted daughter, Kesumasari, whose husband, Siladri’s son, is shown as ignorant and fearful where she is staunch and bold. Wayan Buyar is the opposite, a greedy rich son of a powerful man. Siladri’s and Kesumasari’s power come from their distance from the world, the way that they leave the village to life in the mountain forest, which puts them in touch with the animals who save them from Dayu Datu and her forces.

Another aspect of the project is that it shows how much research is yet to be done on Balinese art. Soemantri and the others associated with the project have tracked down approximately 1,000 works by Lempad, mostly drawings on paper. Few of them are dated. The best documented are those collected by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead between 1937 and 1939, along with the Rolf de Maré commissions, carried out through Bateson and Mead’s friend Claire Holt. Holt also left documentation of a number of works she collected for herself, now in the Neka Museum. 

Of the many sketches by Lempad now in Ubud’s Museum Puri Lukisan, only a small portion are dated, mostly to the 1950s and 1960s. From these pieces of evidence we can group works together chronologically, for example the finer works of the 1930s, when use of colour was strongest (vermillion and gold-leaf, combined with black ink). The sketches of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he resumed working after the hiatus of War and Revolution, seem more monumental, more reflective of his sculptural and architectural interests. But these are working hypotheses, and we have to do a lot more in terms of accurately dating his works. 

Along with this problem is the multiplicity of Lempad-like works. Many of Lempad’s works were unsigned, and the family only added signatures later. Not everything that bears his signature was by him, and while some wrong attributions may be obvious, the higher market value of Lempad’s works means that caution is required. In addition, there are clearly a number of lost works that we know only through bad photographs or old photocopies.

Matters of scholarship and connoisseurship underpin a more important aspect of the project. We need to know the what and when of Lempad’s works (and whether they were his), in order to understand their strangeness. There is something alienating and distant to modern Western audiences in his works. The strangeness comes in violence, sometimes hinted, sometimes graphic. This includes sexual violence, not just in the variety of Lempad’s couplings, but equally in the demonic Rahwana groping Sita as he abducts her, or the monkeys attacking the genitals of demons in the great battle of the Ramayana. Male-female relations or relations between same-sex couples are uneasy points on journeys to knowledge and power. Sometimes these journeys end badly, as in the tragic tale of Jayaprana, sometimes in attainment of a stage in life that allows the protagonists, Pan and Men Brayut for example, to be ready for the next stage of reincarnation.

Indonesia Research Blog, 20 November 2014.