It was clear from the onset that he was born to tell stories. Each of his movements was deliberate. Every expression had purpose. His entire approach commanded attention and I was determined to ingrain to memory (and memory card) as much of the experience as possible.
We met the puppet master at his home, located a short drive outside of Ubud, Bali. It didn't feel like too many visitors from out of town - who seemed to largely consist of yoga enthusiasts, Elizabeth Gilbert devotees, and/or Australians on holiday - made their way out to this particular area. As he approached our group of 15 American travelers, and he took time to look each of us in the eye as part of his greeting, I realized that missing the chance to meet this man was their loss.
At 74, the puppet master had been devoted to wayang - shadow puppetry - for more than 52 years. After more than a half century of study and focus, the puppets he crafted and showcased were clearly still objects of incredible enthusiasm. After a short tour of his property, he led us to a table where family members were working on new pieces: punching careful and intricate holes through the leather and painting facial features on each puppet.
Through a translator, members of our group asked a few questions about the process, wayang performances, and his family. While I'd been quietly observing and photographing him, I had to add my own question to the mix.
"Which character is your favorite?"
As the translator relayed the question, the puppet master's face lit up. He held up one particular piece and spoke warmly. A particular servant, he said, was his favorite. Fun and funny, the puppet master enjoyed bringing him to life very much. Based on his reaction, it felt like it wasn't the type of question he was often asked, and we exchanged a smile as I thanked him.
Shortly thereafter, I watched him bring the puppets to life. Sitting cross-legged on a short stage, his son playing traditional gamelan instruments behind him, the puppet master gave us a quick taste of the wayang experience. He deftly jumped from one voice to another, held up to four puppets at a time, and wove together a story that I was able to understand despite the language barrier. And despite the fact that he'd surely told this story thousands of times over the decades, his face was full of so much joy and enthusiasm. He reveled in each exchange between characters. He laughed and shouted and scowled as needed. He seemed completely engrossed with the world he was creating and sharing with us.
Something else struck me, too, perhaps this struck me because I was in his presence on my birthday, and I had age on my mind. He looked so incredibly young. Back straight. Eyes sharp. Body responsive and quick.
Art clearly defied age. And this man was a wonder - an incredible birthday gift.