Lecture for Brobeek by Gerard Mosterd On Minak Silek

Good afternoon, I am Gerard Mosterd.

For this afternoon lecture over Indonesian martial arts quickly a short personal introduction: I am a theatre maker and I make contemporary, physical, multi-disciplinary productions mainly inspired by autobiographic, literary and current event themes always retaining a link with my Indo-European background. For my productions I travel often and extensively to South East Asia where I for a long time have made performances and brought performances. Also I tour annually with new productions in Dutch theatres. Perhaps some of you have seen one of my productions. With the commencement of the current year I no longer operate alone as an independent cultural entrepreneur but with a newly established artistic collective: Kantor Pos. A production centre where the cultural exchange between the Netherlands and in particular Indonesia stands central. One of our motives is the integration of the Asiatic and the European worlds of which I am literally a product. These are, as many of you know, quite different worlds.

In 2003, during my 2nd tour through Indonesia with one of my productions, I saw a performance of the renowned dance company Gumarang Sakti. A theatre group with explosive modernistic dance based on the traditions of the Malaysian people of the Minangkabau from West Sumatra. I was surprised by the refreshing dynamic of the movements, and the strong, original ensemble dancing. I perceived that their martial art Pentjak Silat lent itself fantastically as a movement vocabulary in combination with contemporary theatre. Never had I seen something like this. Probably because the selection of Indonesian stage craft offered world wide as well as in Indonesia has, for the last 30 years due to the policy in Jakarta, been devoted to the promotion of the Javanese and Balinese traditions.

During Suharto’s regime there were two strong women who since the 1960’s had fought for the development and recognition of a specific Minangkabau theatre dance and music style. The late Hurriah Adam and Gusmiati Suid studied and collected the dance, martial art and music of the villages of West Sumatra in the same way that the musicologist Zoltan Kodaly collected the folk music of the Hungarian countryside. Until the 1960’s the fantastic dances and music of the Minangkabau remained isolated in the highlands of Padang. Choreographer and Minang Silek master Suid Gusmiati moved, in the 1970’s, from the West Sumatran Batusangkar to Jakarta in order to establish there a theatre company with which to mirror the marvellous Minangkabau art and culture. We are here speaking of Gumarang Sakti, a Silat dance company which gained international renown and was loved by the international trade press.

I worked for 6 months intensively with this company and together with the Minang choreographer Boi G Sakti, son of the renowned late Suid Gusmiati, made a project about the meaning of matriarchal society. During this period  I learned much about the Minang culture and their dance idioms. Anthropologists agree that the unique civilization of the Minangkabau since the beginning of the 16th century has been Islamic on the outside while retaining the ancient Adat within of which until present times the social-economic relationships within this ethnic group are largely determined and controlled by women. Everything is inherited along the matriarchal line and for example when a Minang couple divorce the man leaves the house and also Mothers enjoy high respect etc.

During my dance study at the conservatory in the Hague where I year in and year out the only boy in the class was and also through my Sumatran Mother I was a permanent component of a feminine culture. It is thus not difficult to guess why I find this theme interesting to work into a contemporary theatre production. Also I think that the subject of the Matriarchy is becoming increasingly powerful in our present society. Were the Minangkabau before us in the emancipation of women? Also I find it an intriguing thought that in ancient matriarchies, of which the Minang one of the last survivors is, God must have been a woman. What is more, there are indications, supported by archaeological findings, that matriarchies must have been prominent in our European pre-history.

The Minangkabau asserted a major intellectual and cultural influence on the Malaysian Archipelago and the Malaysian peninsula. This appears among others in the traditional Merantau tradition rule that unmarried men must travel far from their place of birth in order to accumulate over a long period knowledge, craftsmanship and material wealth before returning homewards. Minangs are moreover renowned for their perspicacity and business sense but also for their dedication to Islam. There are many well-known and successful Minangkabau individuals. Hatta and Syahrir, the architects behind Soekarno’s Indonesian Merdeka for example. People with a heightened sense of reality and organisational talent. Yet from origin their land is at the same time permeated with an animistic magic. Likewise the elegant martial art Silek. The Minang Silek of the Minangkabau is the oldest form of Pencak Silat.

Pencak Silat is the collective term for the martial arts of the Indonesian peninsula, Malaysia and partially the Philippine Islands. It is used for self-defense, and art form, sport and spiritual therapy. It possibly came in ancient times to Indonesia from India or China. The oldest form of Pencak Silat derives from the Minangkabau. During the Srivijaya kingdom of the 7th up to and including the 14th centuries and the Javanese Majapahit kingdom of the 13th and 14th centuries many Silat styles spread out across the archipelago to the influential court of Malacca.

It was forbidden by the Dutch Colonial rulers but blossomed underground as a resistance technique and is in the meantime known worldwide as an Asiatic martial art.Pencak, spelled Pancak by the Minang, comes from the word Ancak which means beautiful and attractive. Pentjak is the aesthetic aspect of Silat. It is the Minangkabau word that comes closest to the meaning of dance. Pentjak is a play or performance which shows the technical level of the performers as they defend themselves. The rule by Pentjak is “a kick which needs to be countered and a hold which needs to be freed”. The word Silat comes from the Arabic word ‘Silatturahim’ which means ‘fraternity’. Originally Pentjak Silat was not meant as a theatre dance form.

