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The Performance of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Performance in Malay Singapore
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Silat here refers to the name of the martial art, whereas seni refers to the artistic, beautiful, and skillful way the movements are performed. Seni predicated to silat refers to something beautiful, but also something cognitive and agonistic: it concerns, for example, where, how, and why to step in order to strike an opponent. Seni silat emphasizes the dance-like aspects of silat , a sudden, fleeting, mobile art that resists ossification in museum catalogs.
Being literally as opposed to metaphorically embodied, the martial art cannot be reduced to text; continually in motion, silat thwarts photographic stills. The idea that art can only reflect material culture indicates a western bias against movement, in favour of stasis. To become empowered with agency, aesthetic movements must be rehearsed, trained, embodied and performed Laderman , Aesthetics are understood to apply here to the culturally accepted and shared norms for carrying out and evaluating the performance of silat at weddings.
In wedding silat the dance postures and gestures possess symbolic significance that works on practical, mystical and aesthetic levels. Malay aesthetics derive from discourses of power, from the adat customary law governing the traditional ritualized formal interactions between the Melaka Sultans and their subjects, and reflect Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and animist influences Khoo ; Sheppard , , The sinuous, curling, mazelike aesthetics in Malay weaponry, silverware, and architecture, and also displayed in scriptural Quranic art, clothing, and architectural features such as carved wooden window latticework.
Although silat experts blend into their social environment, and may be deliberately difficult to spot, for the trained eye guru silat can be discerned by the way they move around their environment, lightly stepping with a level foot as if walking across a highly sprung wooden floor in a traditional wooden Malay house. The wife invented silat after witnessing a fraught battle between a bird and a snake, and upon returning home she thrashed her husband, who subsequently became her first silat pupil Draeger ; Pauka ; Sheppard ; Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh The imagining of modern Malaysia constitutes the present through the romantically reinvented imagined community of Melaka, whose warrior heroes are prominently displayed in fictive portraits concocted for tourist visitors of the excellent local ethnographic museum Anderson Anis Md.
Nor Linkages can also be found to the male Arab folk dance tradition, zafana , called zapin Melayu when performed at Malay weddings Mohd. Nor ; Hughes-Freeland Whatever the technicalities of origin, seni silat is a cultural practice found across the Malay world, those regions that were historically ruled by a Malay Sultanate, including Singapore, the Riau Archipelago, Sumatra, Malaysia and Brunei Farrer 26; Milner Ever since, new forms of silat have emerged or have been introduced.
The more special and expensive the delicacies, the higher the recognized status of the bridal couple; similarly, the more exquisite the silat displayed, and the longer the performance, the better. On the other hand, seni silat the artistic or dance-like silat is related to bunga flower. The core of the bunga category relates to seni art in the way that buah relates to pencak , yet these categories are somewhat cryptic, with overlapping and interpenetrating layers. One interesting possibility is that silat derives from the martial practices of the Orang Selat, a people indigenous to Singapore formerly known as Temasek and the Riau Archipelago.
Silat practitioners understand their art seni to encourage the enemy to err, silap to make a mistake which can then be acted upon. The same logic of outwitting the prey through distraction or cunning is used in hunting or fishing, when laying traps or setting bait. To simply reduce beguiling silat movements to aesthetics or beauty misses the point. Some wedding silat dances mimic wuduk ritual movements. As the performer advances he takes steps to either side and makes movements as if washing the hands, face, forearms and feet.
To simulate washing the ears each hand smoothly curls around the ear in a scythe like motion, ending in an abrupt flick of the wrist. Wuduk places a powerful emphasis on spiritual cleanliness against defilement from sexual activity. Urinal, sexual and anal emissions, any physical contact with members of the other sex except immediate family , and unclean thoughts and actions place the person in a state of ritual uncleanliness.
