Lempad of Bali

A Memoir of a Master Artist and the Making of a Film


John Darling



Preface by Sara Darling

Foreword by Chris Hill



1. The Long Life of Gusti Nyoman Lempad

    An Auspicious Arrival

    Undagi Lempad, the Complete Artist

    Chaos Comes to Bali

    New Work Aged Ninety

    The End of a Long Life


2. Lempad and Western Influence

    Classic Balinese Art

    Western Influence and New Creative Possibilities

3. The Making of the Film Lempad of Bali





John Austin Campbell Darling (1946-2011)

Filmmaker, poet, academic.

John Darling, my husband, directed (with Lorne Blair) and produced a documentary called Lempad of Bali in 1980. This award-winning film was screened on ABC TV and internationally. It tells the life of the 116-year-old Master Artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. 

The film juxtaposed the wide body of work that Lempad produced over some 100 years including drawings, paintings, sculpture and architecture against Bali’s changing history. To locate the relevant archival footage and photos, John travelled to museums in Amsterdam and New York.

Combining this research and the experience surrounding the making of this film, John wrote a short book on Lempad which until now has been unpublished. Chris Hill, a good friend of John, collects Balinese Art and has published in this area. John was delighted that Chris agreed to see this book through to completion, and that it will be available at a major exhibition of Lempad’s art at Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud, Bali in 2014. Sadly, John died before the project was completed.

Duncan Graham wrote John’s obituary published in The Jakarta Post in January 2012. He stated “John was a peaceful man who promoted harmony. He related to everyone, from priests to farmers. His films have helped make Indonesia accessible to the world, particularly Australians.”

Many thanks to Chris Hill, who has worked tirelessly to bring this project to fruition. He enabled John’s vision of this book to be realized, through sensitively drawing out stories of his life during his final weeks. Chris also provided a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm as he gently re-ordered ancient typed and hand-written documents, along with selecting photographs from John’s extensive archive, to create this book.

I wish also to thank Pak Soemantri Widagdo for facilitating the use of Lempad's works in this eBook. In addition, he amended and revised all the Balinese cultural and historical facts in the text.

Finally, thanks to you John for being an amazing dreamer and wonderful storyteller, which you expressed through your films, poetry, art, love of life and to those fortunate enough to accompany you on your unique journey.


Sara Darling
Perth, Western Australia 2014



Although he was later to feel more at home in Asia than Australia, John Darling’s early life could be described as Melbourne establishment. Born in 1946 he was a student at Geelong Grammar where his father, Sir James Darling (knighted for his services to education and broadcasting) was headmaster. He graduated with honours from ANU and went on to gain a place at Oriel College Oxford, his father’s old college. His thesis at Oxford was to be on the “Concept of Empire”, but after a year and a half’s study he took time out for travel and adventure and set off for Asia. He flew to Kuala Lumpur, where he was instantly seduced by the sights and smells of Asia. It was his first visit to Asia but everything seemed familiar and he felt as if he belonged there. Oxford and the concept of empire now seemed very distant.

With little money he travelled by train to Singapore, then took a boat to Jakarta, his arrival marking the start of what would be a long relationship with Indonesia. He travelled by train to Jogjakarta and then on to Surabaya, and eventually took a bus and the ferry to Bali. He stayed first in Denpasar, moved to Kuta and then discovered Ubud in central Bali. At that time Ubud was a quiet town with few foreigners however it was home to many fine Balinese artists and musicians, and increasingly it was becoming a destination for Western artists. 

After a few months in Ubud he made his way back to Australia where he travelled and struggled to work out what he wanted to do with his life. Out of respect for his parents’ wishes he returned to Britain to resume his studies. Oxford was intellectually stimulating but in spite of coming under the influence of some of the 20th century’s great thinkers (he mentioned in particular Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper) he never finished his degree and headed back to Bali in 1969.

This time Bali well and truly wove its spell on him and the island became his home off and on for nearly 20 years. He later wrote of his early impressions:

When I first arrived in Bali in the early seventies I was seeking a place in which to develop my obscure talents. Bali provided a perfect environment for such a period of personal development. Not only was it scenically beautiful but also the Balinese themselves had achieved a way of life in harmony with an environment which they have, over centuries, carefully carved and moulded from the rugged terrain of their blessed island. It struck me as a place where it was normal to follow creative pursuits.

John was always a deep thinker and at heart an artist, and this was the early seventies, the height of the Hippy era. It is no wonder that he was attracted to the spirituality and aesthetics of the Balinese and that he embraced aspects of Balinese Hinduism. He made many Balinese friends and was also part of a milieu of foreign artists, photographers and anthropologists. Through his friendship with Rudolf Bonnet, who over many years had done much to assist and encourage Balinese artists, he met painters and carvers who were to make a huge contribution to the cultural life of Ubud and surrounding villages. However his meeting with the great artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, described by John in the early part of this book, was quite by chance. 

He had little money in those early years and claimed that his only possession was an albino cow that lived in his garden; because of its lack of colour it had been shunned by the locals. Living in Bali was then cheap, he said that at the time you could live well but simply on $700 a year. 

John is best known as a filmmaker but his early ambition was to be a poet. Writing in the eighties, he describes here how he started to embrace the idea of filmmaking as the means of expressing his feelings for Bali:

I hope that one day the poetry that I wrote during my first years in Bali will find some recognition. But what happened to me, hardly surprising given the nature of the island, was that Bali subverted me. The way of life around me soon dominated my thinking. It became apparent that here was a story to tell and that I owed it to my friends and neighbours on the island to help them tell it. Furthermore, it became obvious that the medium of film was the means in which to tell these stories. Poetry and film, after all have much in common – imagery, symbols, myth, rhythm and other resonances beyond the immediate.

He started earning money working with visiting filmmakers. He was useful because he knew the language, he had contacts and he was familiar with local customs. He said that he gained the reputation as a “Mr Fix-It” and would assist with a variety of tasks relating to putting a film together.

