They cherish their craft

KEEN on our country’s colourful culture and multiethnic tradition, I joined a group on a two-day southern craft trail that started in Alor Gajah, Malacca, and ended in villages around Batu Pahat in Johor.

On Day 2 of the handicraft trail, I enjoyed meeting more skilled makers of traditional handicrafts, some of which are vanishing.

Wood Carving

In the bright morning sun, we wound our way to a village in Sungai Mati to meet Tuzelan Ahmad of Zalikraf.  Tuzelan, better known as Wak Lan, is skilled in constructing and carving mimbar, the wooden podium or pulpit used in mosques. His skills in fine woodcarving were developed from learning different facets of woodwork, including furniture and door making.  During a trip to Java under the “Buy Asian” programme, he discovered the fascinating beauty of Javanese woodcarving.

A worker sand-papering wooden carvings
When he adapted it to the Malay art of carving, he created his unique style of refined and delicate engraving.  In 1990, Wak Lan started his workshop to produce large and small home and garden décor and souvenir items. Today, his fine-quality products include window and door frames, wall panels, tables, dividers, pergolas, balustrades, jewellery, Quran boxes and the magnificent mimbar. Wak Lan said the mimbar made by him had his hallmark design of a front verandah. The intricate engraving has a unique motif that identifies each unit as a creation made by Zalikraf.

To Wak Lan, making mimbar is a serious commitment. Besides ensuring stringent standards in production, he keeps himself spiritually pure in thought.  He made his first mimbar in 1996 and has since completed 70.

We were enthralled by the impressive display of products in his showroom.  Tearing ourselves away from the magnificent pieces, we followed the relentless rustling sound of sandpaper against wood that led us to his workshop.  Most of his designs depict natural elements like interlaced leaves, flowers and fruit. Close attention is given to polishing the carvings’ hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Wak Lan is a man with vision and aims to make Muar synonymous with exquisitely-engraved Malay wood products.

He recently filled an order for mimbar from Singapore. This has made him strive even harder for his products to reach the international market by 2015.  Perusahaan Zalikraf is at Km18, Serom 4, Sungai Mati, Muar. Tel: 06-975 5734 & 012-2508184.

Wood Sculptures

Husaini Mastor shaping a wooden bowl at the lathe
Driving past swaying coconut palms and wooden houses on stilts, our next stop was Semerah, Batu Pahat.

When we entered the workshop in the front compound of a kampung home, I was drawn to the pleasant woody fragrance of freshly cut wood.

Here’s where Husaini Mastor chops logs, hews out pith and sculptures chunks of wood into useful and decorative items. Showing off some of his products, Husaini said that with proper care, these items could remain useful for more than 10 years.

Admiring the larger items, I realised that the attractive umbrella stands were cleverly carved out of coconut tree trunks.  The skills and experience Husaini acquired in his previous career as a mechanic and in home renovation work are invaluable to his handicraft business.  When he settled back in his kampung, he picked up wood sculpturing skills from his father. It was interesting that the student turned out to be better than the teacher because the quality of the products made by Husaini were far better than his father’s!

Husaini with the hantaran stands he made
Four years ago, Husaini started producing items with the help of an old lathe he modified to sculpture wood.  As a skilled technician, Husaini makes his own cutting tools with various edges like flat or diamond heads. He uses them to cut and shape chunks of wood.

The Johor branch of Kraftangan Malaysia provided him with a modern lathe. This helped him to add more attractive items to his beautiful range of wooden products. Husaini’s sculpturing skills included the making of kompang, traditional drums and other percussion instruments.

One of Husaini’s new creations is the wooden hantaran stand that looks grand when adorned with wedding accessories. Running my hands across the wooden surfaces, I felt that they were amazingly smooth. It was hard to resist feeling his wooden vases, baseball bats, tops and even the parang handles and scabbards.  His workshop is at 157, Parit No. 2, Jalan Yusof, Semerah, Batu Pahat. Tel: 017-782 0923.

