My Father, Tengku Ibrahim Wook, the Master Craftsman
Recollections of His Personal Life. His children called him Ku. His nephews and nieces called him Ayah Su, literally means Youngest Uncle, and his grandchildren called him Tok Ku. His close friends called him Pak Ku whilst others called him Ayah Ku or Pak Engku. I was the eldest son of his from his second marriage. His first marriage had him a daughter. I have two brothers and three sisters from his marriage with my mother, Khatijah bte Othman. My mother was a widow when my father married her. She had two daughters from her earlier marriage. My father was born in Kampong Panji, a small village near Kota Bharu, Kelantan, sometime in1929. I was not informed on how they met but I recalled my mother used to tell that she visited Ku somewhere in a military prison in her early pregnancy of me. Apparently Ku was imprisoned for absence without leave from military duties!
I don’t know when exactly he moved to my mother’s kampong, Kampong Gong Kemuntong, Jerteh, in Terengganu, a neighbor state of Kelantan and also that of where I and my other siblings were born. There were also my Tok (my grandmother, my mother’s mother), two uncles and my two stepsisters. Mother passed away in 1989 leaving Ku, together with a brother and two sisters of mine living in Gong Kemuntong. During the time, me and other siblings are living in various places in the Klang Valley. About two years after my mother’s death, Ku married another woman; Aminah bte Abdullah and together they had no children.
On Ku being a military man, I was informed vaguely with many stories both from himself and my mother. He was a bright student in his class at a Sekolah Melayu then. After some examinations he was recommended to further studies in the English medium, the Special Malay Class. My grandfather had his hardest objection that my father will study the colonial British lessons that might make him a Christian! He then intended to send my father to the Sekolah Pondok, studying the traditional sciences and knowledge of Islam, which was significantly natural with the Malays during the time, Apparently, Ku, in his adventurous youth, didn’t like the idea much as he narrated how he often went loitering in cinemas, coffee shops and other places in Kota Bharu. Upon discovering Ku went loitering around town, my grandfather arranged a marriage for him. Ku didn’t like the idea and perceived it as a forced marriage as the bride was not his choice. Apparently at that time Ku was already in love with my mother who often visited her aunt, who was also living in Panji, Kota Bharu. My grandfather, whom I believed was a hot-tempered man, went bursting with anger as he already chose the bride who probably was a daughter of his friend or close relative. Ku eventually ran away from the house and took up the military service.
I remember a scar somewhere at the bottom left of his back. According to Ku, it was from a communist bullet in a gunfight somewhere in Negeri Sembilan. He survived the fight and swam through a swamp with a badly injured friend. I’m not that sure why he went absent without leave but my mother narrated how Ku shaved himself bald and was working in a Chinese vegetable farm when the military police found him. I vaguely remembered my mother’s stories of visiting Ku in places like Kuala Kangsar in Perak, Port Dickson, in Negeri Sembilan and Pengkalan Chepa in Kelantan.
I remember Ku worked with the then Public Works Department (now Jabatan Kerja Raya) as a coolie. This was in my very early life. I still can remember waving him goodbye, when the PWD lorry came and off he went in the back of the lorry with the other men. On payday, he brought home roti canai and murtabak. I saw square copper coins with King George’s image. I came to believe that Ku was working hard to make his ends met. Ku, at this time, already had a studio-workshop that he built adjacently to the main house. I remember that there was once a barber’s chair in the workshop and there were his regulars. I believed somehow the barber of Ku was a short-lived enterprise, as I also remember he sold off the barber’s chair. He was also a rubber-taper and a paddy-planter sometime in my early schooldays. We also had one or two cows and a few goats. Ku kept fighting-cocks for leisure, and we had a chicken coop. We never bought eggs and chickens.
The Artist and His World. Ku was a quiet man. More of an introvert, I guess. He would only be alive with conversations on topics that were dear to him_ the arts. As far as I can remember, Ku would be always in his studio-workshop, even during nighttime and public holidays. The studio-workshop, in some ways, had become a sort of a ‘holy place’ for him. ‘Tepat kherjo ni peting sangak. Kalu tepak kherjo tak seleso, kherjo kito pun jadi tidok molek. (The working place is tremendously important. If its not conducive or comfortable, our works also may get affected.)’ Ku told me many times about this, especially when I was called to cleanup the studio-workshop.
He was very particular about his ranges of tools. There were trays of small tools that he made himself, to tailor his fine carvings on hardwood, ivory and other materials. Other materials! There was once an elephant tooth brought by his friend to make a keris hilt! There were at least five sets of chisels and gouges. There were all kind of saws and saw-blades, planes, hammers, clamps and etceteras. I had to oil the regular tools, swept the floor, and opened up the studio-workshop during my school holidays. I regretted that the studio-workshop was now gone. It eventually was turned into a storage area for all sorts of things.
