Monday, 23 June 2008

Dukit Betis

Brief ethnohistory of Kapampangan furnishings and sculpture in Betis, Guagua, Pampanga

By Joel Pabustan Mallari with Arnel David Garcia


One of the many specialized crafts known in the Philippines is woodcarving and wood sculpture. This area actually covers a wide range of wooden art pieces from the Hispanic but folksy religious images (variously called as malasantu, santo, rebultu) to the modern pieces of furniture now being exported abroad. Presently, fine woodcarvers in the Philippines include the manlililok of Paete in Laguna, the Ifugaos of the Cordillera region, and the Maranaos and Tausugs of Mindanao. In Pampanga, the most recognized woodcarvers collectively come from the mandukit of the old Betis district of Guagua.

Betis’ role in Luzon history

As mentioned by John Larkin in his book The Pampangans, Betis was one of the 11 most important towns (with Lubao, Macabebe, Sasmuan, Guagua, Bacolor, Apalit, Arayat, Candaba, Porac and Mexico) at the beginning of the Spanish Period in Luzon. In the past, Betis was once a pueblo or town, annexed to Guagua only in 1904. Among the old barrios which originally composed this former town includes San Juan Bautista, San Juan Nepomuceno, San Nicolas, San Agustin with its Sitio Virgen de los Remedios, San Miguel, Sta. Ines and Sta. Ursula. Most of which are situated on the old riverbank area of southern Pampanga. In an 1853 report, Sta. Ursula was not yet listed among the six early barrios of Betis recognized that time. Fray Diego Bergaño cited Betis seven times in his 1732 version of the Vocabulario giving significant mention of the town’s early role as entrepot before going to Guagua, Bacolor and Mexico which is most likely via the old Betis River. In fact, Fray Gaspar de San Agustin accounted in his Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, 1565-1615, that Betis was the most fortified fort throughout Luzon. The old riverbanks of Betis and Lubao wer Muslim settlements where they once thrived. Betis’ famous palisade fort was immediately copied in the construction of Intramuros after 1572, when only Lubao and Betis resisted the Spanish conquerors. The presence of the old rivers of Betis and Lubao made them strategic not only for economic reason but also for military purposes. In Sasmuan, old fishermen in the area still recalls a long strip of coastal area (from Guagua to Sasmuan) and an old river named Paglalabuan.

Paglalabuan beginning

In the district of Betis, the village which produces most if not all of the sculptured pieces and wood carved furniture comes from Sta. Ursula. This village, said to be the oldest, is located on the old riverbank area. It was known before as Paglalabuan, as well as “pulu”, “danuman”, “sadsaran”, an “island”, a “water edge community” and a “port”. An old placename found among old maps and also as part of an oral folk history it literally meant a deposition area of silt. The local folks say that, as the 1980s, pieces of old Chinese blue and white porcelains were found at the bottom the river. In the 1970s after the great flood of 1972, a tsunami (probably the great tsunami of 1976) struck Bataan’s eastern coastline causing the rivers of Pampanga particularly the Pasak River to the drain of water, exposing the step-like slopes of the riverbank’s bottommost section and revealing old wrecks of submerged ships and carrier trucks which look like the vehicles used in the last World War.

The old folks in the area believe that their village is the oldest in the tradition of pamandukit (woodcarving) and pamaganluagi (wood working) in the Kapampangan province. Besides, it is also known as a home of the old dadaras (or mandaras, the traditional bangka makers). In the past they supplied most of the various bangka (boats) in Pampanga and nearby coastal and riverbank villages in Orani, Dinalupihan, Samal, Hermosa, Abucay (which also produced this type of boats), all of Bataan, Kalookan, Malabon, Navotas (especially in Sta.Cruz), Valenzuela, the provinces of Rizal and Bulacan (Pamarauan, Hagonoy, Binuangan), Cavite, Batangas and as far as Mindoro. Their boats were carved out canoe types known before as balutu (var. baroto). Collective memories of old folks (boat makers and woodcarvers) in this district and nearby areas still remember the time when the supply of logs and other timber materials flowed along the old Betis River (various tributaries of this old river were called “Ilug Palumo”, the downstream part of the now Pasak River; and Karalaga River for the part running from Sta.Ines going to Plaza Burgos, the one that connects with the old Dalan Bapor River in downtown Guagua). This supply came from the forested upper Pampanga area and eastern Bataan along the foothills of the Zambales Mountains. Dadaras or mandaras (boatmakers) regularly receives rough hollowed logs called baul which were then turned into fine carved boats. According to old folks of Sta.Ursula, expert boat makers are called as matenakan dadaras. To this day, the baul suppliers are called atseru (most likely derived from the Spanish term hacha, an ax type tool used for logging) while baul makers and loggers are both referred to as mamaul. Logs usually come from Bataan, especially in Kuló, Dinalupihan and Hermosa.