Wuduk also renders the individual less susceptible to spiritual invasion or attack at the behest of a sorcerer bomoh. Some silat experts, in former times referred to as bomoh silat rather than the current more polite term of guru silat , visit the well of Hung Tuah, just outside of Melaka. Here wuduk is performed in the waters of the well to derive spiritual potency from the semangat vital force, spirit of Hang Tuah, the legendary hero who ostensibly introduced silat into Malaysia. Silat Melayu , hence, Malay silat , and Malay society itself Melayu is recognized as simultaneously indigenous to the region, and yet originating from outside, and Malays do, and yet somehow do not, consider themselves Orang Asli indigenous people in their own land.
The ancient royal or noble practice of silat persists in the performance of garden party silat to entertain royal guests, and this status feature finds its double in the urban street performance of silat pengantin , where the groom occupies the role of king for a day raja sehari. Such doubling is reciprocal and not strictly a ludic reversal, and does not simply switch agonistic with ludic, ritual or performative forms.
The mood inculcated by the silat performance at both events is serious, and emphasizes correct customary behavior adat , to recapitulate an actual, imagined, or symbolic class structure of ranked hierarchical social relationships. The housing blocks were due to be upgraded by the Housing Development Board.
To my eyes these pricey apartments looked grim and forbidding, like some Stalinist ghetto. At first glance, the street reminded me of my postgraduate residence in Peckham. Marine Parade was, however, a welcome escape from the perpetual undercurrent of poverty, fear and violence then prevalent in Southeast London. The identical grey two-bedroom units perched each atop the other, banked by a black path of gleaming asphalt shimmering in equatorial sunlight.
The Malays use void deck to celebrate marriage. The Chinese use the void decks for funerals, and normally leave their dead outside in coffins for three, five, or seven days Tong There is a peculiar mirroring pattern differentiating the Chinese and Malay cultures of Singapore. Where the Malays tend to train martial arts in the evening, the Chinese train at dawn; the Malays tend to train dressed in black, the Chinese prefer bright colors or white. The evocative account that follows is worked up from my performance ethnography, including fieldnotes, photographs and video footage.
Under the block in the middle of an oval circle of twelve drumming men a small elderly man twisted and turned in front of a young seated groom, dressed resplendently. I found it impossible to follow the movements, let alone comprehend them. The hands rotated in front of the dancer in horizontal curling passes, with the thumb and forefingers touching whilst the other fingers were splayed out, as if holding an imaginary needle between the finger and thumb of both hands, and sewing jahit thin air.
Next, in the same circuitous serpentine fashion, from a low stance with the weight on the back foot, the dancer extended his right hand to the groom as if to shake hands, with the left poised underneath, but instead of shaking he held the grooms hand briefly whilst muttering something inaudible under the rhythm of the tremendous smacking of drums.
Sweeping the grooms hand from his own with his left hand, whilst raising his stance and transferring his weight more to the front, he paused suddenly at shoulder level to slap the back of the right hand hard against the palm of the left, followed by lifting the palms over his head as if smoothing his hair, but without touching the head, going into a double palm motion in front of the groom. After several steps, the left hand curled up in front of the body, and then down, to hide behind his left thigh, whilst the right hand stretched out and took a long semi-circular route from behind the performer, ever-so-slowly pulsating like a birds wing flapping to the beat, to come to rest at the center of his chest in a salute, as he simultaneously raised his posture to stand upright with feet together.
Food is provided at the smaller akad nikah Islamic exchange of vows ceremony where the bride price is given, which precedes the main public event or bersanding Wedding ceremonies of pre-Islamic origin by a few days or up to six months. The main expense occurs through the main feast, where the bride and groom sit together on display during the bersanding ceremony. Their outfits are heavy, lavish, and extravagant with the bride dripping in gold, and the groom attired with a keris dagger and kalong heavy necklace.
A band or some form of entertainment is required, as is a photographer for wedding albums, and more often than not a videographer. As mentioned above, some weddings involve masses of people. During a three-day and night extravaganza some three thousand guests may show up. When different family groups located in similar concentric positions in the social structure encounter one another, main mata eye play flirtation abounds, and the potential for inter and intra group conflict is heightened.
