JAKARTA: Indonesia’s oldest Pencak Silat fighter, Zakaria Abdurochim, says his advancing age is no reason to stop teaching the ancient martial art form which he learned as a teenager during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.
“I learned Pencak Silat from my grandfather, Muhammad Zaelani. He taught the skills to his family members at that time as a form of self-defense during the Japanese occupation,” Abdurochim told Arab News during an interview at his residence in Kwitang, Jakarta.
The soon-to-be 92-year-old continued to teach the Mustika Kwitang Pencak Silat style to a group of students until the classes were halted abruptly during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic last year.
The social restrictions, however, did not deter him from teaching, as he turned to technology with the help of his 26-year-old grandson, Alfarisy, also known as Riry, to connect with his students.
“Riry would tape me demonstrating the moves and send the clips to students and they could use it as a reference to learn,” he said.
His lifetime passion and dedication to the martial art earned him recognition from Indonesia’s World Records Museum which declared him the country’s oldest Pencak Silat fighter in August last year.
The Mustika Kwitang is one of the most prominent Betawi styles of Pencak Silat.
Betawi refers to the ethnic group native to Jakarta. Abdurochim said it originated as a family tradition in the 19th century and was passed down from one generation to another.
His great-great-grandfather taught his family members the traditional self-defense skills, which he developed with some influence from Chinese martial arts which he learnt from a Chinese trader and a martial arts master who had settled in the area.
Various historical accounts referred to the Chinese trader as Kwee Tang Kiam, from whom many claim the name of the area, Kwitang, was taken. It was the area where many Chinese and Arab traders settled when they migrated to Batavia, Jakarta’s colonial-era name during the Dutch East Indies occupation.
Abdurochim’s first opportunity to showcase his skills was when Indonesia held its first multi-sports event, the National Sports Week (PON), in 1948, three years after it declared its independence.
But at that time, it was featured only as a demonstration sport to showcase the arts of the synchronized body movement.
He participated again as a member of the capital city’s contingent in the second PON in 1951 when Pencak Silat was listed as a competitive sport, winning a gold medal for Jakarta.
After his family’s Pencak Silat style began to gain prominence in the new republic, Abdurochim and his 13 siblings agreed to formalize it into a school and founded the Mustika Kwitang Pencak Silat school in 1952. Out of the 14 siblings, only he and his 77-year-old sister are still alive.
But the Mustika Kwitang Pencak Silat style’s continuity is in “safe hands,” he said, with Riry now leading the school.
“Just like grandpa who learnt Pencak Silat from his grandpa, I also learned this from him from when I was five years old. I became interested as he used to take me along with him in many of his coaching sessions,” Riry said.
Riry is one of Abdurochim’s 60 grandchildren from 14 children. Although his other grandchildren also learned the martial arts form, only Riry and one of his cousins are keeping the legacy alive, with future seeds growing in the family as some of his 34 great-grandchildren have started to learn the sport as well.
Riry now holds his own classes at the nearby Islamic Center, which was established by the late Ali bin Abdurrahman Al-Habsyi. The Muslim cleric founded the Majelis Taklim Kwitang, or Kwitang Muslim congregation, and he was a leading preacher who played an instrumental role in the proliferation of Islam in the city and across Indonesia.
The school now has disciples in many parts of the country as well as abroad, including France, the UK and the Netherlands, where Abdurochim traveled to teach.
“Recently, someone from Amsterdam contacted me, he found my contact from the IPSI (Indonesian Pencak Silat Association) and wanted to learn online. He said he would come to Indonesia to learn on the spot when the pandemic is over,” Abdurochim said.
He likened learning Pencak Silat to learning how to read, where a disciple has to learn the 12 basic moves just like learning the alphabet.
“When they master the moves, they will be able to compose them into a unity of movement accordingly, just like someone being able to compose a sentence after learning the alphabet,” he said.
Indonesia’s Pencak Silat, which has a distinctive style from various schools across the archipelago, was inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2019, a year after its debut in a global multisports event at the Asian Games 2018, which Indonesia hosted.
The UNESCO described Pencak Silat as having an all-encompassing aspect of sports — mental, spiritual, self defense and artistic.
It teaches its practitioners “to maintain their relationship with God, human beings, and nature … trained in various techniques to deal with attacks or other dangerous situations based on principles to protect themselves as well as others, avoid harming the offender and build comradeship.”
True to the description, Zakaria said Pencak Silat “teaches him about compassion, to do good, respect for the elderly and the teachers” — a philosophy that he has passed on by teaching it.
“We learn to be patient when enduring hardship. In addition to that, it is also good for our health from practicing the breathing techniques, and we learn to focus as we have to practice it in building our body strength,” he said.
Johansyah Lubis, a Pencak Silat athlete and coach for Indonesia’s national team in various international events, credited Abdurochim as one of the Pencak Silat masters who co-developed the nationally-recognized moves incorporated from various schools, and used as a reference point by the IPSI for competition.
“He has a strong commitment to preserving Pencak Silat as a Betawi native martial arts and culture,” Lubis told Arab News.
And with his lifetime of dedication to the traditional martial arts, and his gold medal for Jakarta in 1951, Abdurochim — who shares his birthday with the city on June 22 — is truly one of Jakarta’s icons.