When Lempad died in 1978 at an incredible age, estimated at 116 years by his son Gusti Made Sumung, suggested that John make a film about the cremation. By now John had learned from his experience with other filmmakers as well as having a natural understanding of the filmmaking process and he felt ready to embark on his first film. Fortuitously, friend and filmmaker Lorne Blair happened to turn up at just the right time with equipment and film stock and the project was possible, and in the second part of this book John describes the making of Lempad of Bali. The film became more than Lempad’s cremation, as the artist’s long life was shown against a background of episodes from Balinese history. The film was a success and he felt he had found his vocation. From that time he directed, produced and researched nine documentary films about Indonesia that have been screened in Australia and internationally. They include the three-part Bali Triptych series on Balinese culture, Bali Hash, Below the Wind and after the 2002 Bali bombings he directed and co-produced with his wife Sara, The Healing of Bali.

John describes in this memoir the making of Lempad of Bali and he touches briefly on the research that was needed to find additional imagery and factual information. But what he leaves out is the non-creative side of filmmaking, the administrative work that follows the shooting and editing and in particular the time-consuming and frustrating business of raising funds. Amongst John’s papers I was astonished by the number of files relating to this side of his work. As well as technical skill and creativity, the documentary filmmaker clearly needs perseverance and tenacity to survive the paperwork.

In 2006 John’s film was re-digitalised and made available on DVD with versions in Indonesian and English. It was launched at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival and the Indonesian version was screened on the soccer ground in Ubud and viewed by over 600 people. It was then shown in Lempad’s village where John had also lived and played continually to family and friends until 2am! Many old friends and family members were recognised by today’s generation and they regarded the film as a great tribute to Lempad.

As John intended, the text that follows is interspersed with poetry from his Bali years. He was an accomplished poet and his poetry appeared in various publications. In the draft of this book that John left he included a few of his poems. I have added others and interspersed them with his text where they seemed appropriate.

Also forming a major part of this book is a selection of photographs from John’s archive. Photographers who are known have been acknowledged but in some cases there is no indication of who the photographer is. They are probably John’s own photographs but we apologise if they were taken by someone else who is not acknowledged.

Lempad was a great Balinese artist, perhaps the greatest, but surprisingly little has been written about him, although a major work by Kaja McGowan is to be published in 2014 to coincide with an exhibition of Lempad’s work at Ubud’s Museum Puri Lukisan. John always thought that this memoir from someone who knew him and his family well could be of some value, and he was working on it during his final illness. Working with John in the months before he died and then, with Sara’s input and encouragement and with help and advice from my wife Mary, seeing the project through to completion has been personally satisfying and a great pleasure. I think John would have been happy with the end result.


Chris Hill
Fremantle, Western Australia, 2014



Chris Hill (18.6.1944 -15.8.2014) passed away whilst visiting the UK with his wife Mary. Chris was a kind, generous and wise man. The Lempad eBook reached fruition because of Chris’s steady guidance over 4 years. I am eternally grateful. – Sara Darling




the old

why do they pass away?

they seem so permanent -

like wisdom.

The old are revered in Bali. Old men are thought to be wise, women, particularly if they are widows, to be witches. Old age is a rarity in this surprisingly harsh tropical climate where disease has long been rife. As a result the old have an aura of wisdom, carrying with them the memories of times past. I Gusti Nyoman Lempad died in 1978 at the remarkable age of 116 years. He was a young married man in 1883 when the skies were blackened for months by the eruption of Krakatoa. He remembered the age of the independent rajas of Bali before the brutal conquest by the Dutch in 1906 and 1908. In those far off days of the 19th century Bali was feudal and chivalrous. If somebody was killed in a battle fought with kris and spears, the fighting was halted and would resume only after the necessary immediate death rites had taken place. There was much palace intrigue. The rajas had as many as 50 wives, all eager for the advancement of their sons. Often discreet poisoning took place. At the death of a raja devoted wives would throw themselves on the funeral pyre. 

I first met Lempad in 1970 and knew him for the last eight years of his long life. It was in the early glow that heralds the dawn before the sun rises. I was out walking in the rice-fields looking for a suitable place to enjoy the view of the sun rising beside the great mountain, Agung, which so dominates the small island. An old man with a walking stick approached me along the narrow rice-field path.

minding myself,

engrossed by the intricacy

of a seedling’s growth:


by an old man’s friendly call.

He could tell that I was trying to find an unimpeded view of the mountains. He beckoned me to follow him and so the glory of the morning was laid out before us. We sat on the grass of a padi bank to appreciate the short moment of beauty that begins the day.

half-waning moon

    at dawning day:

on a lotus cloud

stands the stupa mountain.


through a dew-jewelled web

i glimpse the lavender mountain:

the ascending sun melts the dew

and the great mountain drifts away.

Conversation was almost impossible between us as I was only new to Indonesia. Even if I had been able to speak Indonesian it would have been little use as I was to discover when I came to know him better that he only spoke Balinese. At the time I did not realise that he was out in the field to check his rice crop. 

A few days later Lempad’s son, I Gusti Made Sumung, came up to me in the street in Ubud and said that they had a small house available and that his father would like me to stay with them. Through the generosity of his son, I was welcomed into this large family and spent many of the next twenty years as their guest in Bali. I built a house on Lempad land close to where I first met this remarkable and spiritual old man.

Black rope and bamboo make my house,

I have a mouse in my straw roof

Frogs make comforting music through the night.

My lamp casts shadows on the plants

Dim in my distance a cat stalks quietly by:


I can see a few stars

But they are of another world.

