This statue of an old squatted man 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 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 bag under the arm is also the same.
But there are also a few differences. For example, my aged 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.
There was much debate in the Balinese woodcarvings Facebookgroup about the meaning of these kind of statues. According to the caption in the 1934 magazine, the sculpture in the black and white photograph is:
‘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.’
Modern experts though agree that it’s more likely that it’s just an ordinary old man. His ‘book of scriptures’ is actually a traditional bag (kompek) for carrying daily necessities such as areca nuts, betel leaves and tobacco. The bag and sun hat (caping) are both made from woven bamboo or coconut leaves. I’ve seen similar statues where the man also holds a kris or another utensil. He’s probably an old farmer resting from his work at the rice fields.
These aged men and also women are a popular motif in Balinese woodcarving art. They represent wisdom and old age. This is also reflected in the many busts of old people with wrinkled faces.
One of the most beautiful old men statues can be seen in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The woodcarving of a naked squatting man looking up was made by Pita Maha master carver I Made Gerembuang. His stylized sculpture has an old 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.’