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The Performance of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Performance in Malay Singapore

La performance de l’enchantement et l’enchantement de la performance des Malais de Singapour
D. S. Farrer
p. 11-32

Résumés

à partir des années 1960, les Malais de Singapour ont été mis dans l’obligation de se reloger de leurs villages traditionnels (kampung) dans des constructions « modernes » en béton. Leurs villages d’origine – faits de maisons en bois sur pilotis – ont été rasés pour être remplacés par des logements sociaux en dur, le tout accompagné d’une politique rigoureuse de quotas représentatifs de la composition multi-ethnique de Singapour. Cette réinstallation forcée a été présentée en termes de progrès par le gouvernement et les médias. à présent, les personnes qui descendent des habitants de ces villages se réunissent à nouveau à l’occasion de mariages malais organisés périodiquement à travers l’île. Ces mariages se déroulent sous les immeubles géants, dans un espace partagé où les Chinois organisent aussi leurs funérailles. Le silat de mariage, un art martial malais dansé à l’occasion des mariages, est un rite d’agrégation qui vise à accueillir les nouveaux membres de la famille, ainsi qu’à marquer la mise en place des nouveaux liens de parenté élargie. La tenue du silat de mariage éclaire la performance en rapport aux structures traditionnelles et modernes du pouvoir. étant donné le développement considérable de l’utilitarisme à Singapour, l’extinction physique des kampung, l’islamisation des Malais et le malaise général du désenchantement nostalgique actuel, la performance de silat donne la force aux Malais de ré-enchanter leur monde. Dans ce processus qui sécurise, préserve et fabrique l’identité malaise, les performances rituelles réunissent la communauté minoritaire éparpillée dans un espace reconstitué, un kampung virtuel.

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My thanks go to Julainah Johari, Jean-Marc de Grave, Roxana Waterson, Margaret Chan, Ellis Finkelstein, John Moss, and the anonymous reviewers for their perceptive criticisms and comments. Terima kasih to Wak Bari, Johari bin Jafaar, Jafaar bin Hussein, and Cik Selma for sharing their insights on wedding silat and Malay culture in Singapore.

Hic Rhodus, hic saltus!
Here is the rose, Dance thou here!
G. W. F. Hegel

  • 1 Initial research towards this essay was presented in my paper “Seni Silat Haqq: A Study in Malay My (...)
  • 2 The “Islamic rationalization” of Malay society has been discussed at length in the available litera (...)
  • 3 The virtual kampung notion occurred to me from reading Kapferer (2004) and Deleuze and Guattari (20 (...)

1Current debates in anthropology bound aesthetics, art, and performance to the maintenance and construction of religious, ethnic and cultural identities (Farrer 2008, 2009; Hobart & Kapferer 2005; Wiseman 2007).1 The wedding silat martial arts dance performed at Malay weddings in Singapore, silat pengantin, reveals aesthetic structures of divine power, beauty, and truth that enchant Malay weddings and reinforce Malay cultures and identities. Such re-enchantment occurs against a backdrop of Islamic rationalization and the dakwah movement (lit. to summon or to call to Islam) in the face of communal re-territorialization justified by the putative dire necessity for rapid national development.2 The close-knit Singaporean Malay community is maintained through weddings, where, as if by magic, the “virtual kampung” springs into life.3

  • 4 Kuntao refers to Chinese and Chinese-descended martial arts in Southeast Asia. Some styles are “ort (...)

2Singaporeans from all walks of life, including Chinese, Malay, Indians and Others (to adopt the official parlance), soon came to regret and bemoan the total annihilation of the kampung (village) environment, alongside their former “relaxed” way of life. Nostalgia for the past, selectively regarded, resulted in an incipient reactionary immanent critique of modern disenchanted urban Asian capitalist lifestyles (Chua 1995). Joel Kahn (1994: 33) argued that contemporary performances of silat represent the aesthetics of a newly emerging middle class that configures its identity by imagining and performing itself as “Malay,” a re-enchanted identity spread via the mass media. Clearly aesthetics, like nostalgia, is an active doing in the world, and a product of social structure, and not merely a matter of individual taste (Bourdieu 1984). Such “aesthetic active doing,” however, has a false ring to it, as if it’s not quite real, or fake, as in the sarcastic words and pantomime of one non-Malay kuntao expert viewing an international silat tournament: “Oh, look at me, I’m being Malay.”4 Whilst the aesthetic display of silat serves the simulacrum of middle class Malay identity, and demonstrates martial arts seemingly useless in street fights, this is only part of the story, as these aesthetics derive from the customary rules (adat) of the royal court and the Malay aristocracy. Silat itself is contested ground within the indigenous community, in fact, within the Malay community silat is contest personified. Former challenge fights were fought to the death.

3The active doing of silat must be sought beyond the aesthetic imaginings of middle class consumption, to an inquiry of the agency of silat itself. My contention is that the social outcome of wedding silat for the Malay community is the fleeting, fluid, ritual re-establishment of the Malay kampung, an actual (real) space—as opposed to a nostalgic or imagined space—that springs back into existence during Malay weddings (Anderson 1991). Wedding silat exemplifies the key symbolic structures necessary to decipher and decode the meaning of these liminal events given the agency of the performance art, and its essential role in the maintenance of Malay religious, ethnic and cultural identity (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Wedding silat, Singapore, 2001

Fig. 1: Wedding silat, Singapore, 2001

©D. S. Farrer

  • 5 Despite his narrow definition, Gell does consider animal traps, body-paint, dance, knots, mazes, sa (...)

4Alfred Gell’s (1998) focus on the “agency” of art should apply beyond art conceived as “objects” towards performance art. A shift in focus facilitates a definition of “performance art” as an active doing, an agent, or index, in the social nexus of artists and audience (cf. Freedberg 1989; Pinney & Thomas 2001: 4). The anthropology of art must not recapitulate western ideas of artworks as predominantly material—concerning paintings, statues, architecture and suchlike. “Art,” reduced to material culture, gives rise to a dichotomy between mainstream art and everything else, resonant of elitist divisions between high and low culture. In his endeavor to uncover the artistic workings of agency, Gell’s (1998: 13) proviso that the anthropology of art must be applied first to “visual art” had the unintended consequence of sidetracking non-material arts.5 A similar bias towards materiality predominates in aesthetic discourse, with the notable early exception of Hogarth’s aesthetics of dance (Richardson 2002).