On 25 April 1978, in the village of Taman in the fertile hills of central Bali, the island’s greatest artist of the century died at the conservatively estimated age of 116 years. I Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s age was cause enough for wonderment but the magnificent body of fine art that he left behind is a much greater tribute to this unusual man. He lived his creative and fulfilling life though the most traumatic century of Balinese history. Through these difficult times, his way of life and his creative work enriched the already rich culture of Bali. His spiritual development and his faith in the values of Balinese religion was a constant source of encouragement to his community through the rapid changes that dominated the 20th century.

Lempad claimed that the reason for his longevity was that, as a young man, an old respected sage had suggested to him that if he maintained a simple life, kept clear of politics and observed his sometimes demanding responsibilities to the community he would live a long and fulfilled life. Although the Balinese have long known the secrets of reading and writing, Lempad never learnt these skills and depended on inspiration from the vital theatrical traditions of Bali, though he learnt to draw the characters that made his own name in both Balinese and Latin script. Now that he is dead, the Balinese people themselves are amazed at his vision and breadth of abilities. They wonder if their small island will ever produce another like him.

The Long Life of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad

An Auspicious Arrival

Lempad was born, the third of four brothers who all passed away well before him, in Bedulu, close to Pakrisan, the most sacred river on the island, which flows through the heartland of ancient Balinese culture. On its banks stand some of the most splendid remains of the ancient kingdoms. In his youth, Lempad frequently bathed in the springs of a tenth century Buddhist monastery hewn from solid rock.

Throughout his creative life, Lempad was to recall in his sculpture and architecture the weathered images of these shrines. The family rice-fields faced onto one of the most extraordinary works of art on the island. Experts are unable to date or classify these carvings, though they believe them to be the creation of one man.

Folklore claims that the beautiful carvings on the rock wall at Yeh Pulu are the work of the mythological giant Kebo Iwa who carved them with his thumbnail. There is a personal vision in this particular sculpture outside traditional form, which it appears influenced the young Lempad.

The Gianyar district, of which Bedulu is part, has witnessed two periods of historical interest. The first was in mythological times, the second began in the unsettled times of the 1840s when the Dutch first began their attempts to subdue and control the island. The first Raja of Gianyar emerged as the ruler of a new and distinct state in the late 18th century. 

Previously, the territory now called Gianyar had been divided among the kingdoms of Klungkung, Bangli, Mengwi and Badung. By the 1800s the Dewa Agung, the ruler of Klungkung and the lineal descendent of the Majapahit, had lost much of his political power and prestige after being defeated by his eastern neighbour, Karangasem. The vacuum in power was exploited by an ambitious village leader of noble descent who by means of deceit, poisonings and war, gained mastery over his neighbouring villages and then expanded his control over the vast area.

This upstart was not welcomed by the other established rulers of Bali and throughout the 19th century there was a confused series of wars between the kingdoms of southern Bali. Finally, hard-pressed on all sides, the ruler of Gianyar formed an agreement with the Dutch government which was formalized in 1900. While the Dutch struggled to subdue the rest of Bali, which climaxed in the horrors of the 1906 and 1908 puputans, Gianyar flourished under this protectorate arrangement. The palace of Gianyar and the lesser royal courts of the kingdom became the centres of a renaissance of traditional Balinese art forms.

Lempad was born into this period of intrigue and petty wars around 1862. His father, I Gusti Ketut Mayukan, was also a fine craftsman, being particularly renowned for his abilities in making masks for the topeng (mask dance drama). When he was still a young boy of ten years or so he was assisting his talented father to create a magic barong cult-mask for the people of the village of Pedjeng, near Bedulu, when his father was summoned by the ruler of the district whose palace was at Blahbatu. Lempad’s father, fearing this summons, asked a friend in the palace what it was about. The friend warned him that due to misinformation passed on by a jealous rival he was about to be exiled to the dry and barren island of Nusa Penida southeast of Bali.

Lempad’s son, I Gusti Made Sumung, described this event:

My grandfather was getting too successful for some people’s liking. His star was on the ascendant and this was causing jealousy. So he asked the Prince for permission to move away. But a good friend heard that the Prince was planning to exile him and his entire family to a remote island. That night Lempad and his family slipped out of Bedulu and eventually came to Ubud, which at that time was a minor Princedom that could not even boast a royal palace.

The ambitious Prince of Ubud was quick to take advantage of young Lempad’s talents. He was apprenticed to a leading priestly caste craftsman of the district and from this man he learnt most of his skills. A palace to rival those of the great kingdoms was built with his help. Living in the palace Lempad was quick to learn the many skills required in building. In the evenings he would listen to readings from the great classics and thus he developed his philosophy of life. As the prestige of the region spread, temples and palaces sprouted above the mud walls and Lempad was kept constantly busy, and the Ubud of today is largely of his making. Lempad’s artistic style in the formative years was firmly set within the traditional mould of Balinese design. But the quirkish humour that was to dominate his later work was already in evidence.


Undagi Lempad, the Complete Artist

During his lifetime, Lempad earned the spontaneous honorific title of undagi. This title is bestowed by the general feeling of the community as a token of respect to the skills of a master craftsman. An undagi is a builder, an architect, a painter, a sculptor, a dancer and a choreographer. Lempad was all of these; he designed and carved temples; he made many of the wonderful and benign beasts of magic called barong; for royal cremations he was often called upon to oversee the making of the magnificent paraphernalia that accompanied such illustrious persons on their last journeys; he carved masks out of wood, reliefs and standing sculptures out of stone and drew superbly with a confident and exotic line; and in his own village he was the instigator of a marvellous dance group. However, due to his humility Lempad never claimed the title of undagi for himself.

Lempad was the epitome of the complete Balinese artist and man. His life of light was a victory against the powers of darkness and underlying all his creative work was the understanding that art is not for the self-gratification of the artist but for the continuing welfare of the community and hence for the glory of the gods that are the determiners of mankind’s existence. He believed that he was re-incarnated on this earth to create what the gods directed. He was happy to make whatever people with a pure heart requested of him, but most important to him were the cremation towers that transport souls of the dead to the other world and the cremation bulls which make the journey a smooth one. For Lempad, as for all Balinese, his life was no more that one adventure in a continuous cycle of incarnation.

