Some time back, I wrote an article on our version of silat, as taught by Maha Guru Stevan Plinck. I had intended it for Black Belt Magazine, or Inside Kung Fu, but never managed to get folks together for a photo shoot to illustrate it, and life, as it sometimes does, got in the way.
But since a writer never throws anything away ...
“Old Style Still Works”
Of the many varieties of Indonesian pentjak silat -- and there are reportedly hundreds -- one is a west Javanese system named in honor of its founder, a mysterious fellow nicknamed “Sera.” This nickname was supposedly for his hoarse voice, though it could have been for his tricky manner, owl-like wisdom, or maybe that he had a particular shade of red hair, all of which the term can mean, depending on dialect, accent, and spelling. Bapak Sera, along with whatever else he was, supposedly had a clubfoot and a deformed arm, and from several fighting styles he studied, he distilled a most effective one to compensate for his disabilities.
Proving any of this is next to impossible in a land where written records are rare, but it's a good story. And it continues:
One of Sera’s senior students, Mas Djut, helped his teacher formalize the art, and eventually, the system made its way from Java to the west.
Pentjak Silat players are, even by most martial arts’ standards, a contentious bunch: there are long-standing and heated disagreements among various systems, and even branches within a single style will be at odds over techniques, history, or, it sometimes seems, in which direction the sun rises. Few statements about anything go unchallenged. The history of the art has been argued by practitioners and detractors for years. Who exactly taught what to whom, when or where they were born, what their influences were -- none of these are nailed down too tightly.
Oral history can be very colorful, but accuracy is seldom its greatest virtue. What is known for sure is that the related Dutch-Indonesian clans of de Vries and de Thouars learned, then brought a fighting system from Indonesia to the west a few years after WWII, first to Holland, then the U.S.
Silat is not a new flavor-of-the-month -- the de Thouars brothers have been quietly teaching it since they arrived upon American soil in the early sixties, led by Paul de Thouars, the eldest of three brothers living in the states, and the system’s lineage holder. (Along the way, the letter “k” was added to Sera’s name, though the new addition is silent, and the term Serak(tm) has since been trademarked by Victor de Thouars.)
When asked about all the arguments, Silat Sera teacher Maha Guru Stevan Plinck, of Kelso, Washington, just shrugs. “It’s all politics,” he says. “And, you know what? It doesn’t matter. What is important in a fighting art is, can you fight with it? Everything else is just background. Waving your rank certificate at an attacker won’t stop him from pounding you into the ground.”
Plinck, a deeply religious Christian in his early fifties, is highly-regarded as both a teacher and a player among knowledgeable silat practitioners; several of the factions who won’t talk to each other maintain friendly relations with the unassuming and modest Plinck, whose skills and talent they recognize. Born in Holland, but raised in the United States, Plinck began studying Setia Hati-style silat with his grandmother and uncle as a boy. As a young man, he spent several years training under Guru Besar Arthur Rhemrev before becoming a direct student of Pendekar Paul de Thouars. (See Black Belt, June, 1965: “Spice Island Fighting Men” for more on Paul de Thouars.)
Plinck trained assiduously under de Thouars for more than a dozen years, becoming a senior student in what was, at the time, a closed-door system. Later, Paul created the more public daughter-art of Bukti Negara -- another system in which Plinck became a senior teacher. Guru Plinck has a high regard for his teacher’s skills, offering “adat” and “hormat” (respect and custom), even though the two men have come to a parting of the ways.
“You’re not anybody in silat until you’ve been disowned at least once or twice by your teacher,” Plinck says, grinning. But he is quick to point out that Paul’s abilities were, in his prime, the best he’s seen, then or since. “All of the branches of Pak Sera’s art in the United States have roots in Paul’s teaching,” Plinck says. “Anybody who tries to tell you differently is probably selling something.”
After honorably serving his country in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret, Stevan Plinck eventually wound up in the Pacific Northwest with his family. In his back yard, or his garage, when it is raining, Plinck teaches a small group of dedicated students, most of whom have been training with him for years. Plinck travels occasionally and gives seminars, and serious students sometimes come from as far away as England or Sweden for intensive training sessions with him.
The foundation of the system’s practice lies in eighteen short forms, called djurus; various platform-based foot patterns, the langkas; as well as technical defense and attack combinations, sambuts. There are drills, both with and without weapons, and once students become comfortable with the basic tools, sparring sessions follow. These are carefully circumscribed at first, progressing in intensity as the students improve. Students wear grappling gloves and mouthpieces, and there are often liberal applications of balur cimande, a Javanese liniment similar to the Chinese kung fu stylist’s dit da jow, used to speed healing of bruises.
Learning to get hit and keep going is part of the training. “If you get hit in class by a friend wearing gloves, it’s not the same as being hit by an attacker on the street,” Plinck says.
"If you can't deal with the first, you won't be able to deal with the latter."
“The silat of Bapak Sera and Mas Djut is made up of interlinked laws and principles,” Plinck says. “It’s not about power or speed, but more about timing and position. What we practice, like most silat, is based on the blade -- and it incorporates elements of boxing and grappling, without any sporting applications. Fighting in the old days in Indonesia was serious business, and not something to be done lightly, since injuries might mean a man could not work to feed his family.”
Guru Plinck considers his major contribution to the art the formalization and explanation of these principles to a western audience, and he has articulated a well-known trio of them in particular: Base, Angle, and Leverage.
“If you have all three, your technique will work every time,” he says. “If you have two, probably it’ll work. One, maybe not -- if your opponent has any idea of what he’s doing.”
As Plinck explains the terms, “base” is not merely the position of your feet, but your entire stance -- including your balance, height, and distance to your opponent. “Angle” here does not mean the degrees aslant you might be to an attacker, but the direction in which you apply a force, usually a pull. “Leverage” is generally meant to be a push, and the application of all three is usually done using opposite levers, coupled with a sweep or foot drag, though not always.
These principles, he says, will work with any art, not just silat.
Plinck’s silat is useful at all hand-to-hand ranges, from knife- to grappling-distance, but particularly comfortable in close. “We like to bridge the gap, control the centerline, and finish with a takedown,” he says. “We assume our opponent will be at least as skilled as we are, probably armed, and there might be more than one of him. In such a situation, you can’t stand around waiting for attacks, you will fall behind the curve and never catch up. If you can’t run away, you have to go in.”
When asked about other branches of the de Thours and de Vries family art, including some stripped-down and questionable modernized versions, he shrugs again. “You can either do it or you can’t,” he says. “A lot of people claim skill but when you look at them, it’s just not there. Doesn’t matter it is some high-tech, updated blend, if it isn’t useful in a fight, it’s not real silat.
“There’s nothing wrong with classical, old-style stuff, if it is the right stuff,” he says. “If it worked against men a hundred years ago, it will still work against them today. Human physiology hasn’t changed. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
To this end, Plinck is a monostylist. “Cross-training is good for some things,” he says, “but not everything.”
Plinck has done a few videos that are available to the public, but these are more for his own students’s use than anything else. He has a job, he doesn’t need to do his art to make a living, so he can afford to keep his standards high.
To the students, most of whom come from other martial arts’ backgrounds, this variant of silat is amazing. My own experience? I had a black belt in another art and thought I knew how to take care of myself until I saw Guru Plinck do a demonstration. I couldn’t wait to start training. I was outside waiting an hour early at the next class he taught.
There are no closed doors in his art -- those willing to train are welcome, with no restrictions as to race, sex, or creed.
Pentjak silat as practiced by Stevan Plinck in the Pacific Northwest is not a new art, but “new” does not always automatically mean “better.”
Sometimes, old style works just fine.