  • 6 I trained silat full-time in London from 1996-1998, and continued lessons until 2005. I relocated t (...)

5The anthropology of art must jettison reductive or elitist assumptions derived from western art and aesthetics that configure “real” art exclusively in terms of objects, to recognize performance arts including music, puppetry, dance, silat, and theater as art in the indigenous context. The Malay word for “art” is seni, a term that pertains both to art objects, including paintings, sculpture, and silverwork, and to performing arts, such as dance, theater and silat. Malays refer to seni silat as “the art of silat.” Seni also refers to aesthetics. Like bayang, which can mean either reflection or shadow, or both; seni refers to art, and aesthetics, either, or both (Farrer 2009).6 Given that ethnographic grounded data guides anthropological theory, the equation seni = art + aesthetics, means that silat requires a theory of art capable of exploring agency and symbols, aesthetics and performance, a theory that draws from the anthropology of art and the anthropology of performance. To better apply to performance arts, Gell’s [1992] (1999) “technology of enchantment” and “enchantment of technology,” transforms to the “performance of enchantment” and the “enchantment of performance.” The performance of enchantment refers to skills or techniques du corps honed to such a degree through practice, rehearsal, and performance that their execution takes on a magical appearance, and creates an uncanny effect upon the audience. Correspondingly, the methods and procedures used to draw power from the unseen or sacred realm are referred to as the “enchantment of performance” (Farrer 2008: 32; 2009: 39).

Aesthetics, Performance & Enchantment

6Social anthropologists, taking their cue from Gell (1998), have advanced positions that attempt to move “beyond aesthetics” (Pinney and Thomas 2001). Similarly, it became fashionable to entitle books Beyond Aesthetics in visual art (Brothwell 1976) and philosophy (Carroll 2001). Gell’s (1998) ambitious project was to provide a new theoretical foundation for the anthropology of art. To accomplish this project Gell believed that aesthetic judgments must be suspended because they “are only interior mental acts” (Gell 1998: 3).

7In Gell’s theory, artworks take on the role of the social agent, to embody or encapsulate the artist’s agency (Campbell 2001; Gell 1998; Farrer 2008). Echoing Marx’s Grundrisse, Gell located agency in the processes of production, exchange, distribution and consumption. Just as Marx attempted to unravel the logic of capitalism, Gell attempts to unravel the logic of art. To “save complications” and “reduce difficulties” Gell proposes to delimit his study to physical art objects. Nonetheless Gell (1998) never closed the door totally on aesthetics, nor did he prohibit the eventual extension of his ideas to performance arts such as music. Put briefly, Gell formulates a complex relational theory of visual art in terms of the “abduction” (inference) of agency, namely the “index” (the agency of the artwork) (Peirce 1991), the “artist” (the “originator” of the agency of the artwork), the “recipient” (those who exert agency or have agency exerted upon them via the artwork), and the “prototype” (the entity represented in the artwork) (1998: 12–27). For Gell, the term “patient” may be interchangeable with “agent,” where the patient is the object or person experiencing the action of agency (see also Campbell 2002: 56; Farrer 2008: 30).

  • 7 Barth et al. (2005) provide an excellent summary of the different schools in American, British, Fre (...)

8Gell played Devil’s advocate in his polemical and provocative critique of aesthetics, which he likened more to forms of worship rather than sources of legitimate anthropological knowledge. This does not mean that Gell discounted aesthetics as a subject of anthropological knowledge; rather, he doubted that aesthetics could answer anthropological questions. Gell (1998: 4) defines “social anthropology” as the study of social relations, foregrounding structure, power, inequality and method. By this measure cultural anthropology, controversially, is a form of reification, because it implies a subject/predicate inversion where “culture” dictates interaction rather than itself resulting from social interaction.7

9Current theories append aesthetics to a plethora of subjects including the body or ethnicity, and give rise to various conceptual compounds such as “somaesthetics” or “ethno-aesthetics” respectively (Shusterman 1999; Wiseman 2007). If aesthetics, for Gell, form a subject of anthropological knowledge, then such formulations as ethno-aesthetics should be acceptable anthropological interlocutors. They too, however, invert the subject and predicate of culture and interaction, leaving ready-made the issue of ethnic aesthetics or embodied aesthetics as somehow pre-empting social performance.

  • 8 Silat is a noun referring to Malay martial arts. Bersilat is a verb meaning to play silat. Bersilat(...)
  • 9 See Mariam Ali (2003) concerning the cultural hegemonic process of the Singapore Malays to assimila (...)

10Negative and positive aesthetics, perceptions and judgements, nontheless have important ramifications for the historical evaluation of former village (kampung) life. A century ago, prior to the mass development of Singapore, whole districts were regarded as grim primitive swamps lacking sanitation and sewerage. The poor suffered a high mortality rate alongside the “rampant spread of disease including beriberi, tuberculosis, dysentery, malaria and enteric fever… caused by poverty, overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor hygiene, the same conditions which also encouraged cholera and smallpox epidemics” (Liu 1999: 66). In Gretchen Liu’s photographic historical montage the wooden structures of the Chinese villages are raised directly from the ground. Photographs of the indigenous Malay village, Tanjong Seglap (Kampung Siglap), display a different architectural style, with neat, spacious, wooden houses built on stilts in the midst of a coconut grove (1999: 149 fig. 5). Until the 1970s, the Orang Siglap, who descended from the Pagar Ruyong royalty of Sumatra, practiced the low stances of their silat berlian (diamond silat) or silat harimau (tiger silat) underneath these kampung houses built upon stilts.8 Later these kampung people were dispersed across the East Coast, to Bedok and Tampines, where to this day they reconvene at weddings.9

11The point I want to outline here is the role of performance, agency, and aesthetics in the continuation of cultural identity—in a situation where the kampung grounds for such identity incurred physical obliteration. My question is how did the Singaporean Malay culture survive, given the obliteration of their villages, and the systematic, coordinated, bureaucratically administered dispersal of the original inhabitants? One possible answer to the problem of cultural resilience, or resistance through cultural means, may be found in the rule-governed behavior enacted at Malay weddings in Singapore, especially those weddings that feature the traditional Malay martial art, silat (Scott 1990; see also Farrer & Sellmann: forthcoming).

