Sireh Pinang Leaves Us A Rich Art Legacy

Din Omar – Assimilation (Tepak Sireh Series) The Floating Cembol and Kacip. Acrylic and batik collage on canvas, 75cm x 75cm.

Din Omar – Mengimbau Sejarah Silam Warisan Melayu.

Din Omar – Menyambut Tetamu No. 3 (1999).

Latif Maulan – The Forgotten Heritage Series.

Once popular among royalty and later among commoners in Asia as a social custom and a stimulant, the pernicious habit of betel-nut chewing is remembered in Malaysia for its paraphernalia, which are celebrated as nostalgic keepsakes.

The bite-sized concoction can still be had at roadside stalls, though considerably less so than in some parts of countries such as India (supari in Tamil), Myanmar (kunyuet), Thailand (mak), Bhutan (doma), Papua New Guinea (daka), Sri Lanka (puwat), Bangladesh (sylheti), Africa, Bhutan, southern China and even Taiwan, where it is dubbed the “Taiwan chewing gum”. In Malaysia, it is called sireh pinang.

The Indian tradition is reported to date back to the pre-Vedic (1500-500BCE) Harappan period.

It has a bitter-savoury taste. Taken originally to sweeten the breath and cleanse the mouth, apart from inhibiting hunger and thirst, prolonged mastication has been found in a 2003 study to lead to blackened teeth, oral submucous fibrosis (OSMF) lesions and eventually oral cancer of the mouth, pharynx and oesophagus.

Latif Maulan – The Forgotten Heritage Series (2004).

First, the betel (Piper betle) leaf is daubed with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) as a catalyst, and filled with shaved areca nut (a berry of the Areca catechu palm). Dried gambir leaf (from the family of rubiaceae) and shredded tobacco also make for a more potent concoction. Other ingredients may be added for flavour, such as cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, camphor, turmeric and nutmeg. The contents are then folded up or rolled in the leaf.

A typical toolkit consists of a container, an areca-nut cutter or nutcracker (kacip), a pestle and betel mortar (gobek), a betel bag, a lime pot, and a spittoon (ketur). The last is dispensable, judging from the fact that most chewers would eject fusillades of the blood-red gooey blobs onto the street as they move along, creating a landmine of unsightly coagulated “juice”. The kacip is differentiated by gender, with the male having motifs based on birds and mythical horses, while the female kacip is one bereft of any motif or carving!

Tepak Sireh with Red Batik.

Latif Maulan – Tepak Sireh 1. Oil on canvas. 121cm x 121cm, 2013.

The containers come in simple forms of rectangle, octagon, oval or hexagon, with separate compartments or holders (cembul) for the betel leaves, slaked lime and in some, the cutter too. They are made of wood, lacquer, copper, brass, silver and bronze. If not used for some time, the leaves left in the cembul will wilt and will have to be replaced with fresher ones. Such containers were used as status markers, with those with ornate carvings and more precious materials bestowing the owners with respect and class. The carvings are decorative, either in “cut-out” or low relief design. The motifs, invariably aniconic, vary from cosmic, the symbolic awan larat (coiling leaves and branches), Arabic khat calligraphic, geometric or floral. Sometimes the box is covered with tekat embroidery.

Md Ridhuan Mustafa a.k.a. Dwen Karikatur – Tepak Sireh. Watercolours.

As with most things in the past with the predication of form, function and meaning, symbolic allusions are abound: the folded betel leaves for unity, the betel nut itself a sign of honesty and integrity, and tobacco for bravery. The tepak sireh given during Malay wedding ceremonies signifies good luck and prosperity. The lime or kapur, being white, gets the clichéd tag of purity and nobility. It had morphed into a culture of refinement of character and good manners. Playing on the cycle of birth, marriage and healing, and death, it was used traditionally as an offering in betrothal and marriage preambles and for booking midwives to deliver babies and even before building a house. It was also proffered to someone senior as a gesture of respect.

In Malaysia, the partaking of sireh pinang was first practised among royalty and the upper-classes more as a ritual and status symbol before it filtered down to the common populace, the low-income and lowly educated.

As the Malay saying goes, Bagaikan pinang dibelah dua (Like a betel nut cut in two), the equivalent to the English “peas in a pod”. The Vietnamese version is chuyen trau cau, meaning “matters of betel and areca are synonymous with marriage”. But the practice is dying if not dead already, and the old Malay axiom, Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat (Let the child die, but not the customs), does not resonate anymore in more practical terms or in the wake of lifestyle alternatives like cigarette smoking.

Considered a relic and an object to be treasured as the ornate designs are compelling, the tepak sireh has been a rich vein of resources for visual artists.

Two artists who consistently and extensively paint the tepak sireh imagery are Din Omar (b. 1966) and Latif Maulan (b. 1974), with Din hailing from Bachok, Kelantan, and Latif from Bentong, Pahang. While Din graduated in Fine Arts from the Mara Institute of Technology in 1987, Latif is self-taught but worked as a graphic designer for two periods in England, first in East Sussex (2002) and then Plymouth  (six months, 2003), and had stints in the US (2000) and Australia (2001) too.

Din Omar first hit the headlines when he won the Minor Award in the Bakat Muda SeZaman competition in the 1980s with his assemblages on the nasi bungkus arranged like a hidangan (serving). His most notable work in the series is Nasi Bungkus: Antara Dua Hidangan (Rice Packets: Between Two Servings).

Latif Maulan – The Forgotten Heritage Series. Tepak Sireh with Banana.

Md Ridhuan Mustafa a.k.a. Dwen Karikatur – Tepak Sireh. Watercolours.

Malaysia's gift of tepak sireh in gold to the United Nations in 2003.

Mohamad Hassan – Makan sirih. Acrylic on canvas.

Latif worked a lot on still-life, his forte, until 2006 when he went on another trajectory of large human figures with, and immersed in, the water element. It was in 2006 that he held his first solo, Parallel Universe. But Latif is now better known for his figuratives, usually solitary of both genders, and even as a self-portrait. Latif was a finalist in the coveted MEA (Malaysia Emerging Artists) Award in 2009 and stamped his class when he won the Redbull EhWauBulan art showcase in 2016.

His early tepak sireh works reveal his fascination with the receptacles as a creative object and for their heritage and historicity, especially linked to a Malay tradition that has elapsed. There is also a tinge of humour in one work, where he got hungry midway painting and peeled off one banana, leaving the skin on the comb as evidence.

The self-taught Mohd Ridhwan Mustafa a.k.a. Dwen Karikatur also dabbled briefly with the tepak sireh, more as a diversion and because it is a fascinating subject. Born in Kedah, Dwen was better known for his caricatures and had worked as a street artist around the Sogo and Bukit Bintang areas in KL for the last 10 years. Unfortunately, he died on October 30, just short of his 42nd birthday on December 8.

Another artist using it as a subject is the little-known self-taught Halim Omar, who hails from Terengganu. His subject is hinged on Malay heritage and culture such as the tepak sireh, calligraphy and mosques. Also into this tepak sireh heritage thingy is Mohamad Hassan, alias “Mohas”.

The actual artefacts are now cultural repossessions and are sold online and at reputable antiquity shops such as Henry Bong’s Pucuk Rebung (Bangsar, KL). Indeed, Henry Bong (b. 1953) was commissioned by the country to design a gold tepak sireh with a pending encrusted with sapphires, diamonds and rubies. It was a gift to the United Nations and was handed over by then premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2003.

So, the less salubrious practices connected with the tepak sireh get forgotten in the romance of the intricate design and ornateness of the box.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie)spun from a local legend.

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