Unlike Japanese or Chinese calligraphy, the ancient Philippine script was derived from Brahmic scripts of India, which is why it has a distinctively different look from Chinese characters or Japanese Kanji. After the Philippines adopted Western characters, Baybayin was faced with certain extinction, its use whittled down to only one remote village tribe using the script at its most critical point.
However, there has been renewed interest in the script, propagated by advocates in recent years, which has instilled in some Filipinos a new sense of appreciation for the ancient writing system. Recognizing not only the script’s aesthetic appeal but also its cultural significance, educators and artists, like Kabuay, have been promoting Baybayin in their works as of late.
Kabuay, for his part, first discovered the ancient script in 1992 through old pamphlets about the nation’s history.
Born in the Philippines with roots in Pangasinan and Manila, Kabuay was just a year old when his family emigrated to the United States in the 1970s to escape martial law imposed by late Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
He grew up speaking Tagalog at home, while also retaining a taste for everything Filipino, including eating adobo and practicing Filipino traditions such as “mano po” and others, according to Inquirer.
In his college years, he went back to the Philippines and spent most of his time studying and observing the local culture. His research would eventually take his interests to the ancient traditions of pre-Hispanic Philippines.
It also led him to his discovery of the ancient script, which he has since committed himself to building his life and career in the years that followed. Through the years, he featured the script in his artwork, performances and tattoos. He even wrote a book about it in 2009.
Understanding the need to make it appealing to younger generations, he decided to blend the ancient script with contemporary aesthetics. He has since been creating art and making performances about Baybayin with a modern twist.
He even developed a modern performance style of Baybayin called Tulang Kalis (Poetry of Sword), introducing it as Filipino Calligraphy with a series of live demonstrations and lectures at the Asian Art Museum in October 2012.
“By blending the ancient script with contemporary aesthetics, my work bridges time and space, as well as challenges the necessity of economic value to prove our cultural heritage worthy of preserving,” Kabuay wrote on his website.
Kabuay, who has spoken at numerous schools and institutions such as Stanford University, UC Berkeley, SF State University, University of the Philippines, National Anthropology Museum of Madrid, and Tokyo University, is now recognized as the leading authority for the propagation of the ancient Philippine script. He has since launched his own company around the script specializing custom art, translations, books and apparel to enable him to continue his goal of a wider appreciation of the almost-forgotten Filipino script.
In creating his designs, Kabuay explained why he has been using “PreFilipino”, a term he coined in 2011 to replace “pre-colonial” in pertaining to the script: “I wanted something deeper so I scrapped all the designs I knew that would sell and strictly used Baybayin and a PreFilipino lens when designing. While the design is important to me as an artist, the message is more important. It’s my intention that people look at the apparel and dig deeper into their own history to live in the present and seed the future. Each piece has a story about the duality of the Pilipino diaspora that may not always have answers but will definitely raise questions.”
Some of the advocates for the script, however, have lamented that one of the biggest challenges of promoting and teaching Baybayin is the general lack of interest among Filipinos.
With the National Script Act of 2011, a bill mandating all schools to teach Baybayin to their students, stuck in legislative limbo, Baybayin’s future status relies heavily on the efforts by Kabuay and others like him. Undeterred, they have high hopes that Filipinos will eventually understand, embrace and take pride in Baybayin, which represents the country’s very rich culture.