Saturday, January 10, 2015

Batak Texts go Back to the Villages

I have said it before: my Pulang Kampung projects have been the most inspiring that I have ever undertaken and this is because of the reactions of the Batak people. There is nothing more exciting, more moving, than to restore elements of a people’s culture to them and to be privy to their reactions. All of these Pulang Kampung projects have been driven by a longing to return something of value to these people who have given me so much of value to me and other researchers through the years. As satisfying as each project has been, I have felt disappointment because I couldn’t do more. It has all just been a drop in the bucket compared to what is truly needed to reinvigorate this culture that has not been advantaged by recent history. Hence my bigger dream: to repatriate Batak texts.

The Batak texts were written by intellectuals: shamanic figures, medicine men, orators, astronomers and astrologers, poets, writers, philosophers, specialists in ritual, augury and the spiritual world. When especially this facet of Batak culture was condemned by the church (out of concern that this information came from the devil), the intellectual core of the Batak world was dealt a fatal blow. My film, Rangsa ni Tonun, was a creative project that demonstrates the power of one small text. It has inspired many, invigorated new conversations, generated new insights. It has been a cultural spark. How much more could be done if others had greater access to the Batak written heritage! It has become my dream that these texts be returned to the Batak people.

Reintroduction of the texts will not be easy. The number of people who are able to read these texts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even in digital form, who will devote the effort needed to understand them, with their esoteric language and illustrations? And yet one must begin somewhere. Distributing my book, Legacy in Cloth, was like tossing seeds in the ground; if just one seed were to take root it would all be worth the time, effort and expense. One seed can grow and multiply. Afterall, Batak culture emerged, in all likelihood, from a small handful of people. But that one small initial seed is critical.

I have peddled my idea of the repatriation of the texts (nota bene in digital form) to those in charge in the library of Leiden University and the new National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden. Due to recent institutional mergers, these two institutions now hold the bulk of Batak textiles outside Indonesia. The idea has met with an enthusiastic response. What could be more gratifying than to restore to a people their intellectual corpus! My current journey to Indonesia meant that our inaugural project meeting date, very regrettably, had to be postponed, but I was given the green light to share our intentions.

It is as though the project is “in the air”. Angry Batak youth on Facebook have expressed their frustration that this body of intellectual work is not accessible to the Batak people. The textual privation is mentioned now and again in passing. Just two days ago an elected representative in the Samosir Regency noted the importance of reclaiming Batak texts. He said it during a formal meeting called to explore options for remembering the great Batak poet, Sitor Situmorang. It was a little off topic but somewhat apt as well. If Sitor had lived two hundred years ago, even just a century ago, I am sure he would have been one of those Batak gurus. If he was still alive, he would have supported this project whole-heartedly. I was grateful to have been given the license to talk about this new Pulang Kampung project openly. The writings will be coming back, I said, albeit in digital form. Let’s work together to make it happen in the best possible way. Those attending the meeting were pleased and surprised.

I personally don’t regret that they will be coming back in digital form. It is a more democratic form. Nobody will be able to horde the stash and restrict access (this is one of the most frustrating things about trying to do research in Indonesian museums, libraries, galleries and archives). The possession of knowledge in Batak culture has never been a democratic thing. Men new to the written arts had to pay dearly and long-term to those in the know to be able to gain access to the esoteric knowledge. The restriction of access meant that the cache of knowledge remained special, sacrosanct, a little frightening, commanding respect. I am convinced, however, that this knowledge must return precisely to the villages that are dying out, emptying out as they lose their resources and as the youth go to live in the cities. Let there be something in the villages on which the inhabitants can build an intellectual life! The villagers have been disadvantaged too long and too much by power being in the hands of those living outside their domain.

A few days ago I met with Jesral Tambunan in his home. (He is a young Batak wood carver, honourary member of the last Pulang Kampung project.) He showed us drawings that he had come across in the context of woodcarvings. What did they mean? Of course the written Batak intellectual tradition also has strong connections with the carved tradition. I longed to have a computer at hand and to be able to download some of the indigenous Batak texts that would give Jesral the answers that he is looking for and that would send him down new rich pathways of discovery. Instead, I could only promise that when I am back in Holland, I will (labouriously) look up some books, make scans, send them to him. And then we would both still have to count ourselves lucky! How much better it will be in the future when access is easier.

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