The Keris Collector

Published on 3 April 2017

Author and Cultural Medallion recipient, Isa Kamari, shares why the traditional keris captures him.

By Pamela Ho

Most know him as an award-winning author. After all, Isa Kamari has – to date – published 10 novels (nine in Malay, one in English), two collections of short stories, two collections of poetry and a stage play. Some know him as a professional architect. But few probably know that he is an avid collector of the keris (a Malay/Indonesian dagger with a wavy-edged blade).

Isa started his collection three years and currently owns over 50 heritage pieces from around the region. Weapons or works of art? We visit his home to find out more about his keris collection and why he is so captivated by them.

How did you get interested in the keris? What captivate you most about this weapon? 

It was at a Malay heritage exhibition held at the National Library that I first held a keris fit for a nobleman. The keris is an art form. Its forging is laborious and meticulous. That fascinates me. I am still intrigued that a deadly weapon can be beautiful.

Tell us more about your collection.

I have been collecting them since then, learning from the otai or experts to differentiate and choose genuine/authentic pieces from mere decorative ones. I have pieces from almost each and every Malay region in Asia. To date, I have about 50 kerises and 20 swords from the Nusantara region. In my collection, prices range from S$400 to S$1500 each. There are keris that cost more than S$20,000 apiece. For now, it’s beyond my range.

What’s the rarest or most expensive piece in your collection?

The most expensive piece is a keris from Palembang. It has a hilt made from an elephant molar fossil. The wooded sheath is decorated with silver. The finely damascened blade has nine luks or waves. I bought it from one of the otais.

How do you find them?  

One of my favourite marketplaces is actually eBay. I either bid for them in an auction or buy them direct from the seller. I join several keris fraternities on Facebook. I’ve bought some pieces from fellow collectors too.

Can we expect a new novel inspired by your keris collection perhaps?

I am working on a novel tentatively called The Keris Collector. I am exploring the need to practise religion that is embedded in local culture and norms – against that which is merely imported or transplanted from abroad – to overcome alienation in life.

Look out for our profile story on Isa Kamari in our April 2017 issue, or click here to find out more about his literary works.

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