“TUJU is a form of magic where, according to superstitious lore, a very special keris possesses the ability to slay by the mere act of being pointed at its intended victim. In other cases, serious illness and death would befall a man when a powerful keris is used to stab his footprints,” a voice coming from behind a wall of bystanders suddenly catches my attention as I’m taking a shortcut across George Town's Armenian Park.
My interest is piqued as the comments concern one of the most enduring icons of traditional Malay weapons. Stories about Hang Tuah's heroic exploits with his legendary Taming Sari have gripped the fledgling imagination of my early childhood just as much as those related to Camelot's King Arthur and his Excalibur.
While the English legend told of the great sword's power to bestow invincibility upon its bearer, that interesting take pales in comparison to the stories related to the Melaka warrior's specimen. Hang Tuah's keris, forged from 20 types of iron, was said to be able to leap out of its sheath, fly through the air and attack its master's assailant on its own accord.
Excited, I decide to temporarily put my plans to visit the nearby Beach Street heritage zone on hold, at least until my curiosity is fully satiated. The voice gradually gains in clarity as I inch my way deeper into the crowd each time a bystander decides to take his leave.
“Some of the older magical keris were credited with having strong wills of their own. There are tales about one such example in the Taiping Museum. That one had an unquenchable thirst for blood. It was said to have the ability to sneak away after dark, murder an innocent soul, wash and wipe itself clean before returning to its home at the crack of dawn!” proclaims the narrator as his audience listens in awed silence.
A sudden blare of traditional music from a nearby makeshift stage heralds the start of a scheduled afternoon performance. Enticed by the captivating melody emanating from several well-positioned speakers located around the park, some of the people around me start making their way towards the raised platform fronting the road next to the Armenian Street Heritage Hotel.
INTRICATE MALAY ART FORM
Their departure gives me the chance to approach the table filled with a large variety of keris hilts. A lanky middle aged Malay man with shoulder-length hair looks up from his work station, smiles and invites me to take a closer look at his creations. We quickly strike up a conversation and, not long after, my curiosity prompts Yunizam Yahya to start peeling back the years to the time when he first fell in love with this intricate Malay art form.
The Penang native admits that carving keris hilts was never his first interest. He shares: “I was initially more interested in the traditional weapon itself. This interest blossomed when my kindergarten teacher gave my class a drawing assignment. Unlike my friends who were into the usual cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, I wanted to come up with something different.”
While flipping through various reading materials at the kindergarten library, Yunizam happened to chance upon a picture featuring a Malay warrior with an unsheathed keris in his right hand. He liked it so much that he started drawing right away! “It was an eye-opening experience as drawing gave me an insight into the details of the weapon — something I wouldn’t have noticed by just looking at the image,” he adds.
ELATION BEFORE DESPAIR
Yunizam ended up acing that assignment and raced back to his home in Kampung Baru Sungai Ara as soon as class was dismissed that day, eager to share his success with his family. Unfortunately, Yunizam's elation quickly turned to despair when both his parents reprimanded him for his subject choice.
While acknowledging their child's artistic talent, Yunizam's parents frowned upon the keris as they felt that it was a weapon that was synonymous with destruction and death. Yunizam had no choice but to obediently abide by their wishes to never associate his work with weapons from that day onwards.
Throughout his primary school days, Yunizam was constantly mindful of his promise to his parents and suppressed his interest by channelling it towards making “ordinary” items like bird traps and bird cages that were in constant demand among his fellow villagers.
“It cost me next to nothing to make those items as there was an unlimited supply of local wood like accacia, kayu petai belelang and kayu nangka from the Sungai Ara forests located near my home back the early 1990s,” he recalls before lamenting that all the lush greenery has been replaced by luxurious condominiums and multi-million ringgit landed properties today.
Yunizam began his secondary education at Sekolah Menengah Sungai Ara in 1993. Around that time, he decided to stop making bird cages as they consumed too much time and the little profit earned didn’t commensurate the amount of effort he had to put in. Instead, he focused his effort on making decorative items like intricately carved wooden key chains which were very popular at that time. Over time, his savings grew in tandem with his sales.
A few months later, Yunizam's father noticed his son's new enterprise and decided to put some of the items on sale at his stall at the Sungai Ara night market. Yunizam's keychains were an instant hit and his father immediately saw an opportunity to increase sales. He invested in a grinder and other basic tools that would help to step up production and bring in better profits.
Realising his father was in good spirits at that time, Yunizam decided to seize the moment and bring up the matter regarding his penchant for Malay weapons again. Drawing comparison to the key chains, he explained that his interest in the weapons was merely for decorative purposes and nothing more. Much to Yunizam's elation, his father was more receptive this time and gave his conditional blessings as long as his son concentrated only on the artistic aspects of the keris hilt.
