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Pencak Silat Progressive Schools in Indonesia

Rapid Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Book 28, 2003: 442-43)

© O'ong Maryono


Continuing the review of the different types of pencak silat schools that was initiated in the last journal, this article will describe the two remaining categories of progressive and rational-liberal schools. Unlike conservative and moderate schools, these two group of schools feels that pencak silat can, and should be, contested like other martial arts.

More particularly, progressive schools aimed to develop pencak silat not only as a self-defence and a form of physical exercise, but also as a competitive sport. Unlike conservative and moderate schools, progressive schools feel that pencak silat can, and should be, contested like other martial arts. They do not believe that pencak silat is too dangerous for competition, and do not agree that competitions involve violence, since they are sporting matches, not duels. Leaders of the progressive schools also emphasise that ‘matches’ have always been part of pencak silat tradition. In fact, most ‘epic’ contests involve pencak silat masters and people wishing to prove their skills, before loosing and submitting themselves as disciples. Rather than being spontaneous and unregulated, better these contests take place in a sports arena. Moreover, sporting contests are important to demonstrating pencak silat skills, and attract the interest of those who wish to learn and preserve this expression of Indonesian culture. Thus –like the moderate schools– the progressive schools are willing to display a part of their technical skills in public. Some core jurus, however, continue to be kept secret and may only be learnt by perguruan members who have been through an initiation ceremony.

By preserving the initiation ceremony and carrying out other rituals, the progressive schools maintain their traditional dimension. However, their system of organisational management and training tends to be modern. Progressive schools have worked enthusiastically to standardise pencak silat movements into packages geared towards specific levels of proficiency. Besides traditional techniques, these packages also include sports exercises such as warming up and stretching. In this new training system, a student is required to take a test and prove that he has completed the set of movements as determined by the teacher to be able to advance to the next level, being indicated by the colour of the belt. This standardazed training system has allowed progressive schools to be organised on a national scale and have branches in several regions that are under the umbrella of the parent organisation, with students paying fees for training and use of the school uniform. It can then be said that the progressive camp is ‘middle-of-the-road’: on the one hand, they do not wish to let go of past traditions, but on the other, they accept the challenges of a modern age.

Only with the emergence of the ‘rational-liberal schools’ (perguruan rational-liberal) in the 1950’s would the traditional way of thinking be categorically broken down. This camp, which originated from the upper middle class, dared to ‘deviate’ from standard patterns (pakem) and review their essence, in the belief that pencak silat is not a static knowledge. Adopting a modernist viewpoint, the rational-liberal schools argue that pencak silat should develop continually, and movements and techniques should be continuously updated:

Silat is a science, and like other sciences must develop continuously. Life is never static. If life would be static, humanity would not survive. The same is true of pencak silat; if it becomes static it will die. To survive, it must develop.

Consequently, rational-liberal schools value openness, and reject the exclusiveness of conservative schools as ‘narrow-minded’. In their view, jurus need to be standardised, but not to be sacralized or kept secret. If all teachers set aside a part of their most effective techniques, and jurus could not be modified and developed, the quality of pencak silat would greatly suffer. Many rational-liberal schools also consider as ‘antiquated’ initiation ceremonies in which the student is bound for life to his school, and elect to satisfy the ritual aspect with opening and closing ceremonies at training sessions, and salutations, unique to each style, at the beginning of pencak silat performances. They even shun forbidding students to study at other perguruan.

Rational-liberal schools regard openness as a pre-condition to the development of pencak silat as a modern sport. Agreeing with the progressive camp, they believe that pencak silat competitions do not go against the philosophy of pencak silat. The essence of peace inherent in competitions is a tool for achieving fellowship: when a contest is over, the pesilat shake hands and make friends again. The ideal of a pesilat being ‘a person who can control himself’ is realised when one restrains his emotions and does not get carried away during a contest.

The rational-liberal camp also rejects the idea that a pesilat should be ashamed to demonstrate his superiority and desire to win. They consider an honour for their perguruan to win in competitions, and preach pragmatism and eclecticism in achieving this aim. Movements and techniques, considered the most effective for beating the opponent in the competition arena, are to be adopted and taught in the schools, regardless of their source. In contrast, self-defence movements and techniques that cannot win points are to be disregarded or taught only to preserve a cultural heritage. The rational-liberal schools even accept elements of foreign cultures and are willing to learn from other martial arts, if beneficial. To improve their performance, they often adopt techniques of karate, judo, kuntao, and other foreign martial arts. It is not surprising that one observer, who wishes to remain anonymous, concluded that the movements of pesilat from rational-liberal schools are very inclusive:

Basic stances and steps resembling traditional pencak silat. Strong, graceful offensives like karate punches. Limber and high kicking similar to tae kwon do kicks. Throwing one’s opponent using locking techniques like judo and ju-jitsu. And executing a wide range of stances, displaying intonation of movement, full of expression and difficulty factors on par with that of local styles of pencak silat.

The rational-liberal camp also played a role in introducing modern sports principles in the world of pencak silat. The system of memorising jurus was definitively shunned in favour of more effective training methods. For instance, to improve speed and raise the frequency of offensives, movements are repeated continuously –if necessary using supplementary equipment. Other sporting methods introduced include weight training for building-up strength, and running set distances within a set time to enhance endurance. Training is carried out en masse, but students are encouraged to develop individual techniques that suit their particular body structure and capability. Masters with a rational-liberal orientation also try to explain in detail the use and purpose of each movement to their students, so that they can better understand and practice.

By giving pesilat the freedom to experiment and by freeing pencak silat from the shackles of the past, the rational-liberal schools succeeded in meeting the demands of the age and enabling the transformation of pencak silat from a form of self-defence to a sport. More on this important development in the next edition.