Anthropology of Malay & Indonesian Martial Arts

  • 10 Reviews of Shadows of the Prophet include Buehler (2011); de Grave (2011: 248-257); and Wieringa (2 (...)

12During the previous decade the anthropology of martial arts in Southeast Asia has mushroomed, corresponding to resurgence in “martial arts studies” globally (Farrer and Whalen-Bridge 2011). As Jean-Marc de Grave (2011) points out, in the existing research “different regional practices have been described and different approaches have been used.” Outstanding research includes Cordes’ (1990) doctoral thesis, and Pauka’s (1998) ethnography of theatre performance for the Minangkabau silek of West Sumatra; Lee Wilson’s (2006, 2011) Suharto era work on politics and the modern centralized state in the Sundanese penca of West Java; Ian Douglas Wilson’s (2002) doctoral thesis examining gesture, inner power, and feelings, alongside the “sportivization” of pencak silat in West Java and Indonesia; de Grave’s (2001) focus on Javanese pencak silat ritual initiation (kanuragan), and its ties to Javanese life cycle and community rituals; and Farrer’s (2009) ethnography, linking Sufism to silat in peninsular Malaysia (de Grave 2011: 249).10 To this list must be added Samudra’s (2006) doctoral thesis concerning identity formation through body, belonging, and community in Indonesian silat, and Margaret Kartomi’s (2011) recent article concerning pencak silat in Riau.

  • 11 Hogarth’s treatise on a aesthtics and dance was neglected in favour of Baumgarten’s aesthetics of b (...)

13In Malaysia and Singapore, seni silat refers to “the art of silat,” where seni is both indicative of an indigenous aesthetics, and implicitly critical of a western reduction of art to material culture. Silat here refers to the name of the martial art, whereas seni refers to the artistic, beautiful, and skillful way the movements are performed. Seni predicated to silat refers to something beautiful, but also something cognitive and agonistic: it concerns, for example, where, how, and why to step in order to strike an opponent. Seni silat emphasizes the dance-like aspects of silat, a sudden, fleeting, mobile art that resists ossification in museum catalogs. Being literally as opposed to metaphorically embodied, the martial art cannot be reduced to text; continually in motion, silat thwarts photographic stills. “Art” does not need to be regarded as static and material; it can go beyond being painted on canvas even if those canvasses are human faces, or frozen in statues to be embodied in movement. The idea that art can only reflect material culture indicates a western bias against movement, in favour of stasis.11

Embodied Agency & Aesthetics

  • 12 Adat refers to custom, manner, tradition and habitual practice.

14Aesthetics are cognitive frames enabling people to potentially understand, represent, interpret and engage with one another. To become empowered with agency, aesthetic movements must be rehearsed, trained, embodied and performed (Laderman 1991, 1994). Aesthetics are understood to apply here to the culturally accepted and shared norms for carrying out and evaluating the performance of silat at weddings. In wedding silat the dance postures and gestures possess symbolic significance that works on practical, mystical and aesthetic levels. Malay aesthetics derive from discourses of power, from the adat (customary law) governing the traditional ritualized formal interactions between the Melaka Sultans and their subjects, and reflect Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and animist influences (Khoo 2006; Sheppard 1956, 1972, 1983).12 Wedding silat shares aesthetics with Southeast Asian dance and theater, including wayang kulit shadow theatre. The sinuous, curling, mazelike aesthetics in Malay weaponry, silverware, and architecture, and also displayed in scriptural Quranic art, clothing, and architectural features such as carved wooden window latticework.

15Malay aesthetics are fundamental to the ideal Malay habitus and are manifested in quotidian bodily hexis (Bourdieu 1977: 87). Although silat experts blend into their social environment, and may be deliberately difficult to spot, for the trained eye guru silat can be discerned by the way they move around their environment, lightly stepping with a level foot as if walking across a highly sprung wooden floor in a traditional wooden Malay house. In Gell’s technical language (1998) the “prototype,” or animal spirit, whether tiger or crocodile, is manifested in the somatic capital of the “index” (practitioner) through beguiling performances that captivate the “recipient” (audience).

Positioning Silat in the Malay World

  • 13 Haji Abdullah Shafiie, former President of the Singapore Silat Federation, personal communication, (...)

16Draeger (1992: 33) estimated that pencak silat “exists in 157 recorded styles.” More recent estimates from the Singapore Silat Federation suggest that 2,000 styles of silat exist in Indonesia, 300 in Brunei, 300 in Malaysia, and 36 in Singapore.13 A mythological account of the origin of silat relates the story of a woman who had withdrawn from her violent husband after a beating. The wife invented silat after witnessing a fraught battle between a bird and a snake, and upon returning home she thrashed her husband, who subsequently became her first silat pupil (Draeger 1992: 9-10; Pauka 1998: 27-28; Sheppard 1972: 140; Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991: 36-37). Malays say female origins account for the exceptionally graceful “feminine” look of silat.

17According to historian Mubin Sheppard (1964; 1983: 104) silat probably arrived in Peninsular Malaysia from Minangkabau in Sumatra in the fifteenth century, entering through Melaka with the legendary warrior Hang Tuah, and his four companions among the earliest students. The imagining of modern Malaysia constitutes the present through the romantically reinvented imagined community of Melaka, whose warrior heroes are prominently displayed in fictive portraits concocted for tourist visitors of the excellent local ethnographic museum (Anderson 1991).

18Indigenous silat expert and social scientist Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh (1991), however, asserts that silat sekebun (the garden of silat) originated from Pagar Ruyong royalty in Sumatra, who resettled in Peninsular Malaysia in the eleventh century. Another clue that silat is related to Sumatran silek is provided by Minangkabau randai silek, which from the 1930s developed into randai dance-theater, “most frequently performed at marriage ceremonies” (Mohd. Anis Md. Nor 1986: 12). Linkages can also be found to the male Arab folk dance tradition, zafana, called zapin Melayu when performed at Malay weddings (Mohd. Anis Md. Nor 1993; Hughes-Freeland 1994: 725). Whatever the technicalities of origin, seni silat is a cultural practice found across the Malay world, those regions that were historically ruled by a Malay Sultanate, including Singapore, the Riau Archipelago, Sumatra, Malaysia and Brunei (Farrer 2009: 26; Milner 1981). Academic quarrels aside, Malay silat practitioners claim that silat originated in Sumatra during the sixth century. Ever since, new forms of silat have emerged or have been introduced.

