Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) September 21, 2003 - Silat - The Art of Movement

IN conjunction with the National Art Gallery’s 45th anniversary celebrations, the gallery invited some of Malaysia’s more prominent artists and emerging young talents to a live drawing session.

And so, a couple of Sundays ago, late in the sunny, hot morning, I found myself being lulled into a reverie of graceful and hypnotic silat movements that were being accompanied by the cry of the serunai (flute) and the steady beat of the gendang (drum).

Silat is a Malay form of self-defence and combat that has, over time, moved into a more civilised arena called “sports”; but that day, I was examining another aspect of it, that is, the art of movement in silat, as a cultural art form.

This aspect of silat is very important as it combines the beauty of movements with traditional music and costumes. Silat is not dance but its movements can enrich the movements in dance. Both, after all, are forms of expression. And, quite often, silat is also incorporated into theatre in fight scenes.

The objective of the day’s programme (called Silat Seni) was to synthesise the art of movement and visual art, where the pendekar or warrior would inspire the artists into the creation of masterpieces that would capture and frame up the very soul and essence of silat. The end product would be the result of the joint expressions. The movements of the Seni Silat Gayong Fatani (a particular school of silat – there are many types) that was presented were very much based on geometric lines, extreme movements, and a combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical movements. This is unlike some other genres of silat that imitate animal movements and motifs.

There were seven themes for the artists to work with.

The Bunga Sembah consisted of the basic steps forming geometrical lines. These basic steps can be expanded to create different combination of movements. Jurus, seven types of attack techniques, is made up of core steps and sub-steps. These techniques can be used to repel an attacker or to evade or block an attack. Both items were presented in a group.

A solo presentation followed, which was an accumulation of various silat movements. The silat exponent used a small circular space and moved in all directions revealing a three-dimensional bodyline. Her hand movements were graceful, with palms and fingers flowering outwards. It was truly aesthetics in motion.

The ensuing demonstrations worked in pairs with Tempur Tangan Kosong (open-hand confrontation), Tempur Bersenjata (confrontation with weapons), Tempur Puteri Tangan Kosong (women’s open-hand confrontation) and Silat Ulut (a kind of kampong fight play). The flow of these resembles the structure of a pantun (poem) with one party firing a question (attack) and the other responding (reacting or defending). Depending on the “question” and “answer”, the pace of the action and reaction can be slow, graceful and seemingly innocuous, or fast and furious. These positions and symmetrical movements require flexibility and balance – and quick thinking, definitely!

Haji Anuar Abdul Wahab, who heads Seni Gayong Fatani Malaysia, explained that silat’s themes can be based on patriotism, racial unity, and personal development.

The relationship between movement and cultural identity is that the art of movements shapes racial appearance and composition very distinctly. A shadow, by any race, is still black in colour. But when it moves, one can roughly gauge the race of the owner to which the shadow belongs.

If you could do a character study of the various intergalactic species at the trade federation conference in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, you would notice that they come in different sizes, shapes, colours, fashion and designs. Take Jar Jar Binks the Gungan and the Neimodians (wearing Chinese headgear), for example, and observe the way they move: you can tell which human race each species represents.

And so, movements in silat play an important role in shaping the make-up and disposition of the Malay race. Silat is said to uphold Malay adat istiadat (culture and tradition), morals, adab (respect), and the teaching of religion. And, of course, it is also for the development of the self, to become a better person, selflessly serving humanity. Tall order, all this. At the very least, it serves to develop and increase physical fitness, flexibility, mental conditioning, discipline, and self-confidence.

Movement captured

The 19 artists who participated in the live drawing session were Amron Omar, Anthony Chong, Azizah Arif, Bayu Utomo, Farhana Mohd Tajalli, Hadi Salleh, Hasnul Jamal Saidon, Ili Farhana, Liew Choong Ching, Long Thien Shih, Makmoor Jantan, Mohd Faizal Sidik, Mohd Yazid Kamal, Ooi Kooi Hin, Raja Azhar Idris, Saiful Razman, Sarah Joan Mokhtar, Shamsudin Mohd and Wan Ismail Hisham. The more notable pencil and charcoal sketches were by Hasnul Jamal Saidon, Raja Azhar Idris and Ili Farhana. Raja Azhar’s work in conte crayon and graphite pencil captured in true classical form the movements of the performers. The limbs, sampin (cloth wrapped around the middle of the body in male Malay attire), flesh and cloth of the three figures move together in a fluid and cohesive entity. Raja Azhar is famed for his drawing skills, and with this silat depiction, we see the artist returning to the elements of his highly regarded 1996 work of horses and riders.

A recent graduate of Universiti Teknologi Mara, Ili Farhana’s recent group show at Taksu Kuala Lumpur did not fully reveal her potential as an artist. Nevertheless, here, her charcoal and colour pencil work seizes the core of silat: the deft and certain actions of traditional combat. Her work gives a sense of the strength of one adversary against another. It is a silent fight and a strong battle of spiritual wills.

Of particular interest is Hasnul Jamal Saidon’s charcoal work. While the artist is known for his avid exploration of materials in installation work, ranging from electronic video to nature’s produce, his charcoal drawing here is extremely powerful. Looking at his work, you can imagine the fast-paced aggression of an actual hand-to-hand combat. Arms slashing downwards and stretching out, legs steadfastly locked in balance yet ready to strike. The manoeuvres are so rapid and well anticipated in advance that, to the naked eye, they are a swirling whirlpool of limbs and bodies.

Faizal Sidik’s figures in his oil bar on paper work appear like stilted marionettes, posed in physical confrontation. While Faizal’s work does not possess the smooth flow of action and emotion as the other artists shown here, his work is startlingly different and compelling. The rich dark brown oil veneer has been indelibly scratched in with the blunt end of a pencil. What he is capturing here is the chain reaction of a strike and parry. On first impressions, the figures appear wooden and stilted yet when focusing in, one can recognise that this is a pattern from a style of silat. No movement in this traditional form of defence is accidental – and Faizal has portrayed this implicitly here.

Arguably the most famous Malaysian artist to capture the artistry of silat is Amron Omar. Painted in 1980, Bersilat III in oil is in the National Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection and is one of the inspirations behind the Silat Seni event. In this recent sketch from this event (done in oil bar media), Amron focuses on the muscular upper torso and arms of the warriors. The drawing shouts of the raw aggression and masculinity of a physical challenge – sinews are tensed and flexed, marked by the discordant chords of red and green carved into the golden brown flesh. No faces are needed and identity is discarded, this is the pure essence of silat combatant. It is a beautiful coupling of two individuals merged as one almost as if in a sensual dance. This event was an opportunity for the public to see established and fresh young artists at work. It was a shame that there were not more members of the public present. But, in conjunction with the gallery’s 45th anniversary, there is still a variety of activities and events the public can attend until Sept 28.

(written in collaboration with a talented arts writer)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pencak Silat is also found in Indonesia. Many old school stylists (such as myself) dont count the new sport versions as silat since there is no longer a core based on self-defense and control.