Squatting old men were a popular motif in Balinese woodcarving in the 1930’s. They represent wisdom and old age. My sculpture (shown above on the right) is depicted with a book of scriptures. The carving is very similar to an Art Deco masterpiece from the 1930s depicted in the woodcarving issue of the magazine Tourism in Netherland India (see the black and white photo on the left). The caption in the magazine reads:
An old priest meditating beside his book of scriptures. The kindly humour, pathos and strength of character of the old man, blended with the idea of the futility of all our earthly struggles and a calm repose of soul, conveyed by this piece of work are the equal of the best occidental products.
The resemblance between the two statues is striking. See for example the similarities in the face: the big hooked nose, sunken cheeks, pronounced cheekbones and the same shape of the eyebrows and eyes. The sitting position with bent knees and a book of scriptures under the arm is also the same.
But there are also a few differences. For example, my old man wears a hat against the sun and his hand rests on the pedestal instead of on his knee. The pronounced bones at the neck, shoulder and ribs look less natural than those of the sculpture from the magazine. Another striking difference is the position of the feet. The feet of the statue in the picture stand neatly next to each other while my one has put one foot on the other.
But the main difference is that the statue from the magazine is much more refined and balanced in terms of lines and composition. The carving exudes a serene tranquility. It was probably made by a master carver of Pita Maha, while my statue is a copy. You see this a lot in Balinese woodcarving. Statues of master carvers were often copied by other woodcarvers.
Nevertheless, my sculpture also has great charm and it always reminds me of the work of master carvers such as I Made Gerembuang and Ida Bagus Poetoe Taman, who made several of these old men statues. One of the most beautiful is in the collection of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The stylized figurine by Gerembuang has an ancient mystical appearance and is modern at the same time. The description of the museum reads:
Wooden statue of a very aged man who is squatting, his arms around his legs and his eyes turned to heaven. Although the man looks upwards, it’s also turned inwards. It’s a representation of a human being in the moment between life and death.
I also found this photo of a squatted old man sitting on a lotus throne, sold on Etsy. This beautiful woodcarving was according to the description on the website made around 1960. It’s carved in a more naturalistic way than the stylized statues from the 1930’s, but it’s the same theme. The squatting old men all have a serene and contemplative appearance. They seem to be in thought or meditating.
Growing old means getting closer to the end of one’s live, which in Balinese Hindu religion opens the possibility of ‘moksa’: release from the cycle of rebirth and merge with the divine. In order to achieve this, one must live in accordance with the principles of cosmic harmony; achieve good karma (quality of one’s deeds) and properly perform the social and religious dharma (duties).
Some old Balinese men therefor withdraw from active life to study the scriptures and concentrate on their religious duties. Maybe this is the deeper meaning behind the squatting old men statues; they encourage living a virtuous and religious life.