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TRADITIONAL HANDICRAFTS OF BRUNEI DARUSSALAM: SILVERWORK


The Handicraft Series:
1. Silverwork - continues to flourish
2. Weaving (Tenunan) - an art into a tradition
3. Kris - the Malays' unique and ancient weapon
4. Songkok - the cap that became a symbol
5. Tudung Dulang - a dish of a cover
6. Weaving (Anyaman) - the hobby that became a traditional art
7. Brasswork - another ancient craft of Brunei Darussalam


PART I - SILVERWORK CONTINUES TO FLOURISH

The genesis of silver-crafting in Brunei Darussalam is not clearly known but it is believed that the craft is an ancient one, having been in existence in the country for centuries.

According to stories the early silversmiths began their art around Kampung Pandai Mas (Goldsmiths' Village), one of the villages in Kampong Ayer (Water Village) where several other age-old crafts such as gold, copper, brass and bronze works, cloth-weaving, wood-working and cannon as well as other weapon-making were also practised. Records have shonw that these handicrafts were already flourishing at the height of the Brunei Empire in the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century.

Secrecy

Until recently knowledge of silverware-fashiong, like the rest of the other crafts had been a closely guarded secret that was handed down through the generations from father to son. Attempts by others to penetrate this cloak of secrecy were always met with resentment. Thus the number of craftsmen was small and restricted to certain family circles within the confines of Kampong Ayer.

In the early fifties, the government, in an effort to perpetuate these handicrafts and make them more prevailing in the country, gave the artisans, notably the silversmiths, a building where they could display and sell their products.

The facilities were expanded in 1975 when the government built the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Center (BAHTC) at Berakas, about eight kilometers from the capital and recruited some of the artisans as instructors. For the first time young men and women received formal instruction in the art of silverware and brassware crafting; kris making; cloth weaving as well as mat and basket plaiting, among other things. With that the survival and widespread knowledge of the crafts were guaranteed.

In 1984, the BAHTC moved to an elegant new multi-storeyed building along the bank of the Brunei River at Jalan Residency in the capital. The new building affords the instructors and trainees alike more pleasant and modern facilities, including a plush display area, to indulge in their crafts.

Superior

This is a far cry from the old days when craftsmen worked in groups with their respective trades in a a balai or workshop, using traditional tools. It is a source of wonder that despite the seemingly less favourable means, these artisans managed to produce superior workmanship as evidence in surviving relics and the skills they had passed on to their descendants. The silversmiths, for example, could turn out exquisitely-handicrafted articles that are unique in their design and refinement.

One of the state's top silversmiths, Awang Haji Mohin bin POKD Haji Ahmad, who was also head of the Silvercraft Section at the BAHTC before retirement in 1989, acquired his skills from his father while still at school.

He began when he was about eight years old by helping his father to polish newly-crafted silverware. He learned in stages until he was an expert like his father before branching out on his own.

Haji Mohin said silver-crafting is simpler today because the silver used is imported in the form of sheets ready for use. In the old days the silver was obtained by meling old silver coins, bracelets and pieces of unwanted jewellery and then making them into sheets involving a lot of heating and hammering in the process.

Although the availability of processed materials and modern tools has made things easier for the craftsmen as a whole, traditional method and design remained basically unchanged.

To make silverware, for example, the procedure is fundamentally the same. The silver sheet is measured, cut and fashioned into the shape of whatever the silversmith has in mind.

He then draws an outline of his intricate desing on the article before filling every cavity with hot liquid resin.

The resin, once hardened, acts as a cushion when the delicate process of chipping the design using tiny hammer and chisel begins.

The design is usually based on local plants and flowers, which are patterned according to the artistic skills and imagination of the silversmith. The most commonly used is a pattern called Bunga Air Mulih in which a creeping flowering plant is depicted in an unbroken chain covering the whole or certain parts of the silverware.

Creations

Local smiths have for centuries created a wide range of silver articles for use by royalty as well as the ordinary common folk. Some of these items such as pasigupan (smoking pipe), cupu (vase), kiap (fan), kabuk panastan (jar with cover), kaskul (bowl with cover) and tumbak (spear) today still make up part of royal regalia.

Their other creations include ornamental articles such as cannon replicas, dinner gongs, flower vases and those traditionally worn by Malay brides and grooms.

The largest silverware ever crafted by a group of local smiths are the two Perabahan or giant incense burners at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the capital. Each of these burners stands more than 1.4 metres and weigh many pounds. The Perabahan is another example of Brunei Darussalam's exquisite hallmark of silver craftsmanship.

Silver crafting has not only been a means of preserving family traditions but also a profitable cottage industry in Brunei Darussalam. A Silverware is valued according to the amount or weight of the metal used. A silver tea set for instance can cost up to $3,000, and the demand for it and other silverware is always high.

The popularity of silverware among the locals and tourists alike will further assure the survival of this cultural heritage and at the same time continue to provide a source of income for those willing to learn this delicate but beneficial craft.

Source: Brunei Today published by Information Department, 1994



   









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