KUANTAN – Songkok maker Ismail Ahmad Gundal’s range of the traditional Malay headgear is not only sought-after by the locals here, but also royalty.
The 58-year-old Kuantan-born artisan’s esteemed customers include the Regent of Pahang Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, his brother Tengku Abdul Rahman and their children.
The fact that it is handmade and skilfully stitched is most likely why the songkok, bearing the Gundal trademark, is the choice of commoners and royalty alike.
As the songkok is an essential accessory to complete the traditional Hari Raya look for Muslim men, Ismail currently has his hands full fulfilling orders from his customers.
Operating from his shop at Jalan Besar, here, he said he does not have the heart to turn down last-minute orders. Of late, he has been keeping his shop open until midnight, instead of the usual 6.30 p.m.
“I usually have a lot of customers walking in two or three days before Raya and I will tell them to pick a songkok that fits them from my ready-made collection,” Ismail, who is better known as Pak Mail, told Bernama.
The Gundal songkok range is priced at between RM40 and RM200 each, depending on the quality of velvet cloth used.
This second-generation songkok maker’s entry into the songkok making trade came rather unexpectedly. It happened sometime in 1978 when his father Ahmad Gundal Mat Chontor asked him to help him with the family business.
“I was 18 and had just completed my schooling. I was living in Pekan then and was an apprentice learning to repair vehicles when my father asked me out of the blue to return home to learn to make the songkok (and take over the family trade),” he recalled, adding that his father was in his 70s then and could not cope with the orders for handmade songkok.
Among his 11 siblings, he was picked to perpetuate the family tradition “probably because I was not as clever as my other brothers and sisters who either had government jobs or were pursuing their higher studies”, he remarked jocularly.
“Anyway, I am glad I learnt this art (of making the songkok) from my father as it is my source of livelihood and has enabled me to raise my nine children.”
Ismail currently makes two types of songkok, one featuring a flat top and the other featuring a slightly modified top with the left and right sides raised half an inch or 1.25 cm. The latter happens to be the choice of the younger generation.
The songkok sizes range from 40.64 cm (16 inches), which is suitable for young children, up to 66.04 cm (26 inches).
CARE AND PRECISION
The basic materials Ismail uses to make the songkok are velvet cloth imported from Japan, Germany and South Korea; satin cloth; Manila paper; and scraps of fabric.
To make the songkok, the inner layer is prepared first by wrapping the Manila paper with the fabric scraps before it is lined with the satin cloth.
Once the inner layer is done, it is cut to suit the required size before stitching the seams.
Next comes the process of joining the top part of the songkok to its slightly oblong-shaped “body”. The final stage sees the whole songkok being fitted with the velvet cloth.
Ismail makes the songkok with the help of five of his nephews and nieces. While they handle the simpler tasks, he focuses on the more complicated part, namely cutting and attaching the songkok parts together.
“It took me a long time to be skilful and my father used to scold me those days. The songkok parts have to be attached with care and precision.
“If it is not done properly, there may be air bubbles trapped beneath the layers and the person wearing the songkok may find it uncomfortable after wearing it for several hours,” he said.
It takes Ismail about two hours to complete a songkok and since he can only make five or six songkok a day, he refrains from taking bulk orders from traders who wish to retail his product in other places.
“About 99 per cent of my songkok is handmade as I pay great attention to comfort, quality and durability,” he pointed out.
Sharing some tips on how to keep the songkok in good shape, Ismail said if left in the car it should be kept inside a box, otherwise, the heat would cause the velvet colour to fade.
“Use a fine brush to remove dust from the songkok and, most importantly, don’t touch the songkok while eating or after eating. If food remnants get stuck to the songkok, it will attract ants and the songkok will end up with ‘eroded’ patches on the velvet,” he said.
Teacher Mohd Taufik Mohd Taib, 55, who was busy shopping for a new songkok at Ismail’s shop, said he has been coming to the shop every Ramadan for the last 10 years.
“I don’t mind travelling all the way from Temerloh where I live because I’ve tried using songkok that I bought from other outlets but they were not as comfortable as the Gundal songkok,” he said.
Civil servant Mohd Alwi Azri, 33, said he heard of the Gundal songkok from his colleagues who were full of praises for its fine workmanship and comfort.
“Although it is more expensive than the ones sold at supermarkets, it is long lasting,” he added. – BERNAMA