In a previous blog (Muara, O Muara II) I expressed my joy at seeing a working sorha in the Batak area once again. We proudly stashed it in the back of our spacious vehicle and in the morning, when we left Sebastian Hutabarat’s home, we headed for her village. We decided that we should bring lunch to the village as a matter of courtesy and when we stopped I noticed that we were parked in front of an iron smith’s shop. Restuala and his carpenter had tried very hard to make the wheel as original as possible, using no nails or glue. And not knowing that the early Batak were skilled in metalworking, they even made the spindle from wood (and gave it a hook at the end, not knowing that it just came to a clean point). I had brought metal spindles from The Netherlands, but this had gone over like a lead balloon in Muara because the steel was shiny (they called it chrome). So in front of the iron smith’s shop, I asked if he could use a rusty iron staff of narrow diameter to make me a spindle. He was willing. He had no materials thin enough, so I agreed to one of wider diameter. As soon as the smith was finished, he started to polish the whole thing so that it gleamed and I caught him too late. So then he had to do it over again and not polish it. When we arrived at Ompu Okta's house, her first words were, “You’re late”.
Oh well. We proudly carried the little jewel of a spinning wheel into her house.
I pulled out the new spindles just as Ompu Okta doli was pulling out his own spindles! He, too, was prepared! And he told me that my new ones were much too large and clumsy. Neither of them was happy with the gizmo that the Muara carpenter had devised to hold the spindle because it was made of wood rather than sugar-palm fiber. They explained that a thin, strong, slippery sheath or lining of bamboo was inserted inside the sugar-palm fiber ring to make sure that the spindle could spin optimally. So we learned something new.
|The first thing that Ompu Okta did was replace the string that turns the wheel,
|The replacement of the string that turns on the wheel
led to the discovery of the flaws in the wheel.
When Nashir was done and tension was applied to the string connecting the wheel to the spindle, it seemed to work and we all heaved a sigh of relief. The woven pandan mat was fetched. Ompu Okta put on her film-clothes and we moved out into the village plain to commence filming. “This isn’t hapas Palembang” Ompu Okta said at that point. “No, it is cotton from Bali” we said. I was stricken with worry. This too? Ompu Okta was not pleased and said that she didn’t know if she would be able to spin it. She tried though, only to realize that the big wheel wouldn’t turn correctly. The kind of cotton that we had was turning out to be the least of our worries. The wheel seemed to turn fine in the opposite direction! As the wheel needed to turn for the filming to be successful, Nashir dismantled the whole thing, turned the wheel around and put it all back together again.
To no avail, however. And then it started to rain. So we packed everything up and brought it back to the house. In the meantime, the handle that Ompu Okta had been using to turn the wheel had broken. Now Pak Jerry, our chauffeur shifted into gear. By now, we were using nails and plastic string and searching the edges of the village square (unsuccessfully) for pieces of wood of the right shape and size.
Then Ompu Okta doli tried to improve the functioning of the wheel by using a different rope that wouldn’t slip around so much. After changing it all, he saw that it had worked better with the original, so he changed it back.
|Eventually the whole family was at work: the two Ompu Okta and their son
all did their best to get the wheel to work
Everybody kept his temper, told stories, tried not to get peeved (Nashir told me later, in a rare confession of negative emotion, that he had felt like kicking the thing into the next village) and tried to think creatively. At one point, my head cold and fatigue got the better of me down and I just had to lie down for a few minutes. The circumstances were not the best, but I do remember lying there on the back seat of the car thinking that despite everything, I was terribly privileged. Pak Jerry, Mas Nashir and the two Ompu Okta were all fully intent on making this bloody wheel work. All were fully dedicated to the film. All were creative and skilled and good-tempered. What a team! What amazing luck for me to be able to work with these people! I conked out for about 10 minutes and nobody missed me. They just worked on.
When I returned, Ompu Okta doli told us that one of the persons with whom he drank palm wine in the evenings also turned out to have a spinning wheel.
Let’s go get it, I said.
Don’t said Ompu Okta doli. It will cost too much.
I’ve already spent so much on this project, it would be silly to start to scrimp at this stage, I said.
But I noticed that the female Ompu Okta looked at the male Ompu Okta in a meaningful way. I didn’t know how to interpret the look. But they put their foot down. No, they said, it would be of no use to fetch that wheel. So we didn’t. I did wonder, at that point, what I would have been willing to spend on it….
Now Nashir was using all of his film-director’s creativity. He suggested that Ompu Okta hold the luli pinale (the cotton to be spun – prepared for us in November in Sianjur Mulamula) in her hand, and behind it the already-spun yarn. She would then have the appearance of spinning when she stretched out her hand but she would only be unraveling the already spun yarn. Alas, after many valiant attempts, this didn’t work because the un-spun cotton got all scrambled up with the spun cotton. And each time the spun cotton got wound up on the spindle, we had to unwind it again, wind it into a ball, and start over again. The day was beginning to wane.
|Filming didn't go smoothly. Nashir spent more time on the technology
of the wheel than of the camera
The male Ompu Okta decided to do something about the wobbly way the spindle was turning, so he sacrificed a flip-flop sandal to attach to the end of the spindle as a kind of stopper. Foam rubber was a far cry from the original materials that Restuala had been so proud of, but we were punchy by this time and ready to try anything.
“I think that I could turn this film into an advertisement for machine-spun yarn,” said Mas Nashir. “Oh, for T.D. Pardede!” (the Batak from Balige who had set up the first spinning factory in Medan)
The female Ompu Okta had her newly-born grandson in her arms while she was waiting for each new reparation of the sorha and she told me stories about the last time she had spun. It had been when her children were still young and it was for an elderly woman in the village who still made her own cotton blankets. The woman was only a minimally skilled weaver and didn’t know how to make supplementary patterning. Ompu Okta and her children all assisted with the spinning. It was lovely to do, she said. If (because?) the wheel turned correctly.
Because of the rain it was impossible to film in the village plain. We fetched a pandan mat that we had just purchased in Porsea and we tacked it up to hide the cement of the wall of the modern bungalow. Now the male Ompu Okta, still working on the big wheel, tried to keep it from shifting on its axle so that it would turn more smoothly. By the time we were ready to proceed again, the rain had stopped, so we packed everything up again and shifted back to the village plain.
Nashir and Ompu Okta worked together. He taught her how to fake the spinning process. Finally he claimed that he had a few frames of useable film that he was going to try to splice together into a series of images that would delude the audience into thinking that Ompu Okta, on this fateful day, using this gem of an “original” Batak spinning wheel, had managed to spin some yarn.
But it is a lie. We didn’t spin on that fateful day. And Nashir told me that when he had time to improve the film, after the exhibition Fiber Face 3 in Yogyakarta, he wanted to go to Toraja where his dear Nenek Panggao lives and where spinning gives meaning to her life. He would then dress her up in Batak clothes and ….would I go with him?
On that fateful grey, rainy, frustrating day, we learned an awful lot about Batak spinning wheels and it kindled in us respect for the Batak makers of functional spinning wheels because they knew how to balance all of the parts and make them work as a whole with the correct size and shape of wheel, the correct tension of yarn, the correct kind of spindle, and all of this making use of the materials available close at hand: the right kinds of wood, the right kinds of bamboo, the right kind of yarn, rattan and rope, And then there was the knowledge of physics…. Some truly great minds were at work in the “primitive” historical past. And nature and knowledge of it were so much richer then….
Another time we will continue to work on this. Restuala wants to have some functioning wheels in Muara for his weaving centre. A tall order, as it turns out!