  • 14 Wedding silat is referred to as silat pulut in Kelantan (Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991: 43).

19Sheppard (1983: 104) says that “traditional silat” took two forms—that of self-defence, called silat buah for unarmed combat and pencak silat for the armed variety—and that of silat Medan, “a form of dance for men only,” that he translates as royal “garden party silat.” Colloquially, silat Medan is referred to as silat pulut or “rice cake silat” (Sheppard 1972: 141).14 Pulut denotes sticky rice, and is associated with special festival food served at weddings. The more special and expensive the delicacies, the higher the recognized status of the bridal couple; similarly, the more exquisite the silat displayed, and the longer the performance, the better. Malay informants refer to wedding silat as silat pengantin in Malay, and as “wedding silat” in English. They conceptualize “fighting silat” whether armed (pencak silat) or unarmed, in relation to buah (fruit). On the other hand, seni silat (the artistic or dance-like silat) is related to bunga (flower). The core of the bunga category relates to seni (art) in the way that buah relates to pencak, yet these categories are somewhat cryptic, with overlapping and interpenetrating layers.

  • 15 Geoffrey Benjamin, personal communication, October 2002. Silat here is the equivalent of selat mean (...)

20Silat’s precise etymology is difficult to establish. One interesting possibility is that silat derives from the martial practices of the Orang Selat, a people indigenous to Singapore (formerly known as Temasek) and the Riau Archipelago.15 Another possibility is that silat derives from silek, the name of the Sumatran martial art (Pauka 1998).

21Some silat practitioners claim that silat derives from the root words of either silap or solat. Silat practitioners understand their art (seni) to encourage the enemy to err, silap (to make a mistake) which can then be acted upon. The same logic of outwitting the prey through distraction or cunning is used in hunting or fishing, when laying traps or setting bait. To simply reduce beguiling silat movements to aesthetics or beauty misses the point. Once the enemy momentarily focuses upon the captivating motions of the flower (bunga) it’s too late to avoid the hidden knife.

22Solat (ritual prayer) is an Arabic loan word only roughly translated as “prayer.” Before solat it is necessary for the Muslim to be in a state of ritual cleanliness, or wuduk (the performance of ritual ablutions). Some wedding silat dances mimic wuduk ritual movements. As the performer advances he takes steps to either side and makes movements as if washing the hands, face, forearms and feet. To simulate washing the ears each hand smoothly curls around the ear in a scythe like motion, ending in an abrupt flick of the wrist. Wuduk places a powerful emphasis on spiritual cleanliness against defilement from sexual activity. Urinal, sexual and anal emissions, any physical contact with members of the other sex (except immediate family), and unclean thoughts and actions place the person in a state of ritual uncleanliness.

23For Malays the state of ritual cleanliness is required to protect the person against invasion from a surrounding host of unseen forces, hantu (ghosts) or jinn, who otherwise may gain easy access to spread sickness and misfortune. Wuduk also renders the individual less susceptible to spiritual invasion or attack at the behest of a sorcerer (bomoh). Some silat experts, in former times referred to as bomoh silat rather than the current more polite term of guru silat, visit the well of Hung Tuah, just outside of Melaka. Here wuduk is performed in the waters of the well to derive spiritual potency from the semangat (vital force, spirit) of Hang Tuah, the legendary hero who ostensibly introduced silat into Malaysia. Silat Melayu, hence, Malay silat, and Malay society itself (Melayu) is recognized as simultaneously indigenous to the region, and yet originating from outside, and Malays do, and yet somehow do not, consider themselves Orang Asli (indigenous people) in their own land.

24The imbricated categories linked to silat discussed above, including legendary origins, royal antecedents, ceremonial, ritual, dance, and combative forms of silat; and etymologies attributing connections to Islam, indigenous religion, and sorcery, indicates the complex position of silat in the Malay world. The ancient royal or noble practice of silat persists in the performance of garden party silat to entertain royal guests, and this status feature finds its double in the urban street performance of silat pengantin, where the groom occupies the role of king for a day (raja sehari). Such doubling is reciprocal and not strictly a ludic reversal, and does not simply switch agonistic with ludic, ritual or performative forms. The mood inculcated by the silat performance at both events is serious, and emphasizes correct customary behavior (adat), to recapitulate an actual, imagined, or symbolic class structure of ranked hierarchical social relationships.

Dancing Under the Void Deck

25In 1998, I resided in Marine Parade, Singapore. The housing blocks were due to be upgraded by the Housing Development Board. To my eyes these pricey apartments looked grim and forbidding, like some Stalinist ghetto. At first glance, the street reminded me of my postgraduate residence in Peckham. Marine Parade was, however, a welcome escape from the perpetual undercurrent of poverty, fear and violence then prevalent in Southeast London. The identical grey two-bedroom units perched each atop the other, banked by a black path of gleaming asphalt shimmering in equatorial sunlight. The Housing Development Board Blocks, where 85% of Singaporeans live, typically possess a shady void deck, an undercroft over which the blocks squat on massive concrete stilts.

  • 16 Regarding Chinese martial arts in Singapore see Farrer (2011).

26The void deck space is multi-purpose. The Malays use void deck to celebrate marriage. The Chinese use the void decks for funerals, and normally leave their dead outside in coffins for three, five, or seven days (Tong 2004). There is a peculiar mirroring pattern differentiating the Chinese and Malay cultures of Singapore. Where the Malays tend to train martial arts in the evening, the Chinese train at dawn; the Malays tend to train dressed in black, the Chinese prefer bright colors or white.16

  • 17 The performer was Pak Zaini of silat lima beradik (Farrer 2009: 119-121). Including Pak Zaini’s chi (...)

