Ida Bagus Njana (Nyana) 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. He spread his religious reforms by travelling around the island. In Mas, the local headman gave him one of his daughters, Sang Ayu Mas Gemitir. Their son from his marriage in Mas, Ida Putu Mas, started the Brahmana Mas line. The temple of origin of the Brahmana Mas is located across the road from Njana’s old house. 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. From time to time, after making the appropriate offerings, his father would take them down and show his son. So, even if some people later called Njana ‘uneducated’, because he spoke neither Dutch nor Malay, he was actually steeped in the highly literate culture of his forebears
This learning made of Njana a traditional artist. Yet, as he reached adulthood in the thirties, change was coming. A road to Ubud was now passing through the village, in front of his house. And in the few cars that passed, there were mostly Europeans. One of them, the painter and musician Walter Spies, started a friendship with one of his uncles, Ida Bagus Ngurah, from whom he studied Balinese. As Mas was on a road on which passed the first tourists, young carvers started making small objects—birds, small effigies— for sale. This carving was not any more exclusively related to cult. It was becoming handicraft –and art.
New ideas were circulating. In 1930, Walter Spies received the visit of Gela Archipenko, the future wife of the famous sculptor Alexander Archipenko, herself a sculptor. He took her to his Mas friends, among whom she worked for a few weeks. Quickly, for Njana and his older cousin, Ida Bagus Glodog, ideas of new forms unwittingly came up. Creation could now be individualized. Before long, a new style of carving was spreading from the village, with Njana as its rising star. It was a simple style of carving, bereft of the usual coloring of wood, which pushed the ‘possibilities of the linear to its furthest limits,’ wrote the Dutch artist Bonnet (1936). This style, soon to be known as the ‘sleek’ style of Mas, was an immediate success, imitated all over Bali.
Njana’s style evolved. His elongated forms later gave way to squat ones. He gained in fame. But not in wealth. After he married, his wife, Ida Ayu Ketut Tinggal still needed to work. So she opened a small shop in the family compound, where, she could receive the various colonial officials and tourists who happened to visit the now famous village. It marked the start of the family’s involvement in business, an enterprise that would reach fruition twenty years later with another rising star, Ida Bagus Njana’s eldest son, Ida Bagus Tilem (1935).
Until late in life, Njana could be seen, awl and hammer in hand, carving yet another piece of wood, conveying to it the naïve, yet elegant simplicity that is his lasting legacy.