Pampanga 17th-18th century folk fine arts

Philippine furniture absorbed artistic influences from different cultures who made contacts with the islands. As Professor Regalado Trota Jose noted, many 17th century pieces manifest touches of Chinese design, while later 18th century pieces are known to have inlaid designs. Rococo forms, fashionable European trend from French, Victorian and new American designs became prominent. Furniture craft achieved a level of excellence during the 17th and 18th centuries. Central Luzon specialized in bone inlaying like those found in Betis, Bacolor and Apalit, while the Visayas produced deftly carved narra pieces. Wood carving was already recognized as folk art in the Laguna towns of Paete and Pakil as well as in Betis. If Paete have perfected the art of carving images of saints from native hardwoods, and Pakil for its exquisite wood filigree, Betis woodcarvers excelled in furniture. Mariano Henson noted in his several editions of The Province of Pampanga and Its Towns that “in gold and silver smithery the people of Betis were unrivaled until the 18th century for their own art”. According to Peter Garcia, 68 yrs.old mandukit in Betis, Kapampangan craftsmen ahead of their generation were already masters in the art of bone inlaying. Instead of using pearls and garing (ivory), they substituted good qualities of cow bones. Furthermore, M.Henson quotes:

“In the matter of carving images, altars, church ornaments,furnitures, inlaying with mother-of-pearl, bones, and other hardwoods, gilding with gold leaf, exacting carpentry, decorative art, and design, painting of religious motifs and theatre drop curtains, the people of Betis during the 17th and 18th centuries again are mentioned here to be easily the masters in the art of their own”.

Flores’ art: a fusion of old and new

By the 19th century, furniture makers were producing works in Peñaranda, Nueva Ecija; Baliuag, Bulacan; Paete, Laguna; Bacolor and Betis in Pampanga; and in Malabon area. A contemporary influence of classical tradition of woodworking in sculpture and furniture began to be felt in the 1950s brought about by Juan Flores, a native of Sta.Ursula. Born on the 9th of Spetember 1900, he became a famous sculptor and furniture maker at a young age. He learned the crafts of carpentry and wood carving, furniture making and sculpture, especially the making of malasantos. He was so talented that his reputation grew in the national art scene. He once made a bust of President Manuel L. Quezon, and that of Secretary of Justice and Finance Gregorio Araneta. He was able to study the malasantos and antiques all over the Philippines especially in Bicol, Marinduque, Leyte, Cebu and Surigao. His specialization developed by fusing indigenous practice he learned in Sta.Ursula, together with his passion for European religious art and from what he learned in his observations around the country with Secretary Araneta. Hence, he gained respect among several furniture makers in the country today. His art is inspired by pictures of masterpieces of Western art. Among his styles are the incorporation of ornamental motifs derived from local plants as well as locally evolved design patterns like bulabulaklak, kulakulate. To date, his name is equated to the creative and distinct technique and designs in furniture making and sculpture of Betis, which become a standard in the art development in Pampanga.

Betis’ “Modern Antiques”

Travelers along the highways of Olongapo-Gapan Road and the matuang dalan of Bacolor-Guagua feast their eyes on the several display of shops selling “modern antique” (antique inspired woodcrafts) pieces from simple household furniture to the various pieces of statues. Most of these displayed pieces come from Sta.Ursula where the mandukit are seen doing various creations. Many workshops offer varied specialization; some are known to carve aranias or chandeliers like those installed in Malacañang Palace, which shows all the fine details that imitate the gracefulness and malleability of metals. There are religious images and figures of saints, called santu, malasantu or rebultu in general; other specialize in the manufacture of wooden karo, the traditional church retablo, and other church furnishings; some are dedicated workers of home fixtures which include tukador, painadora, tremor, almario, atay bed (named after the known 19th century Chinese craftsman, Eduardo Ah Tay), various tables which include lamesa (adopted high table in contrast to the dulang a local low dining table), consolas (side tables), escritorios (office tables) and lavaderas (bedroom tables with porcelain wash); various cabinets and cabinet-like pieces such as lansena (a cupboard with shelves and drawers used to store food stuffs), platera and the traditional baul, wooden chest including later versions like the comoda and cajonerias, various sizes of aparadul (or aparadur, used for safekeeping of documents in churches and as cabinet for clothes) and painadora (dresser chest), chairs like the butaca (planter’s chair), bangku or kapiyas, gallinera, etc. Fine sculpture in the form of deep bass relief art pieces and frames are also produced. But one of the many identification that characterize Betis creations is the overall projection of antiquated finish in every artpiece which meticulously sculpted. Among the known contemporary mandukit in this district to date, include Willy Layug, Boyet Flores, Peter Garcia, Salvador Gatus, and Joel Tolentino.

The old tradition of boat carving apparently started the tradition of pamandukit and pamaganluagi in the province. Many of the last generation of matenakan dadaras in this old village with families still living here are known to have prospered in the field of pamandukit and pamaganluagi in the country today. As Tatang Salvador Santos Gatus (53 yrs.old, son of a matenakan dadaras) quips, “matenakan la king obrang dutung, ania dakal anluagi, dadaras at mandukit ka ring tau keti kanita pa man”. Thus the art of fine woodworking and sculpture was already flourishing even before the time of the master sculptor Juan Flores. At the height of the Huk movement in the province, this barrio used to have a talipampan as “alipagpag” or “alipatpat” after the noisy activity of boat making and woodcarving in the area. The term baul was already recorded by Fray Diego Bergano in his compilation of early 18th century Kapampangan glossaries as “a thing manufactured in a rough stage, like a banca or a wood carving, or a sculpture not yet perfected…”, which consequently confirms the antiquity of both industry of boat making, furniture making and sculpture in the Kapampangan region.

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