During the late 1880s and 1890s the kingdom of Ubud was engaged in a series of small wars with Mengwi and Negari. Ubud was generally successful in these wars. Lempad served his new masters as a warrior and ambassador.

Lempad married, as is Balinese tradition, while still a young man of about twenty years. He remembered that this was before the great eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. He then moved out of the palace into his own house on land sold to him by the cokorda (prince) of Ubud. Over the years Lempad’s new home took on the air of a small museum, filled with the art he created for his own pleasure. Unfortunately, over the years it became apparent that his wife was unable to have children. So, in about 1910, following Balinese custom he married her younger sister as a second wife. The three of them lived together in harmony bringing up their five children until the first wife’s death in the 1940s. Lempad’s second wife, his widow and the mother of his children, was a serene old lady who was still making the family’s offerings when well over a hundred years old.


Chaos Comes to Bali

There is a tension everywhere

As the thunder grumbles slowly


The sky darkens

And the midday stillness

Is disturbed by rebel eddies of the wind

The 1940s brought the Second World War to Bali. Fulfilling the ancient prophesy of the Javanese sage, Joyoboyo, the yellow monkey came from the east and put the white ox in a cage. The image of Western man’s invincibility was demolished. The Japanese promised friendship and liberation, but the Indonesians were soon to discover that one master had simply been replaced by another. Eventually the tides of war changed and the Japanese were expelled to be followed by a four year war of Independence against the returning Dutch.

During these years of chaos, Lempad retreated into a meditative state and produced almost no works of art. Family and friends were convinced that he would soon die. He later explained that the disarray of the world obliged him to turn inwards in search of personal serenity. His only major work of this time is the remarkable carving of his ancestors, which he carved in a hard white stone for his family temple in Bedulu. It is a work of quiet religious power.


New Work Aged Ninety

Elusive knowledge,

A product of receptive seeing

Coming to us

In black and white

And hot and cold

And nature rhythms,

Oh what are we

But receptacles

Which occasionally overflow

Few believed it possible that at the age of ninety he was to begin a remarkably creative artistic renaissance. When the prince of Ubud was released from imprisonment he wished to give thanks to the gods for bringing an end to troubled times. He commissioned Lempad to design and build a temple to Dewi Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and the arts. This magnificent temple with its beautifully proportioned lotus pond is now a tourist attraction in central Ubud. Inside the temple Lempad himself carved the giant freestanding figure of Jero Gede Mecaling, the demon of the sea, as a guardian for the southern aspect. In the northeast corner he designed and supervised the building and carving of a great padmasana, an altar to the Supreme God-Head. On the back of this altar is the image of the goddess Saraswati riding on her goose. It is appropriate that Lempad’s most monumental work should be dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and the arts.

Soon after building this temple he was engaged by the village of Ubud to re-build the great gate for the village Pura Desa (community temple), which is on the main roadway close to the centre of the village. In 1955 he built a new great gateway crowned with the great face of the protector Boma for the important state temple of Pura Samuan Tiga in Bedulu. Pura Samuan Tiga’s annual festival was being held at the time of his death. The evening before he died he sent his daughter here to give offerings. She had no idea that through her he was notifying the gods of his intended passing.

His incredible burst of energy since turning ninety was not confined to monumental architecture and carving, his painting style also underwent a renaissance. His line became even more refined and dramatic as can be seen in the painting of the “Dreaming of Dharmawangsa” which now hangs in the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud. In another painting the great god Siwa decides to test his wife’s faithfulness by sending her to earth to get milk from a virgin cow. Disguising himself as a handsome cow-herd, Siwa offers to provide it for her if she will mate with him. Eventually determined to fulfil her task, she agrees, but suddenly distressed by her unfaithfulness, she pulls free and Siwa’s sperm falls to the ground. From this grows the demonic and destructive Bhatara Kala. The three petal symbol on one fang indicates his semi-divine status. The western visitor on the other is Lempad’s ironical addition to the legend. Bhatara Kala is the god of catastrophe.

Lempad did not forget his duties to the art community and in the 1950s he became the founder-teacher at Golongan Pelukis art school in Ubud. In 1956 he assisted Rudolf Bonnet with the building of the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud. In 1961 he was called upon to design and build the naga banda, the cosmic serpent which guides the soul of the deceased to the appropriate heaven and the lembuh (cremation bull) for the cremation of the last Raja of Gianyar. Even in 1976, two years before his death and at the age of 114 he designed and supervised his grandson in the building of a naga banda for the cremation of one of the princes of Ubud.

In 1970, on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Indonesia, Lempad was the recipient of the first Piagam Anugrah Seni award for his contribution to Indonesian art. This was a due acknowledgment from his own government which parallels the fact that many of his fine works, including a full barong, carved gamelan stands and drawings are held by many museums of the world. In 1976 Lempad presented a drawing of the Balinese legend of the moon eclipse to the American astronaut Ronald E. Evans. His family obtained a television set just two months before his death providing a startling glimpse to Lempad of the world the tourists came from. I have sometimes wondered what this experience meant to the grand old man. 

In his final years Lempad had already started to break his links with the material world. For days in a row he would sit in silent meditation or gazing at his works of the past. He spent the last two years of his life on his final unfinished sculpture, a mask of a young soul. He had journeyed through the most traumatic century of Balinese history from the age of omnipotent princes to that of television and astronauts.


The End of a Long Life

My father had heard during many discussions in the palaces that it was best to die when the sun was rising in the northeast. So he waited during his last year for the proper time to die. Many people asked him why it was taking him so long to die? He replied: I cannot yet see the true path. I must wait until the sun rises in the northeast. Then I can die. 

