Pertukangan Kooperasi Pandai Besi Pekan Darat - 01

In a world of mass-produced disposable products, where nearly everything you could ever want can be bought in the nearest Ikea, spending a weekend with a group of teenagers learning from pandai besi men, or master blacksmiths, is an experience to behold.

Here in Pekan Darat in Butterworth, Penang, you can trace the provenance of your knives or tools down through a few generations.

Here, you can discuss the steel mixture and the different blade edges for your knives. You have a choice of the usual 50:50 or the 70:30 or any asymmetrical edge for different purposes – you can discuss it all with your pandai besi.

There is no discrimination against left-handedness either, as tools can be custom-made to fit both the owner and the purpose.

There is a Malay saying, “Hanya jauhari yang mengenal manikam” (roughly translated, it means that it takes someone who is an expert craftsman to know the work of another).

For enthusiasts, this is definitely the place for hand-made knives and tools.

Royal connection

Legend has it that a pandai besi from Patani, Thailand, settled in Pekan Darat in the 1820s, bringing with him the invaluable skill of forging steel. Since then, Pekan Darat has had an unbroken line of blacksmiths who pass their skills on from generation to generation.

They work individually but not in isolation, and from early on attempted to organise themselves and form a body to represent them and their art.

The history of the “Kooperasi Pandai Besi Pekan Darat” is long and chequered. In the office, the members have on display a 1985 Berita Harian report in which the forefather of one of the current pandai besi lamented the lack of government support, in particular that government agency Mara had reneged on its offer to assist in the repair and maintenance of equipment, which meant that a lot of it became scrap metal.

That was in 1985. Today the Kooperasi Pandai Besi Pekan Darat is looking just fine. The front of its building is a modest wood and zinc-roofed structure but there’s a grander extension in the back that was added in 2012 with the assistance of RM1.2mil in government funding.

The co-op has certainly made peace with the ghosts of the forlorn past. Its workshop impresses – it is fully equipped with grinders, wood turners, angle grinders, furnaces, anvils and a stockpile of wood and high-carbon steel. Then there is an engraving room, a meeting room, an office, prayer rooms and an exhibition room.

Traditionally and by trade, blacksmiths are resilient people. Their knowledge and skills come from generations of training, usually starting in the early teenage years.

Their inheritance comes with a high tolerance for heat, literally and metaphorically, and a capacity for patience, focus and dedication to the hard daily grind of forging steel.

Grit is something they have in abundance. Also, imagination.

For many, the concept of inherited knowledge is sacred. Traditional societies have passed on their knowledge like this for centuries. Just like property inheritance, knowledge inheritance comes with family pride, responsibility and honour. It comes with the secrets of grandfather-father-son bonding.

In the ever-present heat of the furnace, tales are told about old wounds and joyous accomplishments.

Sultans depended on their skills and craft for their very survival. In the old days, a sultan’s armoury would have been filled with kris, daggers, parang panjang, swords and tombak, all made by hand, unaided by machines. The blacksmith was an important part of the royal life of yesteryear.

The modern technique of pouring molten steel into moulds and mass producing knives means that the making-by-hand craft is dying, and such skills now lie in the hands of just a few artisans.

Pekan Darat used to have 20 master blacksmiths; the number has dwindled to 16, so they are keen to share their craft with others. They are keen to see it survive mass production.

Source: The Star Online