Ngurah Kah Kah

One of the great things about being from a family of nomadic travelers is that when you go off on your own ventures you have a few contacts already established for you along the way.  Be these contacts hostel owners, family friends, or even old romantic partners, it’s nice to know that even if your far from home you have a kind and helpful life line nearby in case anything were to go arry. IMG_9131_FotorThese global connections around the world are made even stronger and more unique when revisited and reunited through the arrival of another member of the family from the following generation. I Gusti Agung Ngurah Kresna Kepakisan, Ngurah K.K. to his friends, is a perfect example of one of these old family contacts that have been revisited and reconnected with through multiple generations of Kirkhams.  Ngurah K.K, a renowned artist and pioneer of the new age Balinese art movement was an old romantic partner of my grandmother Camilla Lee Alexander, who visited Bali in the mid 70’s. While she and Ngurah had moved on and had begun to build their own lives and families in their own country’s they still kept in touch. She never forgot the amazing experiences she had had and the connections that she had made back in Bali, and after returning to California recounted all these stories to her son, my father, Christopher Kirkham.  

Christopher grew up hearing fantastic stories about Bali and the rest of Camillas’ adventures and eventually reached the age where he too was ready to embark on a similar global adventure. After roaming much of east asia and parts of europe he finally ended up in Bali where he lived in a small village for two months. During this time he sought out Ngurah K.K. who lived close by in a neighboring village. All he had to go by was a name and a photo. He walked around Ubud, the neighboring town in which Camilla had last seen Ngurah, and asked the local inhabitants if they knew where he could find this man. Luckily due to the small size of both the island and village, and Ngurah’s status as a well known and respected artist in the area, he wasn’t hard to track down and Christopher was soon directed to the artists home itself. PHOTO-2019-02-22-23-48-24Not knowing what to expect, or if Ngurah would even remember his mother, Christopher knocked on the door of the small house and waited nervously for someone to answer. It was the late 80’s, nearly ten plus years after Camilla had visited Bali and Christopher wondered if the man he had heard so many stories about would still be the same energetic and charismatic figure that his mother had once described to him.  After several moments of waiting footsteps approached and the door was swung open to reveal a short, smiling tan man with long jet black hair that was pulled back into a tight ponytail. He recognized Christopher immediately. Apparently he had heard that Camilla had had two sons, and while he had no idea that one of them would be visiting him at that time, he saw the resemblance almost instantly and there was no doubt in his mind who’s spawn was standing before him. During the two months that my father (Christopher) stayed in bali, he didn’t stay in Ubud and instead stayed in a neighboring town called Batuan, he went on many adventures with Ngurah and was brought into the folds of native Bali life through his invitation.  Chris attended traditional cremations as well as saw hidden parts of the island only known to the local Balinese that had lived their their whole lives. At the end of his stay Chris was even gifted a painting painted by Ngurah which he still has to this day.

Growing up I too had heard stories of my father’s and grandmother’s trips around the world and had seen the works of art that dad had brought back from his venture.  I remember hearing stories of dad and Ngurah’s meeting and had even seen photographs of the two standing side by side. However upon my arrival to the Indonesian island all these stories had completely escaped my mind.  I was only reminded of the islands personal family significance when my father reminded me of Ngurah and his trip to Batuan two days after arriving in Ubud. I was eager to carry on the legacy of Kirkhams who had traveled the world and ended up in Bali, and to meet the man that I had grown up hearing so much about.IMG_9133_FotorArmed with a photograph of Ngurah standing beside my dad and his full name written on the back of my hand in sharpie in case I needed a reminder of its pronunciation, me and my driver Geeky Greeky headed into Ubud to search for Ngurah. My emotions and apprehensions matched those of my father who had done the same search 30 years earlier, but do to the large amount of time that had passed from then till now I felt that I was up against an even bigger challenge with slightly more morbid possibilities, like the fact that Ngurah could have passed away by now or moved to another area of Indonesia all together.  This dark thought was only made more possible in mind after an hour of google searching revealed nothing on the man other then one gallery showing that included one of his paintings. I had hope however, and drove into Ubud asking around from one gallery to the next until I found someone that recognized the man and could point me in the right direction. It didn’t take long, after asking around at only two galleries I was directed to Ngurahs’ own studio located on the edge of town.

