ON THE TRAIL OF MALAY MANUSCRIPTS

The an­cient papers to be ex­hib­ited at the Na­tional Li­brary, Sin­ga­pore, are some­thing not to be missed

New Straits Times - - News -

SOME of the finest Malay manuscripts from the col­lec­tion of the Bri­tish Li­brary are on their way to Sin­ga­pore now for an ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled Tales from the Malay World: Manuscripts and

Early Malay Books. Bring­ing 16 Malay manuscripts from the Bri­tish Li­brary and guard­ing them jeal­ously (un­der­stand­ably so), is the lead cu­ra­tor of the South­east Asian Col­lec­tion, Datuk Dr Annabel Teh Gal­lop, who will be speak­ing au­thor­i­ta­tively on the illuminations and the ex­quis­ite mas­ter­pieces; a rich her­itage of the Malay world.

Gal­lop, who stud­ied Maths, took a to­tally dif­fer­ent ca­reer path af­ter her PhD on Malay Seals. She had taken a keen in­ter­est in the Malay world and what it has to of­fer, delv­ing into the Malay world dur­ing what must have been its glo­ri­ous years.

As an author­ity on Malay manuscripts, let­ters, doc­u­ments and seals and the art of the Is­lamic book in South­east Asia, an ex­hi­bi­tion and a con­fer­ence on Malay man­u­script would not be com­plete with­out her pres­ence.

It was Gal­lop who started me off on my jour­ney on the trail of the Malay Manuscripts, which are now in the safe­keep­ing of li­braries and mu­se­ums around the world, such as the Bri­tish Li­brary, the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies, the Univer­sity of Lei­den, the Mu­seum fur Volk­erkunde in Ber­lin and the Li­brary of Congress in Washington, to name a few.

A meet­ing with Gal­lop be­fore she flew off to Sin­ga­pore last week and lis­ten­ing to her talk­ing pas­sion­ately about the manuscripts brought me back to the days when she roped me into a project she was do­ing with the Na­tional Ar­chives in Malaysia on a trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion of Malay Let­ters “The Legacy of the Malay Let­ter”.

This was in 1994 — an ex­hi­bi­tion of 100 Malay let­ters span­ning nearly four cen­turies with the old­est known Malay manuscripts dat­ing from the early 16th cen­tury through to the close of the 19th cen­tury.

The let­ters, some richly dec­o­rated, most beau­ti­fully crafted by scribes, were se­lected from over 1,000 doc­u­ments from the Malay world, giv­ing a glimpse of not only the art of Malay let­ter writ­ing, but also a re­flec­tion on the im­por­tance of Malay as the lan­guage of trade and diplo­macy through­out the Malay ar­chi­pel­ago. Malay was also used in the cor­re­spon­dence with the English, the Dutch and French.

It was an op­por­tu­nity that pre­sented it­self that I found hard to re­sist. Ad­mit­tedly, I was a novice in the world of Malay lit­er­a­ture and Malay manuscripts, but I found my­self get­ting in­creas­ingly en­vi­ous of the knowl­edge that Gal­lop pos­sessed.

I had a longing to learn more and ac­quire a lit­tle of that knowl­edge, if not all.

The idea of turn­ing this project into a doc­u­men­tary be­came in­creas­ingly ir­re­sistible. With the help of film pro­ducer and direc­tor Datuk Shuhaimi Baba, I em­barked on one of the big­gest projects in my ca­reer.

Gal­lop, need­less to say, is a hu­man com­pen­dium and trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion on things manuscripts and the Malay world. Work­ing with her on this project had given me an in­sight into the art of let­ter writ­ing of yes­ter­year; the sig­nif­i­cance of the plac­ing of head­ings on a pa­per, the long­winded com­pli­ments with un­der­ly­ing mes­sages from sender to re­ceiver and the sto­ries be­hind the seals.

The po­si­tion­ing of the head­ing was de­ter­mined by the rank of the sender to the re­ceiver. For ex­am­ple, if the sender is of a lower rank, the head­ing on his let­ter would be on the left.

