Myself, Nigel, Fong (Nigel's wife) and Lien (Nigel's son) where all at the USM ABN-AMRO Arts and Cultural Centre in the centre of Penang performing a Silat Tari demo to help launch an art exhibition by a local artist Shamsul Bahari. One side of the small stage was crowded with the traditional instruments of a Gamalan Orchestra, metal bells and gongs hanging in beautifully crafted housings adorned with intricate carvings, the other half clear for us to jump around in.
It may sound odd that a group of Europeans should be out promoting Malay traditional arts to Malays, and I'm sure there is some novelty value in it, but as Pak Zianal says; when people see that someone is willing to travel half way round the world to immerse themselves in Malay local culture and arts it helps to make people realize how much it is worth.
Nigel took the stage first opening the proceedings with a Tari dance to the four directions while some of Pak Zianal's lads banged out a rhythm on the gongs and drums. As he finished the rest of us came on clutching small bowls of flowers, I passed Nigel his and Fong and Lien left the stage we began Silat Smarap. This is a dance, normally performed at weddings, where the participants each hold a bowl of flowers, one representing male and the other female (the female is distinguished from the male because she has the bigger bowl, which seems quite appropriate I think :-p).
The idea of the dance is that the male has to try catch and touch bowls with the female while the female has to simultaneously tease and avoid the male, so the female is characterized by her creativity in avoiding the male while the male is distinguished by his cunning, trying to corner the female and use feints and tricks to lure her out. Apart from being great fun, my nerves were soon forgotten as I chased Nigel around the stage grins on our faces (I was the male, much to Nigel's annoyance but he could do the feminine moves much better than me :-)), the dance is a fantastic footwork and sensitivity exercise as you attempt to trick, tease, corner and escape from each other and because it's a dance it's less likely degenerate into a forceful contest.
After Nigel had kindly conceded (otherwise I'd have been chasing him for hours) Fong and Lien took the stage and performed the same dance. One of the best things about Silat Tari is that it allows the exponent to bring him or herself to the picture from the beginning. Instead of having to conform to a set style, conditioned by set patterns of movement, the principles and basics allow the person to find his or her own way of moving. This means that when you watch a group perform Silat Tari, though it is obvious that each person is moving in a similar fashion, there is also a certain stamp or quality of movement that is unique to each individual. Therefore watching Fong and Lien do the dance was quite different to myself and Nigel, Fong moves with fluid grace and strength while Lien's movements have a focused intensity that you can feel across a room.
Once they had finished the dance we all took our turns to perform various Tari, empty handed and with weapons (Nigel used a Pedang, a Malay single edged sword, while I had my trusty stick and Lien had a Kris) , to finish myself and Nigel performed a 'skit' whereby Nigel played the aggressive 'hard' martial artist, terrifying both the audience and the band stamping and shouting (he hammed it up beautifully and the hardest part was keeping a straight face), and I was the soft and flowing Silat Tari guy deftly avoiding and countering his blows (obviously we' been rehearsing this before and Nigel kindly uttered a blood curdling scream every time he attacked). The skit ended with Nigel crawling off the stage and Lien coming on to defend his fallen father, by running up my leg and elbowing me in the head (he was kind to me today as yesterday he landed a beautiful knee right on my nose while practicing).
In all it seemed to go very well and both Pak Zianal and Nigel got positive feedback and seemed happy, which is the important thing on these occasions. Something that can be easy to forget coming from the West is the concept of Face, if you are performing a demo it's not just your own embarrassment you have to worry about if it goes wrong but that of your teacher and their lineage whose skill you are representing.
Once all the excitement was over we got to have a proper look round at the art exhibition, the artist was a Penang local who I think had lived overseas in the States and Japan before finally moving back to Penang. The art was really good, with a diversity in style ranging from pen and ink miniature's and cartoons to full size canvases of everything from abstract images to landscapes. The two particular things that caught my eye where a series of pictures of tropical fish, their dayglow colours against a stark black background that seemed to fix them in it's embrace and a large canvas filled with intertwining tree branches reaching up to surround/ensnare a white dove at the centre.
I'm glad that I had another opportunity to something out of the ordinary while out here but I'm also glad that the demo is over as these things are always nerve wracking, still it's good to get the chance to help in a small way to promote the local culture and art and hopefully give back something of what it has given me.