Guests impress their power and standing onto each other through sheer numbers, the flaunting of wealth in gold, jewelry, silk and the latest fashions. Similarly, wedding ceremonies are simple for polygamous marriages beyond the first bride. By the time Li 36 conducted her research in the s arranged marriages were virtually extinct. The power to chose a partner has shifted to the younger generation. Cutting a forelock of hair to test for virginity remains. If the chopped tuft stands erect the bride is a virgin. Nowadays during financial hard times wedding silat may be sacrificed. Some of the more sharia minded Malays denounce the bersanding ceremony as a backward throwback to a non-Muslim time dominated by Hindu raja s.
Wedding silat forms a dance spectacle status display representing exchange systems based on honor. Long, skillful performances, thorough adherence to adat , and lavish costumes indicate a prestigious entry for the newly married couple into the Malay community. Usually there will be a small party in progress under the block the void deck with food, decorations, a band or music.
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Once the groom has been collected a brief silat performance may occur. The groom walks the last hundred yards or so accompanied by the beat of the kompang.
Attired in layers of thick materials the heat is tremendous and the sweat may pour off his face and drip down his torso. He is accompanied by two pole bearers who carry poles topped with pineapples which secure the base of strands of tinsel fanning out bunga mangga , whilst family and friends trail behind. Upon arrival he sniffs the hand of his father-in-law. A chair is pulled out, and the groom is seated ready for the wedding silat to commence.
Waterson explains that ritual immobility for the Minangkabau is associated with status, dignity and refinement, and that immobility is a distinctive Southeast Asian theme that serves as a locus of the concentration of power related to ritual, politics or fertility see also Waterson In the context of wedding silat there is a stark contrast between the fixedness of the groom and the fluid movement of the dancer. At Javanese weddings in Singapore, kuda kepang would sometimes be performed throughout the entire day as entertainment for the guests. Kuda kepang performers know silat.
Performers, whilst in trance menurun rip coconut husks from the kernel with their teeth, trample barefoot upon broken glass, and bite into drinking glasses, snapping off shards to chew. Kuda kepang is regarded as sinful haram because it involves non-Islamic actions such as burning the benzoic stone kemenyan and chanting to invoke spirits. More frequently the wedding silat will take place prior to the collection of the bride who remains in the house while the groom witnesses the performance unaccompanied this may provoke a furious response from the bride. Performers, facing inwards, form a U shape in front of the ritual subject forming an area enclosed with their bodies except for the entrance at the end opposite.
Peering over the shoulders of the troupe the guests surround this entire spectacle; some expressing looks of fascination, others exhibiting joy and body-sympathetic movements, still others often elders with faces immobile, impassive, inscrutable, possibly silently muttering jampi spells or doa supplication. Relatives of the bride or groom are free to step in to this space and play silat. Very rarely, females will perform.
The atmosphere is colorful and crowded as performers jostle for place and then begin to energetically crack their drums in earnest. Suddenly someone will step in from the entrance, right hand perhaps dipped and pointing to the floor whilst the left is concealed politely behind the back. Simultaneously, the footwork alternates from high to low crouched folded positions requiring great dexterity, balance and flexibility.
The best performers take three steps forward into the ring to display arcane skills honed during long years of practise, achieving a jazz-like virtuosity where they improvise new techniques, even innovate new styles, patterned upon the movements of animals, mythological creatures, long dead heroes, or other extraordinary masters.
Raising both palms aloft the performer supplicates Allah for safety and happiness in the marriage. The pesilat places his forearms together, and claps his arms and hands, while rotating his arms and body. Although the aesthetic rules are a given, the guest at a Malay wedding never knows who will dance, or what style they will perform.
A century ago it was considered taboo to break these aesthetic rules of performance at the risk of offence and bloodshed. There is no apparent order to the movement and dancers are free to improvise within the aesthetic rules of the performance. Numbers for the performance are supposed to be odd.