– I Gusti Made Sumung from the film Lempad of Bali.

Lempad died a conscious death. He chose an appropriate day on the Balinese calendar for such a transition. 25 April 1978 was the day kajang kliwon of the Balinese calendar; the sun in its cycle was at its northern most point close to the sacred mountain where it is believed the gods and ancestors dwell. Three temples, all of importance to him (Pura Besakih, the state temple; the Pura Dalem the death temple of his village; and Pura Samuan Tiga in Bedulu where he was born and for which he had carved the great gate in 1955), were in the process of having their temple festivals at the time when the Balinese people believe the gods are in attendance in the world of man. Before he died, he called his family to him, asked to be washed and then dressed in white. After blessing his descendants and asking them to complete whatever he had left unfinished; he died at 8:30am. under the gentle caresses of his family.

On 25 April 1978, Lempad set out on the hazardous journey across the bridge of death, back to the place where all things originate. A temple-bell tolled his passing. It called the village community to the aid of his family. Together they must prepare the body for the cycle rituals that will eventually lead to one of the world’s most impressive death rites – the Balinese cremation.

Balinese religion is a dynamic blending of Hindu-Buddhism and ancient Indonesian animism. There are clear distinctions between the material body, the soul and a third element, which we might call the astral being. This is composed of several subtle and immaterial elements that form the being. The soul and the astral being are the eternal elements that continue into future incarnations. At death the return to the realm of ancestors is but a transitional phase – a regeneration – before re-incarnation within the same family.

The purification of Lempad’s body was supervised by the village priest-healer, and family friend. The corpse was anointed with a sweet smelling concoction of ground blossoms, rice flour and egg yolk; a powerful symbol of regeneration. Family and friends bathed him with holy water. Although the Balinese know birth and death to be a time when evil forces can threaten the living, they accept it as their duty to personally prepare the body of a loved one. They regard the western habit of assigning this task to a professional as barbaric.

Mirrors in the eyes assure clear vision in the next incarnation, a metal comb on the mouth guarantees strong, sharp teeth and a ruby ring on the tongue promises eloquent speech. Each of his chakras – the power points that tie his astral being together – were adorned with offerings. Thus dressed the corpse is held aloft and all female descendants passed underneath. An acknowledgement of the descent and the origin of their fertility.

Once the body was wrapped and laid out to await cremation, attention concentrated on the preparation of the soul for the journey of the astral being and the soul. A lantern was hung at the door of the house so that Lempad’s wandering spirit could be guided back to his material body, lying at rest in the main pavilion of the house. A high priest of the most elevated caste, through secret formulas of hand gestures, voice and heart, prepares Holy Water. Family and friends then pray and extend their blessings to the soul of the deceased. The Balinese do not grieve unnecessarily over the death. For them, this life is no more than one adventure in a continuous cycle of incarnation.

Cremations play their part in preserving the arts because everyone in the community is able to contribute according to their talents. Soon after Lempad’s death, preparations began on his cremation bull and tower. Craftsmen from throughout the district, who had been students of Lempad, contributed their multiple talents. Almost the entire village community turned out every day to assist in the work. The tower will have seven roofs indicating his caste, a prince would have nine and a king, as a descendent of Majapahit, eleven. The bull’s head, spine and legs were carved from wood. The stomach was made from a bamboo basket in which the corpse will be placed for the burning. On the street outside the house Lempad’s grandson I Gusti Nyoman Sudara, who has inherited some of his grandfather’s talent, worked on carving the bull. The Lempad house stands on the busy main street of Ubud, now renowned for its artists and as a major tourist destination.

Over a period of twenty days raw blocks of wood were transformed into striking masks of supernatural beings to adorn the tower, which will carry Lempad’s body to the place of cremation. One will become Boma, a powerful guardian figure seen on all temple gateways in Bali. Another, a Garuda, the mythological great eagle will assist with the flight of the soul to the heavens. All art in Bali is transient, even the soft volcanic sandstone wears away with time, but the towers and bulls for cremations are the most startling example of this. The tower and bull the results of weeks of inspired artistry are transformed to the ashes in the span of a few hours.

These lavish preparations were costly but the family’s finances in this case were not overly strained. All labour was provided free and many of the materials contributed by friends. The black velvet for the bull for example was a gift from the prince of Ubud. The family’s main expense was food as a feast was provided for the voluntary helpers every day. Pork is the principal meat for such feasts. The pork is minced before being mixed with coconut gratings, lemon and herbs, then pasted onto a bamboo skewer before being grilled to become a delicious variety of satay.

Traditionally men do most of the cooking for communal feasts as the women are kept constantly busy preparing the essential offerings. Lempad’s surviving second wife supervised the making of this multitude of offerings that were required for the cremation rite. Rice pastry was kneaded into complex forms before being fried in coconut oil. Despite their transient nature, offerings are among the most refined art forms of the island. An important offering effigy at the cremation is the angenan as it represents the deceased’s spiritual being. A rice-filled coconut shell represents the heart, twined threads the mind and an eggshell lamp the soul. It is placed in the bull to be burned with the body.

At Pura Samuan Tiga, where in 1955 Lempad had carved a great Boma head, Lempad’s son, I Gusti Made Sumung, had a white cloth inscribed by the local priest. The priest drew symbols of the various elements that make up Lempad’s astral being – the kanda empat (the four spiritual brethren) and the chakra points. The Balinese believe that without such a cloth the spiritual being would break up, get lost, and never reach its proper place. The shroud (kajang) is placed on the body of the deceased and accompanies it to cremation.