27Impromptu performances of silat are to be found at Malay weddings under the HDB blocks. The evocative account that follows is worked up from my performance ethnography, including fieldnotes, photographs and video footage. Under the block in the middle of an oval circle of twelve drumming men a small elderly man twisted and turned in front of a young seated groom, dressed resplendently. The performer’s hands turned and twisted in a complex weaving pattern. His arms moved in unison to his feet “as if they are attached by strings held from above” (Pak Zaini).17 Combined with the flat skinned drums (kompang) and brass gongs (gamelan), the dance was mesmerizing: simultaneously mystifying, bewildering and captivating (Gell 1998: 68). I found it impossible to follow the movements, let alone comprehend them. The hands rotated in front of the dancer in horizontal curling passes, with the thumb and forefingers touching whilst the other fingers were splayed out, as if holding an imaginary needle between the finger and thumb of both hands, and sewing (jahit) thin air. Next, in the same circuitous serpentine fashion, from a low stance with the weight on the back foot, the dancer extended his right hand to the groom as if to shake hands, with the left poised underneath, but instead of shaking he held the grooms hand briefly whilst muttering something inaudible under the rhythm of the tremendous smacking of drums. Sweeping the grooms hand from his own with his left hand, whilst raising his stance and transferring his weight more to the front, he paused suddenly at shoulder level to slap the back of the right hand hard against the palm of the left, followed by lifting the palms over his head as if smoothing his hair, but without touching the head, going into a double palm motion in front of the groom.

28The performer proceeded to weave his way back to where he had started, stepping with the heels passed back with toes upturned, hands following the feet, and eyes following the hands. After several steps, the left hand curled up in front of the body, and then down, to hide behind his left thigh, whilst the right hand stretched out and took a long semi-circular route from behind the performer, ever-so-slowly pulsating like a birds wing flapping to the beat, to come to rest at the center of his chest in a salute, as he simultaneously raised his posture to stand upright with feet together. Finally, the right hand dramatically twisted inwards, and curled down with the wrist flexed and the fingers pointing upwards, to be placed by his side, leaving the right hand placed at the chest, the other concealed “dirty hand” behind the back in a kind of one-handed sembah (salutation, obeisance).

Wedding Organisation

29Malay weddings (jemputan kahwin) can prove expensive depending on the number of guests invited, typically numbering five hundred to three thousand. Depending on the status of the bride and her family, gifts exchanged include a sizeable bride price (hantaran) of S$10,000 or more (contingent on the market rate), a diamond ring, a gold necklace shoes, Malay clothes (baju Melayu), and a designer handbag for the bride; and shoes, samping (embroidered cloth), songkok (Malay fez hat) for the groom (pengantin lelaki). Food is provided at the smaller akad nikah (Islamic exchange of vows) ceremony where the bride price is given, which precedes the main public event or bersanding (Wedding ceremonies of pre-Islamic origin) by a few days or up to six months. The main expense occurs through the main feast, where the bride and groom sit together on display during the bersanding ceremony. Their outfits are heavy, lavish, and extravagant with the bride dripping in gold, and the groom attired with a keris (dagger) and kalong (heavy necklace). A band or some form of entertainment is required, as is a photographer for wedding albums, and more often than not a videographer.

30Singaporean Malays retain traditional power configurations grouped into what Wee (1985) terms “hierarchies of being” with power radiating out and downward in concentric circles from the most powerful figures at the top of the social apex. As mentioned above, some weddings involve masses of people. During a three-day and night extravaganza some three thousand guests may show up. When different family groups located in similar concentric positions in the social structure encounter one another, main mata (eye play) flirtation abounds, and the potential for inter and intra group conflict is heightened. Guests impress their power and standing onto each other through sheer numbers, the flaunting of wealth in gold, jewelry, silk and the latest fashions. The sniffing of hands is ubiquitous, with low bows, and graceful sembah greetings; a mood ruptured by the frosty glares of age/status equals.

31Essentially, for a legal marriage to take place, Islam merely requires the akad nikah that involves the exchange of marriage vows in front of two male witnesses and a kadi (registrar) given permission from the bride’s father. A nikah without the customary practices is frowned upon as a shameful marriage of convenience denoting a girl who has been “seduced” and “lost her virtue,” or marriage to a female divorcee. Similarly, wedding ceremonies are simple for polygamous marriages beyond the first bride. Malays still call this a bubur kacang (bean porridge) marriage, though more than just a “sweet broth” is served to a few guests these days, as a result of increased affluence, alongside trends towards more frequent divorce and remarriage within the Malay community (Djamour 1959: 80).

32In her informative ethnography, Tania Li says arranged marriages were prevalent for individuals born in or before the 1940s. By the time Li (1989: 36) conducted her research in the 1980s arranged marriages were virtually extinct. Previously, the bride and groom might only meet at the wedding ceremony, and would have had to trust their parents’ choice. The power to chose a partner has shifted to the younger generation. Folkways such as expelling “evil spirits from their favorite haunts such as the teeth and the hair,” by shaving the bride’s face and filing her teeth have disappeared (Haji Mohtar 1979: 6). Cutting a forelock of hair to test for virginity remains. If the chopped tuft stands erect the bride is a virgin. If the tuft hangs limp she is not a virgin, permitting the groom’s side to “cancel the wedding.”

The Wedding Silat Performance

  • 18 Sharia refers to Islamic way, Islamic law, and is the first stage on the mystical Sufi path.

33Wedding silat persists in Singapore, though informants claim it was more prevalent in the past. Nowadays during financial hard times wedding silat may be sacrificed. Some of the more sharia minded Malays denounce the bersanding ceremony as a backward throwback to a non-Muslim time dominated by Hindu rajas.18 For the majority of Malays, wedding silat is de rigueur for weddings where the bride and groom are, or wish to appear to be of high status; or where the couple has family members involved in silat. Wedding silat forms a dance spectacle status display representing exchange systems based on honor. Long, skillful performances, thorough adherence to adat, and lavish costumes indicate a prestigious entry for the newly married couple into the Malay community.

  • 19 Regarding performance, space, sound and the city see Peterson (2010).

34The silat troupe travels to the groom’s residence (rumah pengantin lelaki) to collect the groom and his retinue. As they assemble in front of the groom’s place, the silat players beat small (eighteen inch) single skinned drums (kompang) making an incredibly loud cracking sound that echoes and reverberates around the massive concrete housing blocks.19 The kompang/silat performers may be a paid troupe or family members or friends of the groom. Usually there will be a small party in progress under the block (the void deck) with food, decorations, a band or music. Once the groom has been collected a brief silat performance may occur. Then the groom, accompanied by his family, relatives, friends, and silat/kompang players, make their way to the main party at the bride’s residence (rumah pengantin perempuan). The groom walks the last hundred yards or so accompanied by the beat of the kompang. A Malay women told me that “the sound of the drums makes my heart to beat faster”. She continued that the sound of the drums makes the bride “very nervous” and “excited.” The groom, also nervous, with measured steps and bated breath, must steadily make his way to the gathering point. Attired in layers of thick materials the heat is tremendous and the sweat may pour off his face and drip down his torso. He is accompanied by two pole bearers who carry poles topped with pineapples which secure the base of strands of tinsel fanning out (bunga mangga), whilst family and friends trail behind. Upon arrival he sniffs the hand of his father-in-law. A chair is pulled out, and the groom is seated ready for the wedding silat to commence.

