Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pondering the Pipisan OR... The Ponderous Pipisan

The story of the pipisan (cotton gin) is at least as old as the one about the sorha (spinning wheel). My search has always been for both of them simultaneously. Perhaps the spinning wheel has claimed more attention because people at least know what it is! The pipisan has receded so far from memory because essentially nobody works anymore with cotton appropriate for spinning and all of the processes involved in cleaning the cotton are unknown. People don’t even know that there are pits in the cotton and that they are awfully hard to remove. Furthermore, it does not appear that the pipisan was used everywhere. Ompu Okta was under the impression that the pits were always removed by hand.

Unfortunately, I could find only one archival photograph depicting the use of the pipisan and this single photograph was very unclear, so we couldn’t even make do with that for the film. We had no choice but to try to re-make the instrument. All of my attempts to import one from Bali were to no avail.

Restuala, with his eternal goodwill, agreed to try to help us in Muara while I was in The Netherlands. When we arrived in Muara, little progress had been made, however. This was primarily because nobody had a clear idea of the function of the machine – and also because my diagram was only two dimensional. It is that gearing mechanism, with two pieces of wood essentially ‘twining’ around each other, that is presenting the problem. It takes considerable skill to make this.

Carpenter in Muara struggling with the pipisan without the
right wood or tools or ever having seen a pipisan or perhaps
even knowing what the pits in cotton are like.
When I got to Muara this time around, I tried to explain it to the craftsman. He could understand the principles and he did his best to execute the gearing mechanism, and despite having a sleepless night thinking about it, he was not able to come up with the right formula in time. Nor did he have appropriate wood and tools to work with.

For this reason, I decided once again to trust to fate and to let go of this experiment in Muara. On the day of our departure, my mind was buzzing with what I should do next. Go to Tarutung and look for a woodworker? Afterall, our Guru Sinangga ni Adji, the writer of Rangsa ni Tonun, was from Tarutung and there might be some vague memory of the device there. The major inhibiting problem was that there simply was not enough time left. Even if I could get to Tarutung and even if I could locate a skilled craftsman, both of which would take days, he would need more time than we had available to accomplish the task. What then? The only other option that I could think of was to return to Ompu Okta and see what magical things might happen--- like finding a pipisan on a neighbour’s balcony the way we found the sorha!

En route to Ompu Okta, we had been invited to spend the night with Sebastian Hutabarat, my dear nephew in Balige doing wonderful experimental things with eco-lifestyle and art. He wanted to talk to Nashir about film and it is always a pleasure to talk with Sebastian so we were more than happy to accept his invitation. Sebastian also took the opportunity to show us what he had been doing with salvaged wood to build his future café.

When we left, I sat in the back of the vehicle and once again pondered the pipisan. I had seen wood at Sebastian’s place that struck me as perfect for the rollers….hey! Sebastian also had some excellent wood workers! Eureka! I phoned him right back to ask if we could prevail again on his goodwill and his woodworking skills! Dear Sebastian was immediately ready and willing. Come back again in the evening, he said.

And so we did, bringing the spinning wheel with us and computer images. He called over one of his new employees, a young man named Alfred Manurung who has just graduated from art school. Alfred was quiet, thoughtful, up for the challenge, and had time to work on it. I gave him until the end of the week.

Yesterday morning early, I visited Sebastian Hutabarat’s house to view the progress on the pipisan. Alfred had done a good, solid job. It wasn’t yet finished, though. There were some confusions and these related to my two-dimensional diagram. I did my best to explain the instrument and said I would be back at the end of the day.

Alfred is a clever young man and a sound and innovative wood worker. The vision he had in his mind did not exactly overlap with my vision, however. His work was therefore innovative and not exactly what was intended, but the product is hopefully good enough for us to work with for the film. If Nashir films close-up, we may be able to get away with what Alfred has made and without the inauthenticities in his version of the pipisan being evident to the viewing audience. Unfortunately, on the very last day, after I left him yesterday morning, Alfred put the gearing mechanism between the vertical elements instead of outside them as had been the original plan. This means that cotton will get stuck in them and gum up the machine. It also means that we won’t even be able to film the rollers in their entirety. I was very regretful about this last-minute change. In addition, the gear mechanism that he made won’t squeak the way the original does, so we will have to develop another squeak for our sound recording. That should be possible. Alfred cleverly made a tray for catching pits. It was a misinterpretation of my drawing of the mechanism that puts pressure on the two rollers so that the pits can’t slip between them. Our pipisan also has a gap between the rollers because of the way he made the gear mechanism and this means that it will not do a good job of removing the pits. Oh well. I explained all of this to Alfred, and said that I hoped he would be able to finish the apparatus sometime in the future for us. I will do my best to find an example in Bali next month and ship it back to the Batak area. It would be wonderful to finally once again have a real Batak cotton gin / pipisan.

It has been aa special experience to see all the work, thought, and time that goes into understanding and making a new machine. How much innovative thought must have gone into creating the first one! The real one is a simple but clever device, much better, to date, than the ones we have been able to come up with, even though we understand the principle! I have also learned that the craft of woodworking has declined as much as the craft of weaving.
All of the materials laid out and ready to film the
removal of cotton pits using the pipisan.

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