I often followed him for walks in a small forest nearby our rubber plantation. He would show me all sorts of vegetation and trees. We cut parts of fallen and uprooted trees for whatever things he wanted to do. He also sometimes set traps for quails. Ku kept a special small garden of herbs and foliages near the studio-workshop for his working references, He would spent hours tending and looking at his plants, which he would later developed and translated them into his carvings.
Ku told me that my Tok Ku was also a craftsman, particularly in building houses and carpentry. Ku sometimes followed his father to work, helping to carry the tools and other things. Ku mentioned that Tok Ku was indeed a hot-tempered man and so did his brothers. Ku narrated how one of his uncles built his house single-handedly, simply either he couldn’t work with others or others couldn’t work with him!
Ku actually learned his finer points of craftsmanship whilst in the military prison. He told me of his guru, a very fierce Siamese man who would rained his students with horrible swears if there were wrongs or inaccuracies in whatever designs or projects they were doing. Ku eventually became the Siamese favorite student for his discipline, hardworking, as well as his fine craftsmanship.
Sometime in my early schooldays, Ku brought the family to Kuala Terengganu, leaving my two stepsisters, an uncle and me with grandmother in Jerteh. He was attached to some departments, probably with MARA if I’m not mistaken, doing his art and crafts works. I was brought to Kuala Terengganu during the school holidays, and again I discovered a small studio or a workplace in the rented house.
After some years in Kuala Terengganu Ku brought back the family to Jerteh. He later joined his friends, the brothers Abdul Rahman and Abdul Latiff Long, setting up their woodcarving studio-workshop in Kampong Raja, some eight miles from our house. Ku cycled to Kampong Raja and I used to be the pillion-rider on school holidays. Eventually their partnership broke-up and they all went setting up their own enterprises. Ku then worked in the studio-workshop at the house.
Ku was very interested with traditional Malay weaponry, Apart from the tools, equipments and whatnot in the studio-workshop; there were also blades of the keris, badik, parang, golok and swords. He was known for his fine intricate carvings on the weapons’ hilts and scabbards. He was like never out of work, there were always people coming to have their golok or parang properly made. There were also occasional visits from his friends like the two Long brothers, and their eldest brother whom I called Ayah Mat, Nik Rashideen and others, including a metal-smith who always came with new blades and other curiosities. The studio-workshop then would be alive with conversations about their arts and other stories.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Ku was called to join a woodcarving project by the then Kementerian Kebudayaan, Belia & Sukan (KKBS) in Kuala Lumpur. The project was executed in a spacious studio-workshop in the then Jalan Pekeliling (now Jalan Tun Razak), the Bengkel Seni Hias. Ku eventually brought the family to live in one of the residence quarters at the Bengkel Seni Hias. There were also some twenty Indonesian woodcarvers working and living at the place, specially brought from Jepara, Indonesia for the project. Ku was excited that he came to know other motifs, styles and techniques of woodcarving.
I had the opportunity to share his studio-workshop as a sculptor after I graduated sometime in late 1980s. I was working on some wood sculptures with themes derived from the traditional Malay arts. Ku helped me to better understand the aesthetics of the Malays arts. We would talked into the nights with him explaining the meanings underpinning the Malay arts, the woodcarvings in particular. He emphasized that good artists (carvers) must understand nature well as its where we should refer to_ to make the carvings’ designs better as well as there were lessons of life from nature. The saying, ‘Tumbuh berpunca, punca penuh rahsia; Tajam tidak menunjak lawan; Tegak tidak memaut kawan; Tetapi melingkar dengan mesra (Literally translated by the author as, ‘Growing, from a clandestine origin; Sharp, but not to jerk the enemies; Stand, but not to step on friends; But moving in with peace and tolerance.’), which is commonly regarded by traditional Malay carvers as a guiding philosophy in practicing their art, was discussed in great length during the time. ‘The clandestine of live, the secrets, are meant to be discovered,’ said Ku. Noorhaiza Nordin, who is now a successful woodcarver, some times joined our discussions, or rather the tutorials from Ku. Noorhaiza at the time was working at our studio-workshop. ‘Carvers (artists) must get close to nature. Study how the seedlings grow, day by day, in search for light_ for life. We represented all these life challenges as well as excitements through our designs and of course, our craftsmanship. How we response to others, our friends and enemies, the edges and flows of the foliages should be moving, growing peacefully whilst sowing tolerance with others.’
Ku passed away in 2000. He was laid to rest at his kampong in Kelantan.