  • 20 Malay couples go through five main ceremonial stages pertaining to the wedding, consisting of the p (...)

35During the bersanding the couple are regarded as raja sehari or king and queen for the day.20 They must sit perfectly immobile and devoid of expression and may be teased by the guests to break their regal demeanor. Waterson points out that: “Perhaps the most widespread of ritual customs featuring immobility is that of seating the bride and groom in state before the guests at weddings (as among the Malays, Bugis and Minangkabau)” (1997: 191-3). Waterson explains that ritual immobility for the Minangkabau is associated with status, dignity and refinement, and that immobility is a distinctive Southeast Asian theme that serves as a locus of the concentration of power related to ritual, politics or fertility (see also Waterson 1998). In the context of wedding silat there is a stark contrast between the fixedness of the groom and the fluid movement of the dancer.

  • 21 Burridge (1961) said the difference between Javanese and Banjerese kuda kepang is thedifference bet (...)

36For couples with Javanese ancestry the party is lead into the bride’s vicinity by barongan (half animal/half human masked figure) and kuda kepang (hobbyhorse) dancers. At Javanese weddings in Singapore, kuda kepang would sometimes be performed throughout the entire day as entertainment for the guests. Kuda kepang performers know silat. Swaying her hips to and fro, a Javanese female informant said that: “Girls who play kuda kepang also know how make love.” Silat forms part of the kuda kepang performance in its opening and closing stages, and silat movements appear in the footwork (langkah), hand movements (bunga), and in attack and defence movements when performers stage mock fights. Performers, whilst in trance (menurun) rip coconut husks from the kernel with their teeth, trample barefoot upon broken glass, and bite into drinking glasses, snapping off shards to chew.21 Dramatic kuda kepang is now rare at weddings in Singapore, due to the increased Islamization of Singapore Muslims over the past thirty years. Kuda kepang is regarded as sinful (haram) because it involves non-Islamic actions such as burning the benzoic stone (kemenyan) and chanting to invoke spirits.

37Sometimes a bride and groom will sit in state together whilst watching the silat performance (persembahan silat), as was the practice of royalty in Melaka. More frequently the wedding silat will take place prior to the collection of the bride who remains in the house while the groom witnesses the performance unaccompanied (this may provoke a furious response from the bride). Performers, facing inwards, form a U shape in front of the ritual subject forming an area enclosed with their bodies except for the entrance at the end opposite. Peering over the shoulders of the troupe the guests surround this entire spectacle; some expressing looks of fascination, others exhibiting joy and body-sympathetic movements, still others (often elders) with faces immobile, impassive, inscrutable, possibly silently muttering jampi (spells) or doa (supplication). Relatives of the bride or groom are free to step in to this space and play silat. Very rarely, females will perform. The atmosphere is colorful and crowded as performers jostle for place and then begin to energetically crack their drums in earnest. Suddenly someone will step in from the entrance, right hand perhaps dipped and pointing to the floor whilst the left is concealed politely behind the back. After a stylized bow (sembah) the dance begins with the dancer slowly weaving his way to the groom/couple whereupon he will salaam (shake hands with) the groom. The dancer’s movements must be responsive to the music. Arms, wrists and hands carve intricate mysterious circling patterns through the air, gestures of adjuration or exorcism as if weaving charms (de Zoete & Spies 1952: 256). Simultaneously, the footwork alternates from high to low crouched folded positions requiring great dexterity, balance and flexibility.

38The silat performers inevitably compete. The best performers take three steps forward into the ring to display arcane skills honed during long years of practise, achieving a jazz-like virtuosity where they improvise new techniques, even innovate new styles, patterned upon the movements of animals, mythological creatures, long dead heroes, or other extraordinary masters. The dance may be understood as a séance to summon the souls of legendary heroes to dismiss evil “unseen visitors” including spirits (jinn), faeries (bari bari), ghosts (hantu), and vampires (pontianak) (Rashid 1990). Raising both palms aloft the performer supplicates Allah for safety and happiness in the marriage. Pinching things from the air and throwing them behind him the performer “removes the dirty ones.” Through supplication and incantation (jampi) a good performer is said to counter the potential danger of sorcery from jealous rivals or jilted suitors, removing harmful spells cast by those who wish the couple ill. The Malay audience may experience difficulty in relating the mysterious symbolic language of the moves, and when questioned some simply replied that “it’s tradition” or “custom.” Movements may be specialized, localized, style-specific and relate to secret esoteric doctrines.

  • 22 Naga symbolism runs deep throughout Southeast Asia.

39One of the movements performed by members of Pak Zaini’s troupe must suffice as an illustration here. The pesilat places his forearms together, and claps his arms and hands, while rotating his arms and body. The performer’s low slithering steps gives the impression of a crocodile approaching. This set of movements once operated the naga (serpent/dragon); only here it is performed in the air without the prop.22 The naga proper is only performed alongside kuda kepang for Javanese performances, but in Malay wedding silat we can see the return of the repressed in esoteric form in a kind of symbolic enchantment (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Naga and barongan, Bukit Timah, Batu 7, early 1970s

Fig. 2: Naga and barongan, Bukit Timah, Batu 7, early 1970s

©D. S. Farrer

Aesthetic Rules in the Shift of Social Structure

40Since at the Malay wedding bride and groom are considered royalty for the day, the adat that governs the behavior of the subject to the Sultan is supposed to form the basis for the silat performance. Although the aesthetic rules are a given, the guest at a Malay wedding never knows who will dance, or what style they will perform. Wedding silat as a “preserved habit” of the past may serve to promote group solidarity in the presence of outsiders (Gullick 1958: 19). Nevertheless, even today, confrontation between silat masters who wish to test each other’s martial skills can be an agonistic by-product of the wedding dance that could potentially result in violence. A century ago it was considered taboo to break these aesthetic rules of performance at the risk of offence and bloodshed. There is no apparent order to the movement and dancers are free to improvise within the aesthetic rules of the performance. Numbers for the performance are supposed to be odd. One or three performers is the minimum, and between seven to nine performers is the average. Seven is considered ideal. Rules include entering with a sembah (palms pressed together in salutation), not turning your back to the couple, not pointing, not showing the front of the fist, or the sole of the foot directly to the couple, and not making sudden violent movements. The dancers appear unarmed and leave the dance space after a closing sembah by taking three small steps back and a short step to the right.

