Thursday, December 23, 2010

Reviving a Text

Rangsa ni Tonun is a Batak text that I am using as the basis for the film about Batak weaving techniques to premiere at the Fiber Face 3 event in Yogyakarta in February 2011 (see blog The Merapi has Spoken).

It is an oral text, but it was committed to paper, presumably at the behest of Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen (6 February 1834 – 23 May 1918), the German Lutheran missionary who is renowned and revered for establishing the Christian church in the Batak world. Such texts were spoken by datu or traditional knowledge specialists. I found the text in Nommensen’s archive.

Since Nommensen’s day, the works of the datu are considered by the Christianized Batak to be just a little too close to the spirit world that they have been taught is the work of the devil. The art of the datu (hadatuon) went into sharp decline, therefore, during the twentieth century. During my travels, I did not meet a single Batak who knew what “rangsa” means.

Looking up the word in my Batak dictionaries, reading other rangsa texts, finding descriptions of rangsa texts in early publications, and speaking about the word with the great Batak poet, Sitor Situmorang, I have been reminded of the power of words in Batak indigenous thought. The datu was a magician with words. He manipulated them in many ways to influence the spirit world, all the while amazing his audiences, often striking fear in their hearts. His use of words (just part of his large arsenal of trappings) set him apart from “the average person”. Rangsa ni tonun is perhaps best translated as “description of weaving”. However, the word ‘description’ does not do the Batak word 'rangsa' justice. The Batak word is special because it captures the magical, spiritual essence of something, the sacred power of origins. Origins, in indigenous Batak thought, are a font of power. All acts of weaving are descendants, as it were, of the original act, performed by a daughter of the gods as described in this 'description of weaving'.

Before setting off to 'translate' the text using filmic images, I made photocopies of my typed-out version. It is not that I wished to undo the work of Nommensen, but I am a great admirer of indigenous Batak literature, and I feel that the Batak who grow up in the villages today miss out when they do not learn about the rich tradition that is their birthright. It seemed only fair to me to hand out copies of the text to the villagers who clustered around as we worked on the film so that they could see what we were up to. I was thankful that I could tell them that I had found the text in Nommensen’s archives; it gave it a rather ironic stamp of approval.

In Tarutung, I visited the village of Sait ni Huta in the hopes of finding descendants of Guru Sinangga ni Aji, the datu who wrote out the text for Nommensen. I was unsuccessful and the text attracted little interest. It was immediately apparent that the language was difficult for most people, even if Batak (and not Indonesian) was the language in which they operated most easily.

Nobody remembered Guru Sinangga ni Aji
in his village of Sait ni Huta (foto MJA Nashir)

Statue of LI Nommensen in Sait ni Huta (foto MJA Nashir)

  Not altogether unexpected for me was that weavers understood the text better than most other people. This is because of the many weaving terms in the text. One would learn these words only if one had some close association with weaving, e.g. if one’s mother or wife was a weaver or if one wove oneself. Young people had little or no interest in the text while elderly people enjoyed the words that they had not heard for a long time. Many of them pored over the text with rapt attention.

An elderly woman (Ny Pakpahan) in Muara read the text with rapt attention

Her neighbour looked on

The neighbour was pleased when I gave her a copy, too
 We needed a narrator, someone who would read the text for the camera, and it made sense to look for a male narrator because literature, in indigenous Batak life, is part of the male world and the writer of the text was also male. Amongst ritual specialists and those familiar with Batak opera, we did not find a suitable candidate because they stumbled over the words and could not orient themselves to their meaning. We met with success in the village, however. Ompu Okta doli was the husband of one of the weavers who did demonstrations for Nashir’s camera. He was a natural. He remembered the technical words from his youth and from his association with his wife. When I asked him where he learned to orate so well, he revealed that he was often called upon to use the microphone as the Master of Ceremonies at rituals and that he also frequently read in church. He was immediately so taken by the text that he worked on it enthusiastically on his own, adding comma’s, developing cadence, and even catching errors in the transcription. He was a diamond in the rough.

Ompu Okta doli studied the text carefully before he read it in front of the camera

Ompu Okta, husband and wife, "stars" of our film.
(foto MJA Nashir)
When we returned to his village some weeks later, we found the villagers still citing words and phrases from the text with much merriment. The text had begun to live for them.
I can hardly wait to see how people react to the finished film.

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