Master of the Arts

“The red is me … it’s Suradnya. My color I try to get the Bali smile – not Java smile, not Sumatra smile … Bali smile.” – I Nyoman Suradnya speaking to The Australian in October 1975, at the first exhibition of his paintings, at the Aladdin Gallery in Sydney.

The first time I met Nyoman, I took an instant liking to him, because he knew the words of the song Release Me. We both sang it loud and out of tune till the dogs started barking. Later over a cuppa and fried banana fritters, we discussed the state of art in Ubud. His frank and often strikingly honest remarks were a breath of fresh air after encountering many self-proclaimed artists too eager to please any listener. The next day we met at his studio to carry on the dialogue.

I began by asking him the usual question, “Why Ubud?”

“Because Ubud is where every breath is a prayer. Look around you at every nook and corner – someone is making an offering to the Gods. The continuous religious ceremonies inspire this living culture. Ubud breathes life into the arts and many come here to live off this breath of living culture.”

Nyoman is 60 years old. A child of a rice farmer, he worked in the fields helping his family. From a very young age he was intoxicated by the arts and crafts and experimented with whatever materials he had to create images on paper, in wood and stone.

Inspiration came from the Wayan Kulit (Shadow Puppet) and then from his brother. He painted in black and white as in those days color was not available. On finishing high school, he joined the Art School started by Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati of the Ubud Palace. Nyoman was the first student. There he learned painting, woodcarving, stone carving and carving for the Bull cremation towers from the masters of each craft. Like in India, the concept of Guru-Sheeksha (Master-Student) was prevalent.

After one year of the three-year course, Nyoman chose the art on traditional lines, learning proportion, perspective with regard to wood carving Ubud-style. He learned the techniques from Balinese and non-Balinese masters. The marketplace was one of his haunts. Nyoman would visit the market to sketch the basic outline of his subjects. Then he would return to the studio and breathe life into the sketch with paint and brush strokes.

Nyoman turned to the technique of batik and went to Yogyakarta in 1973 to learn the art from the Javanese master craftsmen. On his return to Ubud, he began by inventing batik color pigments with some powder so that it could be blended like acrylics. The special batik paint he created was used in his paintings to recreate the batik effect on his canvases. This was a groundbreaking technique that enabled Nyoman to take the craft of batik, which had been confined to fabric, onto another medium.

The resultant effect was a creative leap whereby batik was not limited to fabric but became a medium that Nyoman could use to manifest his perceptions of the real world around him onto canvas. Color exploded on the palette and splattered into shapes, forms and perspectives that immediately made Nyoman’s work recognizable in the numerous countries where he held his exhibitions. He became a pioneer in this field.

Nyoman’s considers the word “artist” as one coined for or by tourists. The apt phrase according to him is unagi, which means wood carver, builder, painter. All the arts and crafts were primarily for the pura (house of God) and the puri (house of the royal family). Later, with the arrival of Walter Spies, who was influenced by Henri Rousseau, the mingling of the two art forms resulted in a metamorphosis of Balinese art forms. The local artist began to paint “daily life” and incorporated perspectives, subtleties of shading etc. The foreign artists and Balinese craftspersons took to each other like bees to flowers.

Asked about his opinion on the numerous art galleries sprouting up all over Ubud, Nyoman said, “The mushrooming art galleries across Ubud are like McDonald’s fast-food outlets. They’ve lost the plot. The kitsch is feeding the tourists because that is what the tourists want to see and buy. I do hope this does not continue, otherwise good taste and discerning customers will fade away along with various art forms.”

And when I enquired as to whether he had reached the zenith in his art form, he looked at me for a moment and then laughed loudly and said he was getting there.

“I believe there is a promise land, a place I can reach nirvana with my artwork. However, I am still travelling and learning and travelling. When will it end, I do not know. But I firmly believe it will be in this lifetime.”

I Nyoman Suradnya has been known to speak his mind and to encourage his fellow villagers to beautify Ubud. Due to his endeavors, Ubud won the Most Beautiful Village in Indonesia in 1982, 1984 and 1986.

Some of his numerous past exhibitions: 1977 Galerie de Geneva, Milan, Italy; 1982 Arts & Crafts Centre, Melbourne, Australia; 1985 ISLA Centre of the Arts, Guam University, US; 1990 Gallery Balance, Osaka, Japan; 2004 Café Fleischli, Zurich, Switzerland.

Today one can learn the craft of batik and batik painting from the master himself at Nirvana Pension & Gallery, on Jl. Gautama, off Jl. Raya. (MU/BT)

I Nyoman Suradnya can be contacted via email,, or phone +62 361 975415.

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