Pertukangan Kooperasi Pandai Besi Pekan Darat - 02

Reaching out to the next generation

But perhaps the threat lies not so much in mass-production culture as it does in the smartphone obsession that tends to grip young people nowadays.

Six cousins (five boys and a girl) and another two boys arrived with great anticipation for a four-day knife-making course. Aged between 10 and 17, their training has been, ahem, in computer games.

They are all very computer-savvy and attached to their smartphones. Would there be a clash of cultures? Would this be a waste of time for the master blacksmiths, who were taking time from their weekend rest to teach the trade to complete strangers? Would the teenagers become bored and go back to their phones?

After an introductory tour and explanations of what each machine is for, potential safety hazards, and a general safety briefing by the facilitator and pandai besi Azhar Hamid, the students put on their safety gear of ear plugs, gloves, mask and goggles and dived straight in.

Their first task was to make wooden handles for knives. They had to think of a design, draw out the plan, and learn how that theory could be translated into the wood they had in hand. They cut, chiselled, and turned their pieces of wood throughout the afternoon under the watchful eyes of two masters.

The high ceiling provided ample air flow in 45°C heat. A big fan helped keep things cool. The young students kept their focus. Not once were they distracted by their smartphones. At least not on that first afternoon.

The next morning, they started again, this time divided into groups, the Malaysian cousins busy whispering translations of the instructions to the cousin from Canberra. Their masters, calm and collected, guided them along, step by step. There’s no rushing in this type of work.

The pandai besi use the old method of forging steel by heating a steel bar in a charcoal furnace until it is partially melted and malleable, and then shaping it using hammer and anvil. The metal is lengthened by beating it against the anvil. This flattens and widens the piece, thereby drawing it out.

A technique called “upsetting” is used to increase the thickness of the metal in one dimension through hammering the cold end of the object with the hammer to make the malleable hot end shorter and thicker.

To bend the metal it is placed over the horn of the anvil and struck with the hammer to achieve the curve they seek.

There is a lot to be said about experiential training. The young students were in the thick of it. Their smartphones were left idle in the meeting room. There was no time for phone chats except at breaks, to share the excitement with friends far away.

They started the furnace, they forged metal in the heat. They were keen to turn the hot iron to match their imagination, under the masters’ watchful eyes. There was a lot of heating, hitting, heating, hitting.

While half of the group was busy chiselling wood, the other half was learning methods of cutting and welding steel. Morning became afternoon, as the apprentices learned.

The young apprentices quickly learnt to respect the craft. They came to the course without any prior exposure to it.

But they learnt, not just techniques but also the history: as they toiled away, the older generation pandai besi drifted in and out, sharing stories of their exploits, such as working without any safety barriers – they used to forge hot steel topless, without protective gear, they said. (Note: This is not recommended!) Local kids too drifted in and out as did some villagers, sharing local folklore and stories.

As the sun went down, the apprentices had begun to understand the significance of these skills, and appreciate the historical contribution of earlier craftsmen in clearing and settling land to start villages, and the role of weaponry in the local skirmishes and war, and most importantly, the role the craft plays in making agricultural tools until today.

A flame sparked?

Passion must be contagious. All the pandai besi trainers are passionate about their craft, their history and the journey of the co-op. They are eager to help educate the public about blacksmithing, enthusiastic about promoting their art and keen to see knowledge transferred to a younger generation.

Co-op chairman Sulaiman Ishak said they are keen to ensure that the facilities in Pekan Darat are used, given that many of the machines and equipment came from Sirim Bhd.

The co-op members are enthusiasts as well as full- time blacksmiths, whose daily job is making different tools by hand. The most sought-after products are claws for harvesting oil palm fruit bunches, rubber-tapping knives and parang.

“We have the capacity to produce more, as we work collectively in this co-op to ensure quality and quantity and timely delivery,” he said.

Facilitator Azhar Hamid talked about the need to reawaken interest in blacksmithing in the younger generation, as it had been in the young apprentices. As a fourth-generation pandai besi, he is the keeper of the flame in his family.

His father and grandfather before him all fought to keep a co-op going to ensure better bargaining power for all of them collectively.

“There is a certain connectedness that the blacksmith course can give young people, that can’t be gotten from computer games. This is centuries-old tradition of the prophet David (Daud). There are thousands of years of history in this art,” Azhar added.

If the apprentices’ lack of interest in Snapchatting or Instagramming during the course can be used as a measure, he had certainly made his point.

Azhar also shared with the apprentices the historical sites and living history of Pekan Darat, all of which is intertwined with blacksmithing.

The weekend course finished with the youngsters completing two tools with their own hands. But they took home with them more than just those items, no doubt. The spark of the flame perhaps. One never knows with young people, as they chart their lives.

But it is certain that even in a throwaway society, the capacity to withstand heat, both literally and metaphorically, along with patience, persistence and perseverance will take these young apprentices far.

If you ever visit the Kooperasi Pandai Besi Pekan Darat, I recommend you order your very own knife, be it a pisau seliat or silinap, and spend a bit on a beautiful wood handle that finishes the knife exquisitely. And enjoy the experience.

Source: The Star Online