Making Kuda Kepang

Naim Marji holding 'horse' made of bamboo strips
The home of 67-year-old Naim Marji was just a short distance away in Kampung Sungai Nibong. Pak Naim makes two-dimensional “horses” used in the traditional kuda kepang dance, first introduced in Johor by Javanese immigrants in the early 20th century. 

The kuda kepang brought back vivid images of dancers astride their “horses”, bobbing to the mesmerising rhythm of traditional instruments like angklung, gendang and gong.

Lovingly holding a horse made of hide, Pak Naim told us that it was made by his teacher and it was 48 years old but still in good use.  In contrast, the modern version of a horse puppet is created from woven bamboo strips with its mane and tail made of “hair” produced by the Ijok tree. The frizzy black hair looked quite bizarre because it seemed so much like real human hair.

The art of splitting bamboo strips

Thin slivers of bamboo strips were the main ingredients to make the plaited body of each “horse”.  We watched as workers sliced bamboo into flat strips. They squatted on the floor and used their hands and feet with much skill. They ensured that each sliver was equal in thickness, length and width. After plaiting, the sheet of woven bamboo were cut into the shape of a leg-less “horse” and edges trimmed with a neat hem. Then the mane and tail are added. The eyes are painted in and the body painted with colourful designs.

It takes five days to complete one “horse” and varies from 4ft to 4.5ft in length to match child and adult sizes. With five helpers, including a young apprentice who shares Pak Naim’s passion for the art, it is reassuring that kuda kepang horse-making skills are set to remain firmly in our rich heritage.  Pak Naim’s workshop is located at Pos 94-16, Kg Sungai Nibong, Mukim 1, Lubok, Semerah, Batu Pahat.

Gambus Making

Pak Mat making a gambus in his workshop
When we passed Bukit Banang Golf Club en route to Kampung Rahmat, the bright weather of the past two days dulled and it started drizzling. But the rain could not dampen our excitement in meeting one of Johor’s leading gambus makers.

The gambus, or Arabian oud, is a stringed musical instrument with a body shaped like a pear sliced lengthwise and a neck bent just below the tuning pegs. Its 12 nylon strings are usually plucked with a plectrum like a guitar to produce a gentle tone similar to that of a harpsichord. But unlike a guitar, it has no frets.

Brought in by early Persian and Middle Eastern traders, it was adopted into Johor Malay folk culture and played as the lead instrument in ghazal music as well as to accompany zapin and hamdolok performances.

Mohd Diah Ariffin @ Aripin, better known as Pak Mat, 63, learnt to make gambus from his grandfather when he was only 16. Today, this heritage is being passed on to his children. Rohana, his 25-year old daughter, is already doing meticulous work, particularly on the delicate detailed edges of the gambus.  Showing off his favourite gambus, Pak Mat modestly admitted that while he may be good at making gambus, he’s not good at playing the instrument. That’s why he was happy that his son, Mohd Azuan, 21, had begun playing the gambus.

Miniature gambus make great souvenirs
In an adjacent workshop, Pak Mat demonstrated how wood from the jackfruit tree, cut into strips about 2.5cm wide, were heated, shaped and glued, piece-by-piece over a wooden frame and left to dry. Strips of light-shaded teakwood were assembled in alternate rows to create a beautiful colour contrast. Pak Mat said making a good gambus not only required skill and patience but also good weather to ensure that the pieces glued together were properly dried before he could proceed to the next stage.

The passion for his art showed when Pak Mat spoke about the gambus. Depending on the materials and designs, prices start from RM800 per unit.  In the dry season, he is able to produce at least four units per month. Last year, he fulfilled requests for 40 gambus. Some of the orders came from Singapore and Brunei. His workshop is at Pos 21, Kg Rahmat, Batu Pahat. Tel: 07-428 8693/4 & 017-701 4036.

Spending time with these traditional craftsmen, who displayed so much commitment and passion for their art, left us in awe of our wealth of crafts. These are worth preserving and nurturing carefully.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 20 April 2008

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