Master of a Vanishing CraftEarly most mornings in the village of Ayunan, Bali, a noisy, high-pitched clanging can be heard coming from a dirt-floored shed in the yard of 67-year-old Nyoman Kondra. As you approach the shed, the whooshing of a bellow and the strike of a hammer on hot iron fills the air. These are the sounds of a pande, or Balinese blacksmith, laboring in his workshop.
For the past 40 years, Kondra has spent his days sharpening and making tools from scratch, using little more than iron, charcoal, hammers and salt water. The red-hot charcoal is used to heat the iron. Hammers shape the glowing metal into implements like sickles and hoes. Salt water hardens the newly-formed tools.
While Kondra still makes the occasional sickle or knife, times have changed and his services are not much in demand anymore. Kondra is resigned to the inevitable decrease in tool orders and his own waning stamina.
“It seems that nowadays, I have just enough energy to sharpen tools,” he said. “Those used for cutting, mowing or cleaning the rice fields. I feel myself slowing down more and more.’’
Kondra still remembers the first tool he ever made when he began working as an ironsmith — a crowbar.
“You don’t need to form a crowbar; you just need to sharpen it on both ends. They’re useful for husking coconuts and making holes in the ground before inserting poles for construction,” he said.
After he learned how to make crowbars, he progressed to making hoes. He also became quite adept at crafting the Balinese knives known as tiuk ebat, which are made specifically for chopping and mincing bumbu (spice and herb mixtures).
Though the knives look simple, the processes involved in making them are actually quite complex.
“It takes me an entire day to make a tiuk ebat, because there are many steps to go through,” Kondra said.
“I start by forming the back. Then I make a cutting edge, followed by the tip or point. Finally, I make the handle. The most complicated part is getting it sharp enough. To do that, I must mix a little steel into the iron to make it harder. The final step is to dip it in salt water.’’
In his heyday as a “tiuk ebat’’ maker, no less than eight people would come to Kondra’s home every day to place orders for the knives.
But in the 1990s, equipment such as grinders and knife molds began appearing on the market and, as a result, demand for his services started to decline.
Later, Kondra specialized in making sickles, also known as sabit — which means “crescent moon” in Indonesian.
Sabits are an extremely useful tool for rice farmers and, even today, when you see a farmer walking along the road, they will almost always be carrying one.
It’s because they are such versatile tools — used for cutting grass, weeding the small dikes in rice fields and just about anything for which a farmer needs a sharp cutting tool.
But once again, modernity has undermined Kondra’s business.
“Before sickles from other countries came onto the market here in Indonesia, I used to get orders for up to 10 sabits a week,” he said.
“Now I’m lucky if I get a single order in one month. It’s because people now have access to tools made in China, which are sharper and cheaper.
“But I don’t blame the farmers. If I make them a sabit, they must wait three days, the price is higher and sometimes the shape is less than perfect.’’
Farmers and other people from around Kondra’s village still come around to his blacksmith’s shed. But they mainly come to have their tools sharpened.
In order to sharpen the equipment, he uses a simple stove fueled by coffee-tree wood, which drives a fan that helps the charcoal burn.
“There used to be people who sold me charcoal — now I have to make it myself,’’ he said. “That’s because the charcoal-sellers prefer to sell to sate vendors, who will pay a higher price.”
But by making his own charcoal, Kondra is able to be selective about the type of wood he uses.
“Charcoal sold in the market is made from quick-burning wood that rapidly turns to ash, so it isn’t of much use to me.”
Kondra said he needs slow-burning wood, which is why he prefers to make his own charcoal from teak or other hard woods. To prepare for a sharpening job, Kondra gathers two kilograms of charcoal and then arranges the tools to be honed in a particular order. The hoes and sickles are placed close to the red-hot coals while the thin-bladed knives are positioned further away because they are easily bent.
After the implements have been heated for 10 minutes or so, Kondra hammers them for about 15 minutes in order to flatten and shape them. Finally, he files them to a sharp finish.
Kondra said he sometimes also uses a whetstone, but he said, “That way takes the longest as you need about 20 minutes and it must be done very precisely.”
The blacksmith claims that he can hone 10 knives and five sickles in a single day.
He added that few hoes and crowbars are brought to him for sharpening these days.
“Maybe that’s because farmers nowadays can hire a tractor to turn their soil, so they seldom use the tools that they used before,” he said, regretfully.
Kondra said he was disappointed to know that the craft passed down to him from his father will stop with him. His own son is more interested in construction, especially masonry, and his grandchildren are all female, so he doubts that they will want to follow in his footsteps.
“Young people nowadays prefer to work in an office rather than do an exhausting job that drains your energy like this one,” he said.
Kondra is descended from a long line of pande, or blacksmiths. According to Balinese legend, pande were chosen for their reliability since they were entrusted with making the equipment used for waging battles.
Despite the fact that his job is slowly becoming obsolete, Kondra said he doesn’t regret his choice of profession.
“I am still proud of my skills as a blacksmith; I have worked long and hard to master my craft,” he said.
Thankfully, Kondra possesses other talents as well. Besides being a toolmaker, he knows how to construct buildings, from the foundation all the way to the rooftop.
“When my blacksmith work started to slow down, I realized that I needed to find another source of income,” he explained.
So for three years, he worked as a mason on a hotel project. However, because of his advanced age, he was soon forced to resign from his job.
He then went back to work in the rice fields, as he had done for many years, with farming becoming his main means of income. Tool-sharpening became his sideline work.
Before the influx of Chinese-made tools, Kondra was able to earn enough money to build the biggest house in his village. But farming wasn’t able to bring in nearly so much money.
Even after the harvest, there would only be just enough rice to feed his 10 family members. The plot of land on which he cultivated rice was too narrow.
“To make a profit, I would need at least one hectare of land, plus money to hire a tractor and buy fertilizer and pesticides,” he said. “And those are some things I don’t have.”
Nowadays, even though work is scarce, Kondra continues to carry on the profession handed down to him by his forbearers.
He maintains an optimistic outlook and hopes that in the future, there will be young people who will be interested in pursuing a craft like his that needs precision and expertise.
“I am ready, with open arms and an open heart, to share my knowledge with those who want to become a pande and learn the craft of ironwork,” he said with a smile. “Are there any apprentices out there?”