We drove up into the humid jungle, pass the yoga studios and green juice cafes that make up most of Ubud, and finally came across a large wooden sign outside of a small shop that said NGURAH K.K. in big bold letters. IMG_9097_FotorExcitedly I jumped off the bike and walked up the stairs into the shop. It was crowded from wall to ceiling with framed paintings. Some hanging on the wall while others sat stacked in large piles against every wall. A middle aged man sat outside the shop on a bamboo lanai, a mess of acrylic paint tubes and brushes spread out before him. He was working with incredible focus on a small canvas that sat leaning up against the outside of the shop. His small bamboo brush making precise lines and dots on the canvas, steadily and carefully controlled by weathered fingers and a delicate grip. I approached him timidly, weary to interrupt his concentration. Before I opened my mouth he looked up and smiled, his face was rounder than that of Ngurahs in the photograph I had and his hair was short and lighter in color, yet other similarities were so precise that I sat conflicted thinking ‘could this be the man I have been searching for?’.  I smiled and nodded at the man, “Ngurah Kah Kah?” I asked hesitantly, the question in my voice obvious to anyone listening. The man smiled and responded quickly in Balinese as he stood up and approached me. IMG_9094_FotorMy face revealed my confusion and he began shaking his head and pointing at himself, “No Agung Ngurah Kah Kah,” He said. “Do you know where Ngurah is?” I asked. The man again shook his head and said, “No here, sick… home.” He gestured to the door of the shop and I followed him inside. Walking to the far corner of the store he reached for a stack of brown business cards with I Gusti Agung Ngurah Kresna Kepakisan proudly embossed onto them. Below the name was an email, phone number, and address as well as a little profile pen sketch of Ngurah himself. The man pointed to the phone number and gestured with his thumb and pinky to his ear, “Call,” He said. I thanked the man and left the store with Geeky Greeky, we headed to a nice cafe for lunch and ordered cooling drinks to fight the heat and humidity that had followed us through the jungle.  

The old man’s comment rang in my ears, “Sick… home.” Of the worst case scenarios that I had thought about, sick had been one of them. Ngurah would be in his mid to late 70’s by now and I had no idea what kind of health he would be in. I looked at the card in my hand… I had come too far to not at least try, so I picked up my phone and gave the number a ring. The phone rang three times until the receiver kicked in, “Hello?” an old voice on the other side of the line answered the phone. IMG_9149_FotorI sat in silence for two beats, almost surprised that someone had picked up at all. I didn’t know what to say… “Hello… is this Ngurah Kah Kah?” Too quick I thought to myself, take a breath, speak slower, you got this. “Yes.” The voice on the other side of the line answered. Relief flooded through me as well as another wave of anxiety. I explained as best I could who I was and that I was hoping to meet him sometime that day. The disembodied voice on the other side of the line sounded slightly confused but at the same time didn’t miss a beat. “And you come see me?”  It asked, as if the speaker was quite accustomed to random strangers seeking out his company at random times of the day. “Yes, if you are available?” I answered. We arranged a meeting at 3:30 that afternoon at the studio that me and Geeky Greeky had just left.

