|Certificate of registry from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
|Invitation and line-up of events
from FB page of Enni Martalena
I am here in The Netherlands and I can do little more than follow the proceedings on Facebook. At one point I made a comment that the ulos tradition could also be celebrated as tangible heritage (budaya benda). It is difficult to determine from Facebook reports where the ‘intangible’ part came into the celebrations (or even if it was the intention), but my remark about Batak tangible heritage was meant to make people think about the difference between intangible and tangible ulos.
As far as I have been able to determine, the usual things were being cited about ulos: it is a sign of Batak identity, a carrier of blessings from wife-givers to wife-takers, and a vehicle of prayer because without it prayers are not able to reach the traditional Batak spirit world (not that anybody anymore will confess to believing in that traditional spirit world because it carries an anti-Christian stigma). Was that it, then? Was that the sum of the intangible heritage?
Intangible Heritage, according to UNESCO (no doubt the inspiration behind this event) includes not just physical items (the tangible) but “also encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally.”…” As a driving force of culturaldiversity, living heritage is very fragile.”
To my mind, there was a sad and deep irony in the celebration of the intangible heritage of ulos because precisely that component has gone extinct. I still wonder if the ‘intangible’ part of ulos was broached in any way on the 17th of October? My concern is that very little is known anymore about the ‘intangible’ part of ulos. If the organizers and those present wanted to celebrate this facet of ulos, would the day not have looked different? I mean this in a literal sense. It looks like the day was based on the status quo of tangible ulos in current times.
From the pictures I saw, most of the textiles worn were of the sadum design type. The sadum is not originally a Toba Batak ulos; it originates from Angkola. It made inroads slowly during the 20th century, first into Silindung, then the rest of Toba, then Simalungun and Karo. Initially it fell outside adat but only towards the end of the last century gradually became accepted, or at least no longer banned, as an adat textile. Now it has become the dominant ulos design eclipsing almost all others (with the occasional exception of the Ragi Hotang, Ragidup and Pinunsaan and the suji Batak). How ironic that people were using precisely this Angkola textile design to celebrate the intangible weaving heritage of the Toba! An unwitting symptom of the extinction of the intangible heritage of the Toba, and not a way to encourage its perpetuation.
Second, I saw that the majority of the ulos being worn had been woven on ATBM (semi-mechanized) looms and not the traditional backstrap loom. They were embellished with synthetic yarns that have nothing to do with the local textile heritage, but are symptomatic of relatively recent external influence. In my experience, intangible ulos heritage is expressed primarily in the traditional way Batak textiles are made on backstrap looms and not just in how they are used in ritual