Every night until cremation the immediate family kept constant vigil. They were assisted on some nights by traditional entertainment. The shadow puppet play is one of Bali’s most important dramatic forms in which ancient legends are told by a single puppeteer. Through these performances the audience can glimpse the world of their ancestors; a monochrome image of a richly-coloured reality beyond. Puppet plays were a great influence on Lempad’s drawing. Through a series of storybooks he had used the legends of Bali to express the philosophy of the island. In one of the stories he illustrated that when a young man’s bride died unexpectedly, he tore his hair and clutched her dead body to him. The great god Siwa visited earth and pointed out that the body is but a cast-off shell. While the husband clung to an illusion, she in fact lived on in another world. Admitting his folly, the husband decided to search for her in the realm of the ancestors. As Lempad told it, the journey was a quest for self-knowledge. It appeared that Lempad had been preparing for his last journey for some time.



On the night before the actual day of Lempad’s cremation a series of important rituals took place. The high priest prepared a special holy water both for the last prayers of family and friends and for the final consecration of the material body and soul of the much-loved master artist. A priest puppeteer assisted the high priest in this ritual by performing without a screen (wayang lemah). Just a thread of cotton tied between two branches of the ever-sprouting dadap tree divided the audience from the realm of ancestors.

Gusti Biang, Lempad’s daughter and eldest child, wafted incense and prayer over the body. Family and friends then prayed together before receiving holy water.

A platform piled high with offerings symbolizing the material world was then placed in the centre of the family compound. Animals, plants, farming instruments, wayang puppets and carving tools were amongst those objects represented. A pole that has been blessed by the priest represented the astral being – the four spiritual brethren and chakra points. This pole was attached by a symbolic red umbilical cord to an offering which carried like a young baby, represented the soul. This procession circled the platform which represented the material world three times. Then with loud cries this symbol of the material world was thrown in the air and destroyed. This symbolically severed the soul and astral being from any last attachments to the material world. Now the task of destroying Lempad’s body by fire could commence the next day.

Early the next morning the tower, a symbol of the three worlds; earth, mankind and the heavens, which reflects the holy mountain of Gunung Agung is placed out on the street with the black bull. The sole physical purpose of the tower is to transport the body of Lempad one mile to the cremation ground near the death temple. A gamelan orchestra arrived to entertain during the morning hours while the courtyard of the house was filled with guests who had come to pay their last respects. An old man had remembered that the wooden instrument stands had been carved by Lempad many years before and he had brought the gamelan to give due honour to the deceased.

The streets of Ubud were packed with people, both Balinese and tourists. The hotels on the beaches to the south were informed of a cremation and busloads of tourists, most of them unaware of who was actually being cremated, filled the road between Lempad’s house and the cremation ground. One interested guest was Paloma Picasso, a curious and coincidental link between two of the greatest and most prolific artists of the twentieth century.

Around midday the body of Lempad is carried from the house, ridden by one of the princes of Ubud, symbolically showing that he had spent much of his life as a servant of the palace. Once the body was placed in the tower and accompanied by a cacophony of gongs the procession made its way to the place of burning. At the cremation ground in front of the temple of Durga, the goddess of death, a temple to which Lempad had, in earlier years, contributed his carvings, the body was transferred from the tower to the bull in preparation for the cremation. The black velvet of the bull was slashed and the body lifted into the bull. The pedanda (high priest) placed the angenan, the shroud and other offerings in with the body. The body was doused with holy water to guide Lempad’s spirit in the annihilation of the hells attached to earthly life and to point out the path to the seven heavens of his caste.

The bull and the tower were then set alight. All things concerned with death are regarded by the Balinese as ritually unclean and therefore polluting and must be burnt. As the fire consumes the bull the torso of the bull collapsed to reveal the burning corpse suspended on wires. Lempad’s wife and friends throw gifts of betel nut into the flames; a last taste of earthly pleasures to accompany him in his long journey.

On the day following the cremation, the final disposal of Lempad’s body took place. What few bits of human ash and bone that survived the flames are gathered together. No human remains must be overlooked as they might lure him back and bind him forever to the material world. Then Lempad’s descendants took turns, using their left hands on which they wore a heavy bracelet of old Chinese coins, to grind these remains into a fine ash. Later that night, at a beach twenty kilometres away, the ashes of the deceased were cast into the sea. The mortal remains of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad and memories spanning five generations were finally disposed of. The old man could become a young soul and gain rest with his ancestors in the land of origin.


Hear the regular

thump of waves on black sand,

this breezeless night.


the priest’s bell rings

echoes from bright starts

in ancient ritual:

descending generations


in homage and farewell

to the ashes of the material body

of an aged and honoured ancestor

just gathered

from the imperious charr’d bull.


beyond the waves,

from a becalmed canoe,

these mortal remains

are thrown into black sea wastes.


a soul rises

with the crescent moon

this breezeless night.


For twelve days the family anxiously awaited a sign from their ancestor that something may have been overlooked. If it had been, further complicated rituals would have been required. No sign came and so on the twelfth dawn they descended to the same beach of black volcanic sand to bid a tender and final farewell to the greatest Balinese artist of the century.




Lempad and Western Influence


Classic Balinese Art

To provide some context for Lempad’s art, particularly his paintings, it is useful to look at the origins of the tradition that he was to put his distinctive mark upon. Balinese painting owes its origins to the new courts that settled at Gelgel, near Klungkung, in southern Bali. This style of painting, using natural pigment on hand woven cloth, is derived from the two-dimensional cut-out figures of the wayang kulit – the shadow puppet theatre of Java and Bali. Variously called Wayang or Kamasan, it is still practised today in the village of Kamasan, whose craftsmen are supported by the court of the Dewa Agung, the leading Raja and lineal descendent of the old Hindu-Javanese Majapahit empire.

In ancient times, Balinese artisans were multi-faceted. They could sculpt, draw and paint, although the latter medium was only expressed through three definite forms: ider-ider (long scrolls), tabing (squares) and langse (hangings). Before the 20th century, such paintings were commissioned as decorations for the palace or temple, but because of their religious subject matter and ultimate destinations, remained unsigned. In Bali, the painter was traditionally a craftsman working for the greater glory of his gods, or for the rajahs and princes who represented the gods on earth.