Pentjak movement gives witness to a continual state of consciousness, an alertness whereby each moment an attack is repelled in an elegant fashion. For the Minangkabau Pentjak Silat is more than a movement vocabulary of attack and defence. It is a philosophy and aesthetic form. There are a number of typical and interesting Minang Silek style techniques which I’ll briefly touch on. It would take too much time to describe them in detail.

Still I will mention a few:

    • Silek Tuo, the oldest Minang Silat
    • Silek Patai, from the mountainous region around Bukittinggi is a dancing martial arts form wherein in rhythmic phrases and refined leg work lethal kicks are dished out.
    • Silek Baru, comes from the coastal city Padang and digs the feet in the ground in order to attack without warning with arms and legs from a static stance.
    • Silek Kumango, whereby swift footwork and an erect stance gives the warrior control over the loose sand of the coastal area where this dangerous style originated.
    • Silek Harimau, the “tiger” silat from West Central Sumatra whereby the warrior on hands, feet, belly and back moves forth, embracing the marshy ground, in order to suddenly without warning perform a cat-like attack with cunning diversionary tactics.
    • Silek Seteralak, another old style similar to Kumango working with feet and hands.
    • Silek Lintau, from the small village of Lintau.

Ulek Ambek is only for the initiated and is the exponent of a profound and mysterious natural philosophy. In the Ulu Ambek two exponents ritually fight, clothed in black, without touching one another. The attack always stops within a centimeter of the skin. The magic comes from an inner energy source called the Tenaga Batin which is the result of years of meditation, fasting and determined belief. Shamans (pawing) are also often Silek exponents who use a form of magic termed Kebatinan.

When Ulu Ambek is performed in circle form by a group of initiates it is called Dampeang or Randai Ulu Ambek which is rarely performed in public. The performers by a subtle imitation of each other go into a sort of trance in which they make contact with the animistic spiritual world. This Randai is an interesting phenomenon within the Minangkabau arts, almost completely identical with the Galombang. In the Netherlands unfortunately it is seldom to be seen. Randai is a so called Pamenan or in other words play or entertainment typical of which is that it is performed in circle form. It consists of dance, music, sung poems, martial arts and theatre. The Randai performance is thematically based on the old, traditional wisdom which has been passed on orally from generation to generation. Improvisation, change and renewal is an elementary fact in the Randai. Usually this dance is not performed in a theatre but directly in front of the Rumah Gadang (the main house) of the village or the mosque or a school ground whereby the public gathers around. The interaction and exchange between performers and public is lively. By means of the circle form they are on equal footing by which expression is given to the Minangkabau love for a non-hierarchical structure. Randai is extremely popular among the Minang. There are approximately 250 active Randai groups in the entire West Sumatra. Each group is led by a Pangkatuo Randai, an older person who no longer takes part in the performances but has enormous performance experience. He knows and determines the choreography, the music etc. Usually more than ten participants dance in a Randai session. The Randai performer’s stances are noticeably directed towards the earth.

Typical elements of the Randai are: Tapuak Galembong = hitting the pants with an noticeable sound in order to attract attention or to distract the opponent and is one of the most characteristic components of the Randai and causes an exciting sound. Further we have the Randai Tupuak
Tangan = clapping the hands and Jantiak which is snapping ones fingers in a swinging fashion. The leader of the circle dance is the Pambalok Galombang or the Tukang Goreh, master of the calls which cue and coordinate the movements. Usually this is a male senior Silek performer who emits cries so that the other performers can keep up and follow the rhythm.

Randai is an extremely flexible and modifiable art form thanks to the receptivity of the Minang and due to the Merantau, the male tradition of leaving their land of birth and going forth to accumulate knowledge and material happiness.

Nowadays an influx of external influences is making the Randai increasingly impure and it is becoming more difficult to find a true Randai tradition. The music of the Randai is usually played on a large bamboo flute called a Saluang (which by the way after the demonstration you can buy) and on a Talempong, a set of five bronze pots struck by beaters. Also a large drum, the Gandang Katindik, is often heard. Silek, Galombang and Randai are related to each other and are very danceable. Randai uses movement material from the Silek.

The basic technique of the Silek consists of light and quick steps as well as standard attack and defence phrases called Jurusan. Everyone who is acquainted with Pencak Silat knows this term. It concerns feint fight phrases whereby two partners spar with each other. Such a play fight is standard in every Randai. The fight often only lasts a few minutes. Every participant who performs the Silat behaves according to the codes of a warrior.

The awareness of the warrior shows itself in the basic position of the head and the focus of the eyes. The Pentjak warrior directs his shoulder and flank to the opponent and while not looking straight at him takes the surroundings in with the corner of his eyes. He moves from position to position, termed Kudo-Kudo. In-between he makes Langkah, Silek step patterns.

The refined, movements inspired by the imitation of wild animals are used to distract attention from this fight to the death. Characteristic for Silat and Asiatic movement art in general is the non-explicit, introvert and repressed aggression which never really comes to the surface.  Even in a violent confrontation the performer holds himself in an iron grip of control. It is a typical Asiatic code that a true show of feelings is unseemly. Everything is directed towards anticipation, a good reflex and good timing. The most essential ethical principle is that of non-aggression. Silek must only be used in self-defence. The general mood in Silat is of an extreme alertness coupled with secretness.

Here you have the themes which I always take as a starting point for my productions and develop and contrast with our more direct Western approach. The Minang Silek which you will today see on the stage is a specially adapted version whereby the Minang fight techniques have been transformed into a more danceable form seldom seen outside Indonesia.