During a short trek in the hills of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, we met an artist by the name of Wayan Rana. Pak Wayan is a traditional painter, born into a family of artists. His grandfather was a dancer and a wood carver; his father, a stone carver.
While it was his egg paintings displayed atop a bamboo table that initially caught our attention and lured us towards him and eventually inside his small shop, it was an acrylic painting that captivated my imagination. The artwork depicted seven maidens in a forest, two of them taking a bath in a stream.
“This is a nice painting,” I remarked.
“Oh. That is the story of Raja Pala and the seven maidens. Do you know the story?”
“The one where he hides one of the maiden’s wings?” I answered Pak Wayan’s question with a question, making a guess based on the clues I saw in the painting and a story I heard from a writer two years ago. It was my first time to hear the name Raja Pala.
“Yes. Then they bore a child…”
“And later she went back to heaven after she got her wings back?” I asked, cutting him off again. It dawned on me that the story I heard wasn’t exactly original.
“Ahh… Yes!” Wayan Rana replied with a smile, obviously pleased that I seemed to know the story.
The story, as recounted by the Balinese, goes like the following. Raja Pala was a clever hunter who discovered Dedari, the secret place of heavenly maidens. While the maidens were taking a bath in a stream, he steals one of their magical gowns, the one belonging to Sulasih. Without her magical gown, Sulasih couldn’t fly back to heaven with her friends. Raja Pala successfully carries out his plan to convince Sulasih to agree to bear him a child that she has to take care for seven years before he returned her magical gown. Indeed, after bearing a son, Durma, and taking care of him for seven years, Sulasih got to return to heaven. Raja Pala gave up hunting and became a holy man.
“How much for this painting?” I asked, seriously considering buying it.
Wayan gave me his price, explaining that this was far cheaper than the amount it was sold for in a gallery in Ubud, where many of his works were also displayed. Knowing that we were also interested with the egg paintings, Wayan offered us a good price if we bought one of them together with the Raja Pala. He lowered the price further when we said we couldn’t take the carved mahogany frame because we already had too much luggage to carry back home.
The price was really good, I thought, considering that it took him nine days to finish an acrylic painting, one and a half days for a small egg and three days for a big egg painting.
“The traditional paintings take a longer time to finish than the abstract ones.” Wayan explained.
“I see. I prefer the traditional ones,” I said. It was true. I heard someone say he preferred abstract paintings because the real world could already be captured in photographs — a sentiment I didn’t share. As I gave the Raja Pala a second look, I knew I was happily saying goodbye to my original thought of having a lush landscape for my first painting purchase.
“I also prefer to make traditional paintings than abstract. Do you also paint?”
“No. As an artist, I’m a writer, at best,” I replied, wondering if he saw the connection between a painter and a writer like I did.
How we were going to bring home the painting undamaged without the frame, was the next question. But Wayan had a ready answer, said he’d put the painting between two pieces of plywood before wrapping it.
With his permission, we took pictures of some of his works. Then, reading our mind, he offered to be photographed, and I had the feeling he had done this more than once. We were more than happy to indulge and in fact, we had already taken pictures of some of the people we met in Bali – waiters, hotel staff, market vendors, the kid who sold us silver, the animal handler at the Bali Elephant Camp, our driver, and many others.
Next, I sat beside him first and had our picture taken. That was for my private album. Then I stood up to take his picture, specifically for this post.
“Where are you from?” Pak Wayan asked.
We told him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen your currency before,” Wayan stated matter-of-factly, his curiosity as an artist, obvious.
I rummaged through my wallet and took a note, offering it to him the way we were taught to present our business cards. He looked at it with great interest, scrutinizing the details front and back.
“Do you know the equivalent in rupiah?” Wayan asked.
I replied as I put my wallet back into my pocket.
Wayan, with the keen eye of a painter, noticed this.
“Oh. Are you giving me this…?”, he asked, even though he extended his hand towards us, returning the money.
“Yes. Please keep it.” I smiled and made a halting motion with my hand.
“Thank you. You are very kind,” Wayan replied, reciprocating the smile as he bowed his head slightly. I could sense his sincerity in every syllable and movement.
As we walked away from Wayan Rana with our prized artworks in our bags, we noticed the obvious void from where the painting we bought used to hang. We knew it would soon be filled again. But we also knew that other than the exchange of money and goods, the tiny joys we had bartered and the new strands of memories we had weaved left something indelible in our hearts and minds.
We wished him more voids on his wall and bulging pockets in the days to come, and a heart bloated with glee all the days of his life.