By the end of the 19th century armed conflicts between rival kingdoms caused the Dutch to become more involved with island affairs. Between 1908 and 1938, Dutch administrators did their best to preserve Balinese culture by interfering as little as possible in the island’s centuries-old traditions. But while they brought peace, they also brought taxes and a new wave of tourists. Throughout the thirties the number of wealthy globetrotters visiting Bali from Europe and America increased dramatically, drawn by the lure of exotic dance performances and the opportunity to acquire articles of value for next to nothing. The new wave of visitors also brought much-needed cash, thus changing the traditional structure of artistic patronage. It was against this background that the time of one of Bali’s greatest artistic renaissances began.


Western Influence and New Creative Possibilities

Among the westerners who arrived on Bali’s shores were already-established European artists, including Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and Miguel Covarrubias. They brought with them not only a background in classical and avant-garde western art, but also the necessary tools of their profession: water colours, oil paints, pre-cut paper and canvas. Within this context of change, new styles of Balinese painting came into being, to a large extent influenced by these artists. The rigid conventions of the traditional style were no longer binding. Instead of illustrating stories from the great Hindu epics, some Balinese artists began to depict scenes of everyday life and nature in their work.

In 1927, Klungkung was still the centre for traditional painting, while new art was springing up in Ubud, Batuan and Sanur. Although both Sanur and Ubud had close contact with the European artists, the theory that Balinese art leaped from “medieval” to “modern” because of the intervention of foreigners ignores the distinctly individual achievement of artists who were independently creative before 1930.

The most important of Balinese art’s transitional figures was I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Rudolf Bonnet, the Dutch artist and, after the war the founder of the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud, related to me that when he first arrived in Ubud in early 1929 Lempad already appeared to be an old man. Lempad was in his late sixties when Walter Spies, who arrived in Bali in 1927, gave him his first paper. Lempad was at this time assisting Spies build his house at Campuan near Ubud. His earliest known drawing is held by the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. It tells the Rajapala story in which the seven celestial nymphs, symbols of divine inspiration, fly down to bathe in an earthly pool where they are spotted by a young prince who, by stealing the scarf of one them, persuades her to remain and give him a child. This earliest drawing on paper is still and unsure, though it already indicates the dexterity that became his trademark. In the fifty years following, the pen and ink drawings that flowed from Lempad’s hand were never simply a naive imitation of European techniques. While his style had its origins in tradition, he developed an unusual freedom in exploring the symbolic richness of the legends of his homeland.

Between 1935 and 1940, the new art of Bali was in full bloom under the guidance of the Pita Maha (Noble Aspiration), an artists organisation founded by the Prince of Ubud, Corkoda Gde Agung Sukawati, with the guidance of Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet. Although it appears an unlikely appointment, Lempad, who could neither read nor write was recorded as the secretary of this organization. By providing new materials and encouragement, but no deliberate tutoring, these men helped launch a renaissance of the arts – fired by the tourists who were actually prepared to pay money for art – much to the amusement of the Balinese.

More than 150 artists from all over Bali joined Pita Maha. This organization provided both inspiration and a forum of consultation for members, as well as quality control and distribution for their works. This new set of group ties lifted members from the context of normal village life and provided them with a sense of community in the confrontation between their secluded island and the values of the west.

The 1930s were a particularly creative time for Lempad. It was during this decade that he spent some time working with the Dutch sculptor, van der Norda. The life size Pied Piper of Hamlyn and the freestanding Balinese couple in ceremonial dress which still dominate the family compound are products of this period. He rebuilt the family ancestor temple in Bedulu, including the remarkable top-heavy gateway of great stone blocks.

It was delightfully described to us by I Gusti Made Sumung:

When the big earthquakes of 1963 struck, this was the only great gate around that suffered no damage. What makes it different from others, if I may say so, is that it slightly resembles the work of Kebo Iwa, the giant. Just look at that stone! He used it just as it came from the quarry. He didn’t chop it up small to then make it big…(as is usual in Bali)…If you want to make something big why not use a big stone. It is like Gusti Lempad himself, from the outside it looks very simple, but inside, the engineering is very complicated.


During the latter years of the 1930’s Lempad gained a reputation amongst the small western community on the island for his erotic drawings and books of drawings on the largely Balinese folk-tales such as; Pan Bruyut, Dukuh Suladri, Jayaprana, Gagak Turas and Sutasoma. This along with the fact that his son, I Gusti Made Sumung, acted as secretarial assistant to Jane Belo, a long term resident of the island who was married to the famous musicologist and composer Colin McPhee, attracted attention to him. Writing at a later date (I believe the early 1940s) Jane Belo described their impressions of Lempad. He was then 78 years old with another 38 years to live.


We first met him in 1932 when we came to live at Tjampoean. At that time he looked much as he does now, he had the same mild gentle ways, was always slow to speak and most polite. But he did not seem as feeble as he does now. I remember I was so very much impressed by his good manners, his modesty, kindness and generosity that I said to Walter (Spies) he seemed to me the perfect type of Balinese aristocrat. Walter agreed, and we laughed because the Tjokordas were so different. If they were all like Goesti Njoman, we said, what a different place Oeboed (Ubud) would be. (At this time I considered a Goesti to be pretty highborn, possible because I knew the royal families of Badoeng and Kapal were Goestis, and I did not realize what a step down from a Tjokorda a goesti is considered to be in Oeboed.) He was at the time also much more prosperous than he is now, one felt rather ashamed to ask him to make anything for money, and one had to urge and press it upon him. He wanted to give everything away.


