Monday, January 12, 2015

Preparing Workshop Bonang Batak / Batak yarn

A few days ago I was in Pangururan discussing ways of reviving Batak textiles with Regency officials. We talked in the restaurant. When we were finished negotiations, the woman who had accompanied the government team (Ibu Tetti Naibaho) shyly mentioned that she had met team Pulang Kampung at the Lake Toba Festival in 2013. She had been inspired by that meeting to plant some cottonseeds. The plants had grown and now she had some cotton that could be spun. There were weavers in her village, she said, and they were also willing to learn to spin.

Kapas Palembang in Ompu Erwin's village
At first I listened with half an ear, but suddenly the meaning of her words stopped me in my tracks. Spinning cotton? When we filmed Rangsa ni Tonun, cotton was so difficult to come by that we had to rely on the grace of Threads of Life in Bali to obtain some precious bolls from Flores or Timor. We only found one small bush of kapas Palembang in Sianjur Mulamula.

Cotton spinning and cotton cultivation both ceased in the Batak area almost a century ago.

1925. I grabbed this picture from Facebook where it had no reference.
However, it is clearly Toba Batak.
Where there is cotton, there is opportunity.  Since Nashir and I met Ompu Erwin in 2013 in the context of filming Rangsa ni Tonun, we have stressed again and again the need to run a workshop. We have lived in dread that we would lose Ompu Erwin before she had a chance to share what she knows and spinning in the Batak area would be extinct forever. Again and again we have advised interested people, including government people, that we need to make a workshop with Ompu Erwin so that she can pass on her unique skill. Until now, we have had neither the means nor the opportunity and support to make this workshop happen.

Ompu Erwin spinning
Just this past week, I have been writing a series of proposals for reviving the Batak weaving arts. A spinning workshop was one of the proposals. Would it be selected? Would it be of interest? Would the idea be supported? Two years have passed. How long will it take before we find support for this workshop? And now, suddenly, there is cotton.

The other thing that Ibu Tetti said that stopped me in my tracks was that there are weavers in her village who want to learn how to spin! I recognize that this news is as remarkable as her news about the cotton. I have always said that ‘semangat’, the energy that comes from enthusiasm, is our most important asset. Without it we can do nothing. With it, even when no other resources are available, we can move mountains and change the world. So far, during this journey, I have only met weavers who express fatigue. They haven’t wanted to do anything extra. Finishing their textile on time for the next market is all they can or want to manage. It has been depressing to be the recipient of this kind of news, over and over again. But suddenly, this week, I had Ibu Tetti in front of me with her irrepressible shy smile and bright eyes, softly sharing her two pieces of earthshaking news.

First we will have to make rolags, or luli pinale, as Ompu Erwin
is doing here
Until today I haven’t known how to put one and one together, but it happened by itself during a conversation at lunch. Nashir and I have been invited to make a presentation at Nommensen University on 17 January. After that, I have almost two weeks free before the next presentation. Why not JUST DO IT? Why wait for the government to provide the resources? Why not just run the show? Bring our spinning wheel, gin and bow from Medan. Invite Team Pulang Kampung. Adjust the wheel in Ompu Erwin’s village with her expert advice. If Jesral Tambunan can manage it, perhaps make new instruments so the weavers can continue to spin when we are gone. Then get the weavers and Ompu Erwin together in Sianjur Mulamula and watch what happens. 

Ibu Tetti was keen to go ahead with the plans. Nashir and Paul took a harrowing night ride on Paul’s motorcycle up to Sianjur Mulamula to see if Ompu Erwin was willing. They got a flat tire in an isolated stretch and had to spend the night in a village, but in the morning they were able to contact Ompu Erwin. She was also keen! In my concern about Nashir and Paul’s failure to return on that dark and rainy night, I had contacted Ombang Siboro, head of tourism in the Regency of Samosir. The silver lining in that cloud was that it gave me the opportunity to tell him of our plans. Hurrah, he has generously given us the guest house at the hotsprings for the duration of the workshop! And Tetti will see if the goverment can provide transportation for us.

And when it comes to financial support, another miracle occurred. Someone on Facebook whom I have never met suggested, in her enthusiasm, that I set up a weaving school. Feeling weighed down by the implications of such a suggestion, I decided to ask if she would help me bear the financial weight of this workshop. She was immediately willing and found two friends who were also immediately willing to chip in a little bit. So far we have the transportation of Team Pulang Kampung almost completely covered and also the fee that we would like to pay to Ompu Erwin to thank her for being our guru. Thank you, Tiarma Hutagalung! Lasma has agreed to be our accountant.

Excitement is building. Manguji Nababan, head of the Centre of Documentation and Research of Batak Culture at Nommensen University, may be able to attend, as may Nelson Lumbantoruan, head of Tourism in Dolok Sanggul. Ombang Siboro will try to attend. Ishak Aritonang and Arjuna Bakkara, two bright young Bataks interested in setting up a workshop for blue dyes in Muara in the future will try to attend. So will the Camat in Muara. Franmi Karto, son of the Karo goldsmith may be able to help Nashir with the video documentation using new equipment borrowed from Suarasama. It is turning into a Festival of Yarn, not just a workshop! Such a pleasure to work with this kind of enthusiasm. (What a difference compared to working with half-hearted students at university.)

If we collect enough financial support, we may be able to pay for yarn to be spun for us in the future. Perhaps, one day, we will be able to make an ulos with handspun yarn! Whoa! Whoa! No sense counting chickens just yet. It is special enough to re-kindle Batak spinning in Sianjur Mulamula, the place of origin of the Batak people, the place where the great and original Batak spinner, Si Boru Deak Parujar, came down to earth on her yarn and created the world. SiAnjur Mulamula, the place of origins. May it be the place of re-origins.


  1. This is an amazing story. Thank you for this. Look forward to hearing/learning more.

  2. Very, very exciting! Best wishes for every success to all concerned! Pamela