30 July 2006

The Keris Master

Not quite the Taming Sari, but a keris master in Kota Baru can make one that you will be proud to own. He has a reputation and you might want to know him if you want a special job done. Rosman Ramli is the man in Kampung Banggol, Kota Baru, and he is a master keris maker.

His intricate and superb carving, especially on the hilt, has attracted many admirers, among them sultans and corporate leaders. Such is his work that serious collectors are willing to pay more than RM50,000 for an intricately carved piece.

"I make furniture and love woodcarving but my speciality is the keris," says Rosman, who is known among local collectors by his nickname, "Man Kris". "The simple keris costs less as it can be finished in just a week. The expensive ones are elaborate and the carvings are very detailed.

"The exclusive and more intricately designed keris can take months. The fine carvings on the hilt alone can take two months."

Rosman started as an apprentice woodcarver with his furniture- maker father, Ramli Abdullah, and at 41, he is the youngest among the few masters still in the trade. Despite doing well in the Form Six examination, Rosman declined to continue his studies. He wanted to concentrate on carving.

His skills caught the eye of teachers when he was attending a woodcarving course at the National Handicraft Corporation in Mentakab, Pahang. Being the educators they are, the teachers persuaded Rosman to concentrate on making the keris, and arranged for him to be an understudy to master woodcarver Tengku Ibrahim Tengku Wook in Jertih, Terengganu.

He spent more than three years with Tengku Ibrahim, the 1988 National Master Craftsman, who passed away a few years ago. Rosman married one of his daughters, Tengku Aida, now 37, and they have two sons. Operating from his house which also serves as his workshop near Pantai Cahaya Bulan in Kota Baru, Rosman works mostly with wood for the hilt and the sarong of the keris.

He is also adept with other materials like horn, ivory, silver and gold. The hilt of a keris has been described by many as a sculpture in miniature and in most, descend from life-like representations of a man.

Islamisation has turned the original intricately carved hilts into very abstract representations where the barest outline of a man can be discerned. It is only in Bali, which remains Hindu, that lifelike representations of man, gods and beasts still appear on the hilt.

The main form for the hilt in Sulawesi, Sumatra and Malaysia is the Jawa Demam (Fevered Javanese). Many believe that it is an abstraction of the Garuda, the mythical King of Birds, because of its beak-like projection. However, there is strong evidence that it is an abstraction of a man as some clearly shows hands, feet and teeth.

In Perak, there is a hilt in the form of a parrot and this "cockatoo" pommel is also well-known in Moro or Sulu pieces while another form, the Hulu Pekaka or kingfisher, originates from the northern Melayu States, particularly Pattani (now a part of Thailand).

Rosman excels in making the Jawa Demam, Hulu Pekaka, parrot and other forms like the Buaya Bongkok (hunched crocodile) and Hulu Sejuk (cold chick). He is probably the only one in the country producing the crocodile hilt. He normally uses kemuning wood for the keris. The wood is left to dry under the house before he starts his work.

"I don't draw sketches for the keris. Everything is in the head and it comes naturally when I concentrate on the job." Using tools that he made himself, the intricate carving is done patiently. The final part is the glossy look, given by a coat of resin from the sape tree. Rosman normally uses the blades of old keris to give his creations a natural look.

"I can forge them myself if there are requests but most collectors prefer the old blades as it makes their keris looks more authentic," he says. Rosman also makes smoking pipes, knives and parangs for the household, and other closed combat weapons, including swords, kukri (Gurkha knife) and kerambit (knife with a short curved blade).

Rosman may be good at what he is doing but more importantly, he is aware that in this modern age, the traditional craftsmen are disappearing, He is playing his part to make sure that traditional skills are not lost. His sons, Mohd Izzat, 12, and Mohd Adam, 8, have been trained to carve since they were young and they are good at it.

"I want them to learn everything from the basics to the detailed carvings. "Even if they do well in studies and take up something else, it is okay with me. "The important thing is they learn the skills."

Unique dagger a work of art

The keris, a dagger unique to Nusantara, or the Melayu world, has won the admiration and devotion of many in the region and beyond. It is said that the keris originated in Java, where sculptures of the weapon dating back more than 400 years, have been found in Chandi Borobudur.

Apart from Indonesia and Malaysia, the keris is also found in Pattani (southern Thailand), Mindanao (southern Philippines) and in the Cham areas of Cambodia. To many, the keris is not just a weapon but a work of art.

The beautiful carvings and the air of mystery surrounding the keris, like the famous Taming Sari, are among the reasons for its wide following. Legend has it that the Taming Sari, which once belonged to Melayu hero Hang Tuah, could fly and seek the enemy just like the modern missile. It would even rattle in its sheath (sarong) to warn its owner of potential danger.

Starting a collection of keris is not difficult as there are numerous collectors and antique shops dealing in them. It is also available through the Internet.

By Sulaiman Jaafar
Sourced from The New Straits Times

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