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Balinese Keris: Metal, Masculinity, Magic

– tekijä: Garrett Kam

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioKeskustelut
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Viimeisimmät tallentajatAlhickey1

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My TB review Dec19:

Balinese Keris by Garrett Kam

The kris is a dagger famous for its wavy blade. More than just a weapon, the kris represents genealogy, right to rule, power and fertility. Though the kris (or keris) is most often associated with Indonesia and particularly Java and Bali, the dagger can also be found throughout the Greater Malay World – southern Thailand, southern Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore – areas that have been heavily influenced by Malay culture.

Balinese Kris is a comprehensive introduction to this highly complex artifact from the perspective of an expert steeped in the ritual culture of Bali. From his experience and studies of more than 30 years, Garrett Kam deciphers the history of and myths behind this storied Malay dagger.
The rich tradition of the kris is deeply embedded in complex socio-cultural world of Balinese rituals, sacred ceremonies, performing arts, martial arts, epics and magic. The Balinese have at least 17 words for kris in Old Javanese (Kawi) that describe its various uses, appearances, ancestry, lethality, etc. Patterns on blades and scabbards are given names like “cricket wings,” “watermelon skin” and “mango seeds.” In the book’s detailed closeups, the weapon’s motifs and damascening demonstrating metallurgic mastery can be fully appreciated.

The small-framed Malay is quick and agile, so this style weapon is ideal for him. The kris’s wavy blade is designed to gives the blade greater cutting power, “sawing” the flesh for a deeper, wider stab than a straight knife, which also makes the wound difficult to heal. A serrated blade will also work its way in and out among bones where a wider blade would stick. Official names given to historic kris, always preceded by “Venerable,’ such as “Tongue of Death,” “Thunderbolt,” “Agile Deer,” Sorcerer Dagger,” “Senior Ogre,” etc. poetically denote its powers, qualities and associations with powerful natural forces, great skills or strong characters.

Potent symbolism can be found on some kris which serve as stand-ins at weddings, exorcist rituals and parades. A source of male pride, a straight blade (similar to a European rapier) represents a phallus or a serpent (naga) at rest with latent power while a wavy bladed kris is like a snake in motion, aggressive and alive. Some battle kris are so powerful that just by unsheathing them enemy warriors are cowed into the kneeling posture of submission. Specialized kris were used to mercifully euthanize a noble warrior mortally wounded in battle or used for executions, the victim made to squat and the executioner driving the rapier into his heart from a point inside the collar bone, either quickly or slowly according to the sentence.

A high mystic value is attached to this instrument of death. The number of times a kris has drawn blood or people it had slain only added to its power. Some kris are capable of sorcery: they can talk, fly, swim, turn into snakes, even father human children. If pointed at someone or if stabbed into the shadow or footprint of an intended victim, the kris’s invisible venom can kill. When danger is near, powerful kris have been known to rattle in their sheaths. One gruesome weapon (sundrik) was concealed by women in their hair for self-defence or as protection against rape. To protect her honor, the woman first yielded to the man, then would gouge his genitals or rip his bowels.

The writer also pays tribute to the accomplished art of kris making – the crafting of the blade, hilt and scabbard – which requires great skill and knowledge. All the book’s amazing photos were taken by the author himself. Each caption states the year and place the photograph was taken. To get this close to his subjects, Kam needed to know when the ceremony or event was to take place, how the proceedings were structured and above all else show great respect for the participants. Though Kam humbly insists that he was just at the right place at the right time, his images capture an essence that owes more to a nimble, intrepid and polished talent as a photographer than to mere dumb luck. Kam’s rare photos, in particular the “action” shots, are in fact the book’s most outstanding feature. Beginning from the opening page - a full page bleed of a man attempting to plunge four kris into his chest from a nearly perpendicular angle - the reader’s attention is pulled to these captivating images from the very start.

From all the visual information it’s apparent that this semi divine artefact as the single most important part of a man’s formal traditional outfit. There is something stately and dignified about bare-chested men and boys standing, sitting and walking with eye-catching kris protruding from the backs. Priest hold kris aloft during magic rites. Grimacing men in trance hold kris in threatening poses in a ritual street performance. Bachelor youths with kris stuck a kilter in waist bands march alongside sacred gongs. Mesmerizing Barong and Baris dancers menace onlookers with kris and spears. Royal kris are enthroned in high altars festooned with flowers and elaborate offerings. Kris are the focus of attention in paintings and sculpture.

The last chapter, “Keris and Components,” describes all the physical parts of a kris, demonstrating why kris making is the penultimate masculine esoteric art. This full color section amounts to a classification guide that would be indispensable for dealers, collectors and military buffs
in determining an individual kris’s workmanship, qualities and powers.

This authoritative volume will assuredly be a seminal text on the subject and is a valuable addition to Asian military history. Without pretending to be encyclopaedic in scope, Balinese Kris distils the essence of this redoubtable weapon and amounts to a holistic study of all the major aspects, multiple uses and meanings of the kris from its manufacture to its occult spiritual dimensions.

Balinese Keris: Metal, Masculinity, Magic by Garrett Kam,
Ethnographic Art Books, ISBN 978-90-5450-021-6, 64 pages, 88 color illustrations, bibliography.
  Alhickey1 | Dec 14, 2019 |
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