If they are both of the same sta­tus, then the head­ing, which usu­ally con­sist of Qu­ranic quo­ta­tions, would be in the mid­dle.

The po­si­tion of the seals, too, says some­thing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sender and the re­ceiver.

“Seals are an in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant source for the his­tory. It gives us hard facts: names and dates and usu­ally a place name and nearly al­ways a re­li­gious el­e­ment. The place­ment of the seals in the let­ters was very im­por­tant be­cause it was de­ter­mined by the so­cial stand­ing of the per­son writ­ing the let­ter and per­son re­ceiv­ing it. If the per­son writ­ing was higher in so­cial sta­tus to the per­son re­ceiv­ing, then the seal would be placed in a higher po­si­tion or more to the right,” Gal­lop told me when she or­gan­ised an ex­hi­bi­tion with the theme “Last­ing Im­pres­sions: Seals from the Is­lamic World” in 2010.

Malay seals are gen­er­ally larger than other seals from other parts of the Is­lamic world. They are stamped not in ink, but in lamp black. The seal is held over a can­dle or lamp and when soot of the flame gath­ers on the seal face it is then stamped on pa­per — giv­ing a very strong, dra­matic black im­pres­sion. Some seals from the Malay world are cov­ered with pa­per flaps to pro­tect them, with flaps cut out in the most beau­ti­ful origami like pat­terns.

Th­ese seals rep­re­sented the sig­na­ture of the sender. I found the seal of Fran­cis Light to be most in­ter­est­ing in a let­ter he wrote to the Sul­tan of Kedah, where he signed off as “Hamba yang se­hina-hina hamba” (The low­est of your low­est ser­vant).

The lan­guage of diplo­macy was an­other as­pect of the Malay let­ters that I found in­trigu­ing. When Light wrote a let­ter to the Sul­tan of Perak, re­quest­ing to be a trad­ing part­ner, Perak which was al­ready trad­ing with the Dutch, an­swered: “I am like a woman who is al­ready betrothed to a jeal­ous man.”

The doc­u­men­tary on the Malay let­ters took me to Mu­seum fur Volk­erkunde in Ber­lin where I saw the most beau­ti­ful let­ter from the Malay world. It was a let­ter from Sul­tan Ah­mad of Tereng­ganu in 1824 to Baron van der Capel­lan in Batavia, ask­ing for trade links; a sim­ple re­quest yet beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated in words and illuminations, in ink and gold.

This project also took me to the Univer­sity of Lei­den in Hol­land where more trea­sures from the Malay world are kept, among them a guide to let­ter writ­ing, known as the Tera­sul.

Now Gal­lop and Bri­tish Li­brary are em­bark­ing on a very im­por­tant project, digi­tis­ing the manuscripts and thus mak­ing them read­ily avail­able to peo­ple who are in­ter­ested. This has in­deed re­vived the in­ter­est in Malay manuscripts which had for so long kept a wealth of in­for­ma­tion in not only their con­tents, but also their de­signs and un­spo­ken words on the page.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, which starts on Aug 18 and runs until Feb 25 next year at the Na­tional Li­brary, Sin­ga­pore, is cer­tainly some­thing not to be missed.

It prom­ises to take one back to the glo­ri­ous days of the Malay world.

The lan­guage of diplo­macy was an­other as­pect of the Malay let­ters that I found in­trigu­ing. When Light wrote a let­ter to the Sul­tan of Perak, re­quest­ing to be a trad­ing part­ner, Perak which was al­ready trad­ing with the Dutch, an­swered: I am like a woman who is al­ready betrothed to a jeal­ous man.

Bri­tish Li­brary lead cu­ra­tor of the South­east Asian Col­lec­tion Datuk Dr Annabel Gal­lop is an author­ity on Malay manuscripts, let­ters, doc­u­ments and seals and the art of the Is­lamic book in South­east Asia.

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