You could almost hear the concentration in the air. In front of me the man took another tap of his chisel, carefully shaping the traditional Javanese wooden mask. There was no doubt in the movements, they were unhurried, a glance at the wooden mask and then a few more careful taps. It was obvious that this was somebody who was skilled at his profession.
I had joined a Javanese mask making workshop in a small village on the outside of Surakarta (get more ideas about things to do around Surakarta here). The workshop was held in the morning and then in the afternoon I was going to head off and visit Candi Sukuh and Candi Cetho temples. It promised to be an exciting day.
All around me on the veranda people were at work carving, sanding and painting traditional wooden Javanese masks and Wayang puppets. I had seen the same scene in photographs from 100 years ago, the only thing that seemed to have changed was the clothing the people were wearing.
Javanese masks are traditionally used for dance performances, called Topeng in Indonesian. The masks are brightly coloured and the designs and colours used follow a traditional style. We talked as he worked on the wooden mask in his hands. The wooden masks he creates are of characters from Javanese myth and history. These characters are instantly recognizable to most people from Java.
Carving a Javanese mask from a block of wood takes three weeks. The masks are completely hand made. The carpenters start with a single block of wood and then using nothing more than a chisel and a hammer, carefully turn the block of wood into a beautiful mask.
He laid down the mask he was working on and spread out a selection of finished masks in front of me to show the different designs. The masks were painted in a rainbow of colors. There were masks of vivid red, yellow and green. The first thing that catches your eye when you look at the masks are the features. The eyes are often large and decorated with bright colours and some of the characters have gaping mouths with large teeth. Almost every mask also had a headband, which were all intricately painted, but the one he held in his hands was still plain.
Sitting out on the veranda in the cool shade, three women sat with paintbrushes in hand. They carefully painted intricate designs on the masks. The brushes were just a few hairs thick. The women laughed and chatted as they worked. They shared local gossip, chatting about the everyday aspects of life, but always with a close eye on the masks. The colorful designs of the masks sprang from the end of the paintbrushes. It’s a job that requires real attention to detail.
I picked up one of the masks and turned it around in my hands. Unlike masks from many other parts of the world, there are no straps to keep it in place. Instead the performers are supposed to hold the mask to their face by biting down on a leather strap. I took a bite and held it to my face. I could only imagine how difficult it would be to hold the mask to my face while trying to dance.
We spent a few hours at the mask-making workshop. As somebody who loves creating things with my hands, the Javanese mask making really interested me. It was fun learning about the history and culture behind the Javanese masks, but also nice to see how these skills are still relevant (even if most of the masks are sold to tourists).
I love learning about local culture when I travel to different places, so it was interesting to get the chance to learn about my own Javanese culture when I visited Surakarta. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try to make one of the masks. I think it would have been far too difficult to carve a mask for myself, but I could easily imagine myself spending an afternoon out on the veranda painting one of the masks.
Have you ever joined a mask-making workshop? What did you think about the experience?