41Sembah, the root of the Malay word for performance (persembahan), a position akin to the Christian prayer hand gesture and the ancient Hindu greeting, denotes earlier aesthetics than the Melaka Sultanate, and predates the introduction of Islam. Other Malay dance forms including hadrah, dabus, kuda kepang, mek mulung and mak yong all incorporate the sembah (Mohd. Chouse Nasuruddin 1995; Sedyawati 1998). Originating from obeisance to the Sultan, the gesture involves raising the hands to the forehead, or, if saluting a commoner (hormat), to the level of the chest. As Mohd. Chouse Nasuruddin (1995: 10) points out: “In dances such as the kuda kepang and barongan which has strong spiritual connotations, the movement has the added significance of being a part of the overall gesture of placating, among others, the spirits of air, water, earth and fire.”

42Some recent performances, however, appear to owe more to break-dance than to silat. A Malay couple that makes their living preparing wedding banquets adopted a mentally impaired Chinese boy in the 1970s. Now this man will drop the dishes at the sound of the drum, and dares to “open the silat” to become the first performer. In a style more like Flamenco than silat he claps his hands to the side, three times whilst stamping his foot. For some of the audience the effect is hilarious; others look on in shock and horror. Finally, the master of the troupe who performed last to “close the silat” wiggled his bottom from side to side in imitation of a chicken. Clearly, by playing the fool, he risked to step beyond adat.

43After the wedding silat the groom, still accompanied by the cracking drums, rises to walk to the bridal house. At the door he finds his way physically barred by his wife’s largest or most intimidating relatives to whom he must pay a token tax. They open the packets of money, and shake their heads in protest at the amount, but eventually allow the groom and his retinue to enter. The drumming stops. He finds his wife seated completely veiled beside the tukang andam (beautician) on her right, who holds a large embroidered fan to shield the brides face. There is an empty chair to her left. To unveil the bride, the groom must cross the beauticians palm with silver. The couple sucks in their breath as the veil is lifted for the wife to kiss the hand of the groom. He takes his seat next to her. She has now passed from the authority of her father to her husband.

44Wedding silat provides a visual and auditory focal point marking the shift in the social state of the unmarried couple to that of bride and groom, and a shift in the economic, social, and political structures of both families, now related through affinity. Marriage is the docking of structures through the parts, and as the parts symbolically join, the wedding celebration commences. Wedding silat is a ceremonial rite of aggregation that indicates the incorporation of the groom into the wife’s family, household and community. Although Islamic kinship is patrilineal, Malay kinship is bilateral with matrilocal residence patterns being the ideal.

45Although wedding silat is a highly structured, rule-bound activity it has an essen-tially ludic component of play, choice and entertainment (Huizinga 1950; Turner 1982: 43). The couple gets to role-play being king and queen for the day and the guru silat, during the silat performance will sembah and salaam the groom just as if he were the Sultan. It is here that one can truly see what Malay’s mean when they speak of someone who is skilled enough to really play silat (main bersilat). At one performance I saw an exceptionally skilled fifty-four year old Javanese man adroitly elbow his way into the oval. This relative of the bride (mother’s elder brother) danced with dexterous nimble footwork (langkah) and performed silat punctuated with rhythmic head, neck, and shoulder movements of classical Javanese dance (Brakel-Papenhuyzen 1995). Occasionally, he paused, made eye contact with the groom, and held difficult postures in mid-flight, to say, “check this out!” This performer used pinching movements to seize and throw the “dirty ones” behind him and away from the groom, followed by Islamic doa with cupped hands raised in front. Whether he was supplicating the heavens or the spirits of the air we shall never know.

Towards a Conclusion

46This article configures wedding silat in Singapore in relation to agency, aesthetics and enchantment. Wedding silat plays an important role to reinforce Malay social structure, and this supports Gell’s (1998) proposition that the anthropology of art must include the action of art as agency. Recent deliberations in anthropology, however, encourage aesthetic inquiry against the ardor of perspectives aiming Beyond Aesthetics. Silat enters this dispute as martial arts dance, as performance art. Aesthetics are shown to function in terms of power, social order, rules and normative behavior. Martial arts dance provides an aestheticized depiction of violence that reveals structures of social and supernatural power. The aestheticization of violence (silat) is a performance of enchantment, and an enchantment of performance, occurring in the disenchanted public spaces beneath the Singapore housing projects. The performance of wedding silat re-enchants the Malay community, and reinforces traditional family power structures, whilst simultaneously allowing opportunities for the subversion of Islamic rationalization through performative resistance.

47Islamization refers to the continuing process of Islamic rationalization that encourages Muslims to engage with practices and understandings derived from a literal reading of the Quran and to implement a strict interpretation of sharia law. This results in the attenuation or extinction of earlier Malay cultural practices such as the shadow puppet dance (wayang kulit) rendered as un-Islamic. Silat performance provides a medium through which performances of enchantment resist the Islamization of the past forty years that has engulfed Southeast Asia. Islamization is the flip side of the coin. The other main antagonist in the attenuation of Malay culture and identity would have to be the physical destruction of the kampung. However,

Constructions of community beyond the household…reflect creative cultural modes of managing the exigencies of Singapore life. The massive urban renewal programs since the 1960s have eradicated the older, named spaces upon which some Chinese and Malays were able to base a sense of physical community. But even the older kampungs and shop-houses included rental units for a shifting population of urban wageworkers and new immigrants. From early times then, a sense of community had to be constructed from interpersonal relationships since it was not a given outcome of spatial arrangements. (Li 1998: 157.)

48Li, above, mentions the “creative cultural modes” that permitted the kampung spirit to survive, but did not provide the mechanism. Kampung Siglap, and others beside, continues to exist not merely in social memory or as reactionary nostalgia. The kampung cannot be confined to physical space, but continues as virtual space, springing back into existence whenever and wherever the kampung folk and their descendents celebrate a wedding to stretch out the web of their community. Like other communities, of course, there are dangers involved that may disrupt the happiness of the people. Jealousy, resentment, and envy appear in various forms, such as bad luck for the couple resulting from black magic. Wedding silat continues to ward off negative and disruptive social forces, magically functioning to counter or “remove the dirty ones.”23

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Notes

1 Initial research towards this essay was presented in my paper “Seni Silat Haqq: A Study in Malay Mysticism” at the American Anthropological Association’s 101st Annual Meeting for the panel “Back to Aesthetics: Critical Anthropological Perspectives on Beauty, Power and Truth” (23/11/2002).

2 The “Islamic rationalization” of Malay society has been discussed at length in the available literature, including Abdullah & Siddique (1986); Nagata (1980); Peacock (1978); Peletz (2002); Kamaludeen, Pereira & Turner (2009); Li (1989); Mutalib (1993), Mohamad, Aljunied & Khairudin (2011); and Shamsul (1994, 1997).

3 The virtual kampung notion occurred to me from reading Kapferer (2004) and Deleuze and Guattari (2002).

4 Kuntao refers to Chinese and Chinese-descended martial arts in Southeast Asia. Some styles are “orthodox” Chinese; others are fusions of Chinese and Malay martial arts (Davies 2010: 312).

5 Despite his narrow definition, Gell does consider animal traps, body-paint, dance, knots, mazes, sand-drawings, and tattoos as art forms (Gell 1975, 1999 [1985], 1993, 1999 [1992], 1999 [1996]).

6 I trained silat full-time in London from 1996-1998, and continued lessons until 2005. I relocated to Singapore in 1998 and stayed until 2007. Initial data on wedding silat was gathered in 1999 through participant observation of a wedding silat troupe during fourteen weeks in Singapore. Adopting Zarrilli’s (1998) research method of “performance ethnography,” later combined with methods gleaned from visual anthropology, I joined in the practise, rehearsal, and the performances of the silat troupe. I completed ten silat sets and was presented with an antique keris (dagger) at a kenduri (ritual feast) for completion. Besides attending nine weddings with the troupe, and interviewing them in 1999, 2000, and 2001, I subsequently interviewed expert wedding silat performers, novices, and audience members, whilst learning three other styles of silat. Living in a Malay family from 2001-2007 in Singapore and Malaysia presented me with countless opportunities to attend Malay weddings.

7 Barth et al. (2005) provide an excellent summary of the different schools in American, British, French, and German anthropology—which they claim comprises the “four ways” of “one discipline”—anthropology. This title neglects indigenous anthropology and world anthropology to its detriment.

8 Silat is a noun referring to Malay martial arts. Bersilat is a verb meaning to play silat. Bersilat is abbreviated from bermain silat, literally “to play silat.” Malays call the silat player or practitioner pesilat. Malay martial arts are referred to as seni silat (the art of silat), bersilat, ilmu silat, (silat science/magic), and seni-beladiri (self defence). See also (de Grave & Farrer 2010).

9 See Mariam Ali (2003) concerning the cultural hegemonic process of the Singapore Malays to assimilate indigenous tribal groups such as the Orang Kallang, Orang Seletar, Orang Suku Laut, and the Orang Selat in Geoffrey Benjamin’s and Cynthia Chou’s (2003) superb edited volume, Tribal Communities in the Malay World.

10 Reviews of Shadows of the Prophet include Buehler (2011); de Grave (2011: 248-257); and Wieringa (2011: 243-244).

11 Hogarth’s treatise on a aesthtics and dance was neglected in favour of Baumgarten’s aesthetics of beauty and taste, challenged in its turn by Kant’s cognitive aesthetics.

12 Adat refers to custom, manner, tradition and habitual practice.

13 Haji Abdullah Shafiie, former President of the Singapore Silat Federation, personal communication, August 2001.

14 Wedding silat is referred to as silat pulut in Kelantan (Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991: 43).

15 Geoffrey Benjamin, personal communication, October 2002. Silat here is the equivalent of selat meaning “straits,” as in the Straits of Melaka.

16 Regarding Chinese martial arts in Singapore see Farrer (2011).

17 The performer was Pak Zaini of silat lima beradik (Farrer 2009: 119-121). Including Pak Zaini’s children, the troupe was comprised of performers aged eight to eighteen, with approximately sixty people on the books. On average, thirty people from his group would turn up at weddings.

18 Sharia refers to Islamic way, Islamic law, and is the first stage on the mystical Sufi path.

19 Regarding performance, space, sound and the city see Peterson (2010).

20 Malay couples go through five main ceremonial stages pertaining to the wedding, consisting of the proposal, formal engagement (bertunang), wedding ceremonies, consummation and formal visiting by the bridal pair. This material is well covered in Judith Djamour’s (1959: 76) classic ethnography.

21 Burridge (1961) said the difference between Javanese and Banjerese kuda kepang is thedifference between betul kuda kepang (genuine, i.e. invoking trance), and main kuda kepang (mere playing or dancing), the latter being more performative and less ritualized.

22 Naga symbolism runs deep throughout Southeast Asia.

23 D. S. Farrer’s article is illustrated by his ethnographic film Art of Silat. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFDAe7NR5FA.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Wedding silat, Singapore, 2001
Crédits ©D. S. Farrer
URL http://moussons.revues.org/docannexe/image/1573/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 466k
Titre Fig. 2: Naga and barongan, Bukit Timah, Batu 7, early 1970s
Crédits ©D. S. Farrer
URL http://moussons.revues.org/docannexe/image/1573/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 936k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

D. S. Farrer, « The Performance of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Performance in Malay Singapore », Moussons, 20 | 2012, 11-32.

Référence électronique

D. S. Farrer, « The Performance of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Performance in Malay Singapore », Moussons [En ligne], 20 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2012, consulté le 23 mai 2017. URL : http://moussons.revues.org/1573 ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1573

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Auteur

D. S. Farrer

Dr. Farrer was awarded a PhD in Social Anthropology by the National University of Singapore in 2007. He has taught anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and martial arts since 1992. His research specialities include the anthropology of performance, religion, and art, visual anthropology, violence, spiritual healing, and Chinese and Malay martial arts. Dr. Farrer has published an ethno-graphic book entitled Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism (2009) with Springer, and has recently published a volume (co-edited with John Whalen-Bridge) entitled Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (2011) with SUNY.

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