Our 2018 venue: Njana Tilem Museum

Our new venue this year, Njana Tilem Museum, was founded in honor of two famous Ubud woodcarvers: Ida Bagus Njana (Nyana) and Ida Bagus Tilem. We are excited to present the 2018 edition of TEDxUbud in this setting and in the village of Mas, known island-wide as the woodcarving village of Bali. 

Bali is known worldwide for the excellence of its wood carving, to which this museum is dedicated. A unique collection of Balinese antiques, paintings and masks is also on display. 

Njana and Tilem, father and son, each revolutionized Balinese carving. Njana embraced the change to modernity with simple carving lines that depicted the Balinese in daily life.  Njana was born in 1912 in the influential clan of the Brahmana Mas. The gate of the family house, decorated with a goose on the lintel, denoted their Brahmin origin. Otherwise the walls were of mud, because the family was poor. Now and then, the house would fill with guests, Brahmins on a visit to the village of origin of their clan, or commoners in need of holy water or a magic mantra which Ida Bagus Saren, Njana’s father, would provide against a ‘gift’ of rice. 

At times, the yard would fill with children studying dance under Ida Saren’s guidance. The family’s high social status was enshrined in rites and culture, rather than on wealth. Theirs was a poverty of prestige.The family descended from Dang Hyang Nirartha, the great saint of Balinese Hinduism, who chose to move to Bali rather than converting to Islam in the 1500s. Like their ancestors, the Mas Brahmins became priests or, like Njana, carvers and architects.Njana was taught by gurus of his own caste. He was one of the last to receive a traditional education: His main teacher was his father, a learned man and future high priest who was also a respected traditional architect (undagi) and decorator (sangging). There were also other gurus from the local Brahmin mansions. From all he learned visually, or else by attending poetry readings, puppet performances of recitals of ancient stories. In the eastern pavilion of his home were boxes containing manuscripts with the rules of Balinese architecture and iconography.

Tilem carried on the transformation by using the naturally distorted form of wood to express human emotions in a more abstract form. Tilem was born in 1936. His early life was not different from that of any other young Brahmin: he was poor in the midst of a world of dance and holy books. While his father, already a well-known carver, spent his days carving alone in his own pavilion, his grand-father was preparing himself to become a high priest. Not allowed to play with his father’s instruments, Tilem learned by seeing him carving. All the more so as, now and then, a Westerner would show up, inquiring about his father’s works. The youth understood there was value in it.

From 1942 to 1945, Tilem could not go to school. It was the days of the Japanese occupation. What did he do? When not looking for food, he sharpened his eyes and techniques, turning pieces of wood into small animals. Then, at 10, upon the defeat of Japan, he could at last go to school in Mas. When back from school he would carve. In 1946, the Dutch were back –for a couple of years– and photos started circulating in the Western press of a young genius next to the great master. It was Tilem, barely 12. Soon, the young genius was peddling his father’s carving to the shops of Sanur and Denpasar. In 1949, he could buy his first bicycle.

In 1952, he went to study to junior high school in Denpasar, entrusted to a family of Denpasar Brahmins. But his father was soon unable to pay his school and living expenses. Rather than giving up, he took to carving after his school hours. Better he would hang about Denpasar hotels, looking for tourists he could invite to talk and thus improve his English.

The collections are displayed in a monumental setting reminiscent of past Majapahit architecture.