After a delicious lunch we hopped back on the bike and headed back to the studio where we waited patiently for ten minutes until another motorcycle approached driven by a young man.  On the back sat an elderly gentleman with long white hair that was pulled back into a tight ponytail. He wore a white t-shirt and a white and black sarong that was wrapped tightly around his waist.  He slowly climbed off the bike and approached the stairs of the store where I stood nervously awaiting his approach. He took one look at me and smiled broadly. IMG_9119_FotorHe reached for my hand and pulled me in close for a strong embrace.  He placed his face against each of my cheeks, taking a long sniff in the process. I was so surprised that I just stood still for several moments as he slowly moved towards the stairs, never letting go of my hand. At first I thought that he was looking for help up the stairs, but his strong grip on my fingers pulled me up the stairs instead of looking for help to balance himself.  Geeky Greeky stood at the top of the stairs and reached out a hand as Ngurah approached. Ngurah grabbed his hand and pulled him in close, giving him the same welcome that he had given me, and slowly proceeded towards the door of the shop. We followed him inside and sat next to him on three chairs located in the back of the shop. After sitting he smiled at me quietly. I began to explain again who I was and soon realized that I didn’t need to.  At the mention of my grandmother and fathers names his eyes lit up and his smile grew somehow wider. He began to recite stories of back when Grandma had visited him, of the things that they had done and the friends they had met. He told me of the places he had explored with my father and how delighted he had been when Chris had come to visit. He remembered everything so clearly that you would have thought it had all taken place yesterday. He asked how my dad and grandmother were and I showed him photos of them and the rest of the family.  He told me about his family, his life, and of course his paintings.

We walked around the studio as he showed us his favorite paintings and all the different styles he had tried. He showed us a wall of all the awards he had received and even a cover piece that national geographic had done on him. IMG_9121_FotorI hadn’t quite appreciated how well known he truly was, or how sought after his works had become. His works had been shown in both famous private collections as well as museums around the world. As we explored his studio he pointed out a number of paintings that had not been done by him but instead had been painted by his wife, six children, or other members of his extended family including nephews, cousins, and grandchildren.  The middle age man that sat painting on the lanai outside was in fact one of these nephews and all the works in the space were painted by members of Ngurahs family. Painting had become a kind of family trade and business for the Kresna Kepakisan’s.

What I admire most about this old man was the way he talked about his work.  Even as a renowned artist he was very modest and patiently kind to these two strangers who had turned up out of the blue on his doorstep.  His energy was confident yet open. You could tell that he held a lot of love not only for his work and his families work but also to any visitors and people who were interested in speaking with him. IMG_9127_FotorHis sneaky smile and quiet laugh invited us in and held us captive through his many stories and descriptions of the huge multi colored canvases that decorated the shops walls. Towards the end of our visit he gestured to the many stacks of paintings against the walls and asked which one was my favorite.  I went to the pile and pointed to one that had caught my eye since entering the shop, he said something in Balinese to his nephew who picked up the painting and begun cutting it out of the frame and rolling it up. Ngurah picked up the rolled piles of canvas and handed it to me, “For you for home.” He said simply.  After leaving the shop I was almost brought to tears. As we walked away I looked back to see Ngurah Kah Kah standing at the end of the lanai, staring in my direction with a small smile on his face. I didn’t want to turn away, but eventually I had to. I waved and smiled as I turned back towards the bike and he returned the small wave.  

Sitting on the back of the bike behind Geeky Greeky, I again felt a strong wave of sadness flood through me as I fought against tears that had been brought on by the intense meeting and experience I had just had. There was something incredibly special about that man that was made even more unique by the Kirkham family history that had somehow been woven around him and in some ways created by him.  There was also a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I might be the last Kirkham to meet and have a conversation with this man although part of me also believed that he still had quite a few years to live out and experience. IMG_9153_FotorIt’s experiences like this that motivate and inspire me to keep traveling and make unique connections with people around the world that hopefully my family will continue to uphold and nurture.  It’s moments like this that connect humanity as a whole in a way that works passed different cultures and languages. Moment’s that remind us that we are all here to make connections and have experiences with one another because that’s what teaches us to be the people that we are. I will never forget my meeting with Ngurah, and like my grandmother and father, will recite this story for many generations to come, hopefully inspiring the next generations to carry out a similar adventure as well and carry on the Kirkham legacy as world wide adventurers.  

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