Margaret Mead, writing in 1938, also commented on his refinement of character:


He is a gentle, worried man, riddled by the fear of debt, and the burden of gratitude. I do not feel that he is anxious, however. Slender, worn down by exertion, with very old-fashioned manners, unwilling ever to make a point in his own favour, incapable of bargaining…The two wives, who are sisters, one childless, are both slender fine grained women…They live right in Oeboed, with a great courtyard filled with high taro plants, and a permanent taring (thatched palm-leaf covering) under which work is done, giving the place the effect of a tumble down winter garden. There are beautiful carved bales (pavilion), carved by his father who also was a great toekang (craftsman).


On his work Mead commented:

He has a very distinctive style, a line that is always recognizable, and all attempts to use his tjontos (sketches) or imitate him always show up…But his method of work is exceedingly alien to any western sentimental valuations; he makes a tjonto on tracing paper, with a firm, finished line, and then lets people order from the tjontos. When they have made a selection he sews their batches together and puts the identical design on white paper. His sketching line is lovely. He has always done every type of work, practically; he does leather work, stone work, woodcarving. He says Walter taught him how to work with paper and paint … He works all the time and very hard. (These quotes from Belo and Mead are from their field-notes in the “Mead Collection” held by the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.).


The Making of the Film Lempad of Bali

A few hours after Lempad’s death I called at the family compound to offer my services for the demanding and elaborate tasks that make up the traditional Balinese rituals of death. To these people death is not normally a time of great sadness but merely a transition within the endless cycle of re-incarnation. They believe that the spirit and soul is continually re-incarnated within the same family descent group. With a man such as Lempad who had unquestionably lived a rewarding life, there was no sadness in evidence. What was important though was that the rituals and accompanying paraphernalia should be correct in every way so as to assure the successful destruction of his material body and his soul’s true liberation from the world of man.

By the time I reached the compound many of the village people were already there. They were delivering coconuts and bamboo and beginning to prepare those things that would be necessary for the ceremonies to follow. I offered to do whatever I could to assist in this great work. Made Sumung, who was fully aware of my incompetence as a craftsman of bamboo and wood, took me aback by suggesting that I should make a film of the cremation. My immediate reply was that this was an impossibility as I had no equipment or even film stock let alone expertise for such a task. However, strange things have been known to happen in this island of the gods. Later that day I ran into a filmmaker friend, Lorne Blair, who had just arrived in Bali from a filming trip in the interior of Kalimantan (Borneo). Lorne still had his equipment and luckily two unused rolls of film. We started filming immediately and were able to record the never before filmed ritual of the washing of the body of the deceased.

The second unusual co-incidence of that day was that I received a cable from friends in Australia informing me that they were coming to Bali in a few days and was there anything that I needed. After much difficulty with the antiquated telephone system, I was able to arrange that we should receive enough raw stock to cover the complete death rituals, as they progressed over the next twenty days and nights. Co-incidences such as these which continued throughout the making of the film convinced us that the spirit of Lempad was aiding us in our endeavours. Certainly his presence was very much in evidence during the twenty days that saw the making of the elaborate seven-tiered tower which carried his body to the cremation ground and the magnificent noble bull in which his body was burnt. These two splendid examples of the transient arts of Bali were created by Lempad’s descendants and those he had taught during his long, creative life.

The film we made shows the craftsmen at work constructing the tower and bull. It also follows the rituals which part the soul and the astral being from the mortal body and the material world in close detail, including the burning of the body and the throwing of the ashes into the sea. However, while we were filming these activities, it became apparent to us that in making a film about such a man as Lempad, it was not enough to purely record the Balinese ritual of death which, after all are pretty much the same for any of the higher castes of Bali. Cremations are possibly the most photographed event of Balinese life. Many films of specific royal cremations have been made (the first in 1926) and are still being produced. We decided to add two further themes into the structure of the cremation rites.

The idea developed that we should attempt to show Lempad’s unique life through his art and the changing times of Bali over the last hundred years in a manner similar to Balinese genealogical histories, called babad, which do their part in reinforcing the identity of the present generation by making them proud of their ancestors. A trip to Holland and New York provided us with some superb visual material to develop the historical themes. Much of this material has never been published and, in the case of the archival film, very seldom shown.

A slightly controversial aspect of our babad approach has been our use of the tapel tua (old man’s mask) to represent Lempad’s astral being. It is certainly used as a transitional cinematic technique and, as such, it successfully fulfils its purpose. However, there is more to it than just a cinematic trick. The tapel tua comes from topeng which is the masked dance plays in which babad stories are told. Furthermore, this mask itself represents I Gusti Gauh Bale Dangin, who was an aged minister of the court of Gelgel in the 15th century. It is appropriate that the character on which the mask is based was a Gusti, the same caste as I Gusti Nyoman Lempad himself. In our film the location in which the mask is filmed is the merajan, the temple for the ancestors of Lempad’s family.

Of course for me, the most critical audience was my Balinese friends, particularly Lempad’s family and the people of the village of Taman Kelod. One such screening remains in my memory. It was at the time of the family temple odalan (anniversary). The house courtyard was packed, the temple shrines finely decorated, the ancestral deities in attendance. The high priest who had officiated at Lempad’s cremation, having completed his immediate rituals watched from his high stand. The film was viewed, in a way, as a shadow puppet performance for the living and the spiritual guests. It appeared to us that our work had passed its most stringent test.

I Gusti Made Sumung, Lempad’s son had an interesting response to the film. He told me that he was grateful that we had made the film as it provided a visual record for him and his family of those who had contributed their labour to making the cremation a success. Knowing this they would be able to repay the honour done to Lempad.

The film has been quite successful around the world for which we are all grateful. 




refracted in the eyes,

(like well springs)

of a quiet old man

once met

with grazing cow

and calf,



at peace,


in nature’s rhythms,

slowly stared 

far to the mountains

or deep into a flower;

was the light of a life lived pure.

©2016 Taman Sari Productions Pty. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the publisher.

The publication of this website and eBook would not have been possible without support from the
Herb Feith Foundation.