The wooden key chain fad eventually died out soon after Yunizam sat for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examinations in 1997. Keen to further his carving skills, the enterprising young man visited several museums and played close attention to their keris displays to gain an insight into techniques employed by craftsmen in the past. He also met likeminded people who shared his passion by applying for membership in Persatuan Seni Purba Melayu Pulau Pinang (Malay Traditional Arts Society Penang).
Four years later, Yunizam decided to leave the comfort of home and begin his search for masters who were willing to take him in as their apprentice. He chose the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia as it was home to many famous Malay artisans, skilled in various traditional crafts.
The long list of the places that he visited and people he worked under included Bachok (Akademi Nik Rashiddin), Jertih (Fauzi Yunus), and Kampung Raja (Norhaiza Noordin). Among the places that impacted Yunizam the most was Pok Li Jaya Gading, a renowned workshop in Pahang owned by master keris maker, Mazli Wahab. There, he was introduced to the various types of keris hilts, their places of origins in the Malay archipelago and the defining techniques used to amplify the uniqueness of each hilt variant.
The hilt, explains Yusnizam, is usually rounded and curved to allow the bearer to grasp it in the palm of his hand in exactly the same manner as holding the butt of a revolver. “The grip, which involves the four fingers curling around the lower part of the hilt and the thumb extending horizontally along the upper side, is well suited for thrusting motions,” he elaborates while demonstrating the movement using an example from his collection.
Returning the keris hilt to its rightful place on the table, Yunizam points out that the different forms were used in the past to distinguish between the classes in Malay society. TheJawa demam style was used by ministers while the village headmen usually used keris bearing the anak ayam teleng hilt. The lower ranked members of the royal household were more inclined to own keris hilts carved in the kepala ulat kekek form.
As to his personal favourite design, Yunizam immediately points to several pieces on his work table that are made in the style called the pekaka or kingfisher. While lovingly caressing a finished piece with his fingers, Yunizam tells me that this particular hilt form originated from Kelantan, Terengganu and Patani, a province in south Thailand.
Popular among men of high rank and immediate members of the royal household until the early part of the 20th century, the pekaka hilt usually adorns the type of keris that’s normally too large or heavy to be worn, like other Malay keris, in front of the waist. Instead, the shaft of the keris that bears the hilt's name is held in position at the back by a piece of long cloth, with the hilt's long beak pointing outwards.
“Although the large keris pekaka is often thought to be cumbersome, it can be very lethal when used by a skilled warrior. When a person armed with keris pekaka is suddenly attacked, all he needs to do is to kick the base of the long shaft upwards with the back of his heel and seize the hilt when it rises to the level of his left shoulder. During close combat, when stabbing is practically impossible, the sharp portion of the hilt is rammed into the attacker's eye to blind him instantaneously,” explains Yunizam.
Handing me another example to study in detail, he continues: “There is, however, a common misconception related to this popular hilt shape. Its form doesn’t actually resemble those of the kingfisher at all.”
Directing my attention to the piece made of kemuning wood, he explains: “If you look at the large bulging eyes, long exaggerated nose and grinning teeth, you’ll see that these features have a distinct resemblance to classical figures of the wayang kulit. There’s speculation that the popularity of the shadow play in the past could have contributed to this unusual portrayal.”
At this juncture, Yunizam confides that the key to producing a magnificently carved hilt is patience. “It can take me up to several weeks to find a section of high quality kemuning wood with suitable grain pattern. Apart from kemuning, I also like other semi hard wood types like limau burung and senorasi. Hilts made using the latter fetch higher prices as their colouration resembles those of ivory.”
Apologising for not having more examples to show, Yusnizam says: “The invitation to participate in this event organised by George Town Festival 2018 and Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara (National Department for Culture and Arts) came at short notice. I’ll be returning to my workplace at Pusat Inkubator Kraf in Balik Pulau once this event is over. Do drop by to view my other creations.”
Before heading for his tea break, Yunizam shares that it’s too early for him to start accepting students. Smiling, he tells me that he still makes regular visits to Kelantan and Terengganu to further hone his already established skills.
As we shake hands to take our leave, Yunizam concludes: “My burning desire to learn coupled with my passion and zeal to improve will stand me in good stead as I progress towards my ultimate goal. One day, I hope to have my own gallery which will serve to pass on the history, traditions and practical aspects of wood carving to the next generation and ensure that this aspect of our heritage will never be forgotten!”