Friday, May 21, 2010

Basics in Silat Sera - Questionable History ...

Pukulan Pentjak Silat Sera Plinck
(Blame me for this one)

This information was gleaned from various book and magazine articles, along with letters, emails, and/or conversations by or with: Paul de Thouars, Stevan Plinck, Willem de Thouars,, Cass Magda, Todd Ellner, Chas Clements, and other Sera(k) and Kun Tao players.

DISCLAIMER - PLEASE NOTE: There are many disagreements among the leading practitioners about historical items, no consensus on dates, and some family contention over other issues that may color certain recollections. I have tried to present the material as best I could interpret it. Bahasa Indonesia and Sundanese dialects sometimes have variations in spelling, so there may be errors in such renderings on my part.

SPECIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this history featured several items regarding Pak Victor de Thouars. Mr. de Thouars has informed us, through one of his (former) senior gurus, that he considered his characterization in the article “unflattering,” and has asked us to “remove all mention” of him from our website. We have complied with his request, and believe the subsequent revision more valid as a result.

Any other mistakes in transcribing the material are mine, and none of this is in any way "official," but my own research. Frankly, it could all be fantasy -- there's no way to tell. It's a good story, though, and one of the first things you learn as a writer is to never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, so ...

The term "sera(k)" (generally pronounced with the "k" silent, or without the letter at all) has several meanings, depending on spelling and accent. It can mean "hoarse." It also means "owl," and thus "wise," and with the accent on the first syllable, it means to "confuse," or to "scatter confusion," and thus "to decoy" or "deceive." It is also a shade of red. (I use as my reference here, the Indonesian dictionary
_Kamus Lengkap, _1985 edition, by Wojowasito, Poerwadarminta, and Wasito.)

“Sera” is a nickname, and what the actual meaning of the term, vis a vis the art, means is a point of contention. It has been argued that he was hoarse, wise, sneaky, and perhaps he even had red hair. All we know for sure is that the art is named for him.

One of Maurice de Thouars students posted a note to a website a couple years back, and in it, said Sera was nicknamed that because he had a hoarse voice, among his other physical problems, and that his real name was Eyang Hisak, aka H. Muhroji.)

Bapak Sera's precise date-of-birth is unknown. He's been listed as having been born as early as 1783 A.D.; however, this seems unlikely given the known lineage -- the dates don’t work -- and it is more likely Sera was born no earlier than the the 1830's or ‘40s, possibly even later.

If he was ever born at all. History outside the Sera family doesn't seem to mention Pak Sera, and one wonders at that, but to go on:

The birthplace and tribe of Pak Sera are also open to question and are the subjects of some contention among the senior practitioners of Sera -- as well as practitioners of other arts who also argue that Sera never existed at all, and who claim Mas Djut as one of their own. Such claims are dubious at best.

Some claim Sera was of the Badui. Since not much is known about the Javanese tribe called Badui -- the White (or Inner) remain cloistered even today, admitting few visitors to their villages -- this would seem difficult to determine. If Pak Sera was of the Blue (Outer) Badui it would seem more possible, but even this is unlikely, since the Badui, especially the White, seldom, if ever, traveled outside their villages.

How a man who was limited to his home village and not allowed to have visitors, save from his own tribe, managed to learn and master several fighting arts from which he distilled his own is a particularly intriguing question.

Others say Pak Sera was born in Tjirebon, on the north coast of Java, about 130 miles east of Batavia (now Jakarta.)

There is no consensus on this point, nor is there likely to be. Real evidence for Pak Sera's history is hard to come by.

Family history indicates that Pak Sera trained in Silat Banteng, which comes from the area of Serang, in northwest Java. From his exposure to Tjimande, which is it said he studied, and with his training in Banteng, Sera developed his own system, tailored to his physical handicaps -- he had one shortened arm and a clubfoot, and all the major players agree on this point. Despite this, he was reportedly a fierce fighter, having developed a system that relies on position and timing rather than speed and power.

According to the Indonesian silat player and writer O’ong Maryono, The most prevalent style of pentjak silat in the capital of Java, Jakarta, is Silat Betawi, one much influenced by the Chinese martial art kuntao, and one would assume that Sera would have seen this. One also has to assume that Sera was also influenced by Pukulan, and there are silat players (Dr. Philip H.J. Davies, for one) who say that Serak looks very much like Northwestern Javanese pukulan.

Maryono also says that kuntao was likely a major influence on Javanese silat, though Chinese influence are a touchy subject with Indonesians, and that the former term was used as a generic one for fighting in the area until relatively recently (WWII.)

Although the exact dates aren't known, it was probably sometime before the turn of the 20th ecentury that Mas Djut or Djoet (b. 1860? - d. 1938?) met Pak Sera, and subsequently helped Sera formalize the system. Mas Djut was reportedly trained in Silat Kilat, kun-tao, and probably Tjimande and pukulan. Who Mas Djut was is another of those points of contention, and there is at least one other art who claims him for its own, according to one of its senior practitioners.

Silat players are a contentious bunch, and it seems too often that it is not enough that what they do is valid, but that what others do is not. Lot of ego in this venue.

If both Mas Djut and Pak Sera studied Tjimande, that art's influence on Sera can hardly be denied. Indeed, it is the belief of some of the senior Sera practitioners that the art was at least partially devised as an answer to Tjimande, which was a much older and more established system popular at the time, if not an actually offshoot of Tjimande. (We use the old spelling here. The word is also rendered as "Cimande," just as "Pentjak" is also spelled "Pencak.")

The contention is that Sera and Mas Djut would have expected to face Tjimande players, and while this is admittedly speculation, it makes sense.

Whatever the influence, however, Sera is today not Tjimande, and the differences are apparent to practitioners of both, thought there are some similarities.

Enter the Dutch-Indo businessman, Johann (Jan) de Vries, (b. 1880, West Java.) de Vries eventually oversaw a plantation southeast of Batavia (Jakarta), in the Garut region, and in the early 1900s was a silat player who knew and trained with Mas Djut.

Jan de Vries apparently had little patience as a teacher, so later he had his sons, who included Ferdinand, Ernest, and John, trained by Mas Djut, instead of teaching them himself. Apparently there were other family members, brothers or cousins, as many as eight, total, who also trained at one time or another with Mas Djut. Recollections here are, not unexpectedly, somewhat spotty.

Another instructor, who reportedly trained under Sera, (who supposedly had four senior students who learned the entire system,) was Mas Shroen (Mas Rhun), who also reportedly partially taught Ernest de Vries.

John de Vries took the Djut lineage (supposedly after it was declined by Johann) shortly before Mas Djut's death.

Brothers Maurice and Paul de Thouars began to learn Sera’s art from Ernest de Vries (their Uncle) in Siam, beginning primarily in 1946. Willem went elsewhere for his training, not in the family art, but in Kun Tao, before branching into other styles.

The brothers de Thouar are often contentious, and while this is their business, it should be taken into account when listening to various versions of history. People who have axes to grind sometimes do so, and as seems the case with most martial arts, who did what, where, and when, can be as divisive as opposing sects of any major religion.

After leaving Indonesia, Paul continued his studies in Amsterdam under John de Vries, in the 1950s.

Maurice also continued his studies in Holland, with his Uncle Ernest.

Paul moved to the U.S. in the 1960's, and in the 70's, was given the Sera lineage by John de Vries. Supposedly, it is Paul who added the "k" to Sera, and that spelling has theoretically been trademarked by Victor.

At one time, Paul trained and taught with Rudy ter Linden, who later went on to create his own style of silat, Ratu Adil. There is some evidence that elements of Kung Fu San Soo might have been added by one or the other or both players. Martial arts tend to pick up bits here and there that get blended in and forgotten down the line. In an art based on principles, individual tools have less importance.

An early article on "Spice Island Fighting Men," featuring Paul and Rudy, was written for Black Belt Magazine in June, 1965. These men later had a falling out, resulting in bad feelings from some of the senior players on the ter Linden side, and almost certainly justifiable.

Paul created the system of Bukti Negara ("Witness to a County.") in the mid-to-late eighties, partially as a way of thanking America for taking him in. Partially, it was a way to teach the principles of Sera(k) without having to reveal directly what he considered a "closed" system to Americans. If you complete the Bukti training, you may then be deemed worthy to learn Sera, and for some teachers, Bukti thus becomes a kind of filter, even though it is an effective fighting style on its own.

The lineage holder of Bukti Negara is Danny Huybrechts.

Stevan Plinck (b. 1954, Holland) began training in Soeti Hati Silat with his grandmother as a boy, studied various arts, including Sumatran silat from his uncle, and eventually began training with Pendekar de Thouars after training for some years with a de Thouars senior student, Guru Besar Arthur Rhemrev. Later, as a senior student of Pendekar de Thouars, Plinck was instrumental in the early stages of Bukti Negara's creation, earned the rank of Guru Pangkat Tua in that art, and was recognized as a Senior Practitioner of Serak. No longer associated with Bukti Negara, Plinck now teaches Sera in Washington state, and his senior, and only finished student in the area is Narin Latthitham. (Some of the senior players -- this writer among them -- consider Maha Guru Plinck's version of the art to be an advancement over what he learned, and while I mostly refer to what we do simply as "Sera," now and then, I will call it by the full designation: Pukulan Pentjak Silat Sera Plinck, which seems only right.

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