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Forged in Fire
We learn about the keris’ earthy roots from Abdul Mazin, the artisan who crafts ceremonial blades for kings and dignitaries.
Most people would not let ten-year-olds near sharp tools and burning furnaces but when one comes from a long line of blacksmiths, this turns into a very normal, natural occurrence. And so, Abdul Mazin Abdul Jamil’s extraordinary childhood is as normal as it could have been to him. As he watched his grandfather and father weld, forge, and engrave, he decided that at ten years of age, he wanted in on the action too.
Fifty-six years later, he is still at it, although the clients he gets are markedly different from the generations before him. Today, Abdul Mazin makes keris for political bigwigs, royalty and keris enthusiasts as far as Africa. He waves around a very long keris and points out the 14 curvatures on the blade, made to symbolise the 14th Agong in Malaysia’s rotating round of monarchs. Pulling out a photo album, he turns it to the page where there are photos of him presenting a keris to the country’s fifth Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
According to Abdul Mazin, the blade, for all its symbolism today, started out as something quite commonplace. Having a reputation today as a representation of male authority in Malay culture, the blade had a more pragmatic beginning as a self-defence tool carried around by everyone, including women. Back when people had to travel by foot from place to place, it was a matter of safety to have one strapped to the torso. The keris only rose in symbolism and stature, so to speak, as it became less of a self-defence tool and more of a family heirloom.
There is an amount of sacredness to the handling of the keris. The wearer kisses the heel of the blade when unsheathing it during ceremonies. To watch the creation of such an authoritative symbol brings an element of grounding to the object.
When making a keris, Abdul Mazin reuses iron that he collects from everyday objects like bicycle chains and umbrella frames, heats them in the furnace and forges them on an anvil with a hammer. This process is done repeatedly, layering and hammering with force until the many layers flatten out into the thinness that we associate with a blade.
Next, Abdul Mazin hammers and shapes the curves that form the keris’s well-known wavy, double-edged blade. After the blade is polished, it is plunged into a liquid mixture that contains lime juice to bring out the patterns created by the mixing of different irons.
When the hilt and sheath have been completed, a well-made keris should be able to stand erect on its own, in perfect balance on the tip of its own blade. Abdul Mazin demonstrates this with his own family keris, coaxing and talking to it after it fails to stand during the first few attempts. In a tense moment, the blade finally stabilises and achieves perfect equilibrium. After a few seconds of stillness, Abdul Mazin turns away from the keris and fixes his gaze on his spectators instead, a mixture of pride and relief.
As a fourth generation artisan, Abdul Mazin speaks to everyone that wants to learn about the keris, mainly giving workshops to university students, educating them about the history and the proper way to craft one. His teenage son is now working alongside him in his business; a picture of them both appears on a framed poster hanging prominently in his workshop. Outside his workshop, his grandchildren are engaged in a noisy game of badminton. In a few years’ time, they might in turn take over the family trade, who knows?
Although awareness about the keris is at an all-time high and he is getting many requests to make them (two clients arrive and interject our interview), Abdul Mazin doesn’t stop entertaining requests to teach the art of crafting keris to those who want to learn. “My grandfather would never do that,” he says. Buckling tradition by revealing family trade secrets seems like a worthy trade-off when the ancient art of hand-making keris seems very much alive in today’s mass production age.
Visit Abdul Mazin’s workshop at Bengkel Pandai Besi, Kampung Padang Changkat, Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar, Perak (017 656 1040).
Text and images by Adeline Chua
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi
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