Though the name may vary across Southeast Asia, the martial art known as pencak silat is an important part of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines.
In Indonesia, the art form is practiced by millions of people from varying perguruan (schools), ranging from the conservative type, who are secretive about the knowledge obtained from the divine with very traditional teaching yet being informal in that they have no uniform, to the progressive style with emphasis on physical training, establishing bonds with other members and the willingness to demonstrate the beauty of the art to the public.
Pencak silat is an umbrella term to indicate the form taught in more than 800 martial arts schools from across 13,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The most historical schools are Tapak Suci, Perisai Diri and Perisai Putih.
An attempt to culturally unify all schools and styles was carried out in 1948, after Indonesia gained independence. This lead to the establishment of the Indonesian Pencak Silat Federation (IPSI).
But due to the many differences between schools from differing regions and ethnic backgrounds, it wasn’t until 1973 when the gurus finally came to terms and agreed on using the term pencak silat.
However, it is interesting to note that the history of pencak silat can be attributed neither to great men in power nor to pendekar (masters of the craft) but to domestic violence.
According to one story from the northern coast of Java, a woman named Rama Sukana spent too much time washing by the river while her husband waited impatiently at home for dinner. Her delay was because she was captivated by how the monkeys nearby were fighting.
When she finally got home, her husband inflicted a disciplinary beating. But to his surprise, she dodged all his punches and kicks.
When he asked how she had learned to defend herself, she said by watching the monkeys fight along the river.
A similar story is of a woman in a Malay village. While carrying a basket full of food on her head, she was suddenly attacked by birds.
When she got home, there was no more food, causing her husband to beat her in punishment.
As with the above mentioned wife-beater, he too was surprised when she defended herself quite adeptly having learned by shooing away the birds with her hands and feet.
Though pencak silat might have been inspired by nature and in response to man’s brutality, it has evolved over the years not to be something that divides families but that brings people closer together.
Like the “glue of a nation”, pencak silat nowadays brings men and women of all ages together under Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).
The notion of fraternity and brotherhood was quite evident when I attended the 16th Annual National Tapak Suci Championships in Solo, Central Java, this past week.
“Apart from participating and winning, I hope to preserve the culture and to meet new people,” said Dwi Aryani, a 19-year-old participant from Jakarta.
A university student of technical graphic design, Dwi has been training in tapak suci for ten years; gaining the title of team leader.
Though she humbly denies such a designation, perhaps a sign of humility gained from her master, her teammates disagree and yelled out: “Yes, she’s the leader! She’s the leader! And a great one, too!”
While her teammates played around with the kipas, a massive hand fan used as part of weapons training, Dwi pulled out a large keris (short dagger) and carefully chopped her apple in half.
I asked her if she also trains with traditional weapons, such as the golok or pedang mawar. Her teammates answered for her by bursting out laughing.
“No, we don’t train with weapons,” she said. “We are here to build solidarity, to get to know people from different provinces, like from Jakarta, Central Java and East Java. The most important thing for us is silaturrahmi.”
Though silaturrahmi and silaturahim have similar meanings, what she meant was the latter, to connect via kinship, and not the former which means “for mother’s to connect via the pain of perceiving their unborn child.”
The championships are divided into two components: fighting and the arts.
The arts consist of showcasing fight patterns called seni, which bear an equivalent to kata and poomsae in karate and taekwondo, respectively.
The seni is presented in front of a jury and is done either individually, in pairs or in groups. Weapons are also used during the seni competition.
Interestingly, the group seni competition consisted of a heavily choreographed fight, which, to my surprise, utilized weapons and was done with such expertise and professionalism that I thought I was watching future stunt fighters for Indonesian action movies.
Competitors are judged on three factors. Wiraga (motion technique and the use of the body), wirama (rhythm of motion in harmony with music) and wirasa (how graceful the technique and the rhythm of movement appear through creativity, improvisation and a deep-seated soulful appreciation).
During demonstrations, the gamelan is also played either by a live ensemble using drums, wooden metallophones, gongs and a trumpet, or by a recording from a stereo system set up in the pavilion.
When I asked Dwi what her dream was, the answer surprisingly circled back to the early beginnings of pencak silat and to marital obligation.
“Whether you like it or not, becoming a housewife is something you can’t control.”
When asked how she will manage with tapak suci and family life, she replied: “There will always be time for tapak suci. I would love my kids to take up the activity.”
The lead chairman of the event is a former two-time world champion, Rony Syaifullah, from Boyolali regency, Central Java.
“Pencak silat is my soul,” said Rony with a heavy accent, though with great passion.
“When I won the world championships I was proud because there are only two moments when our flag is raised in another country—for the president and for athletes who become champions. At that moment, I become more patriotic.”
In 1997 and 2000, Rony won the Pencak Silat World Championships in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta in the fighting competition. However, he soon substituted fighting on the global stage with becoming an athletics and pencak silat professor at university.
During this time he met his wife, also a former world champion in pencak silat in 2000, and decided to settle down. They are now raising their three children.
When asked whether pencak silat would be recognized by UNESCO, like batik, wayang puppet theatre and the keris —what Dwi used to chop her apple—Rony expressed much hope.
“As a citizen of Indonesia, I really love and appreciate the culture of silat. I know that silat was founded in Indonesia so I really hope that one day it becomes a part of the World UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The government helps us a lot, but for now the task is to find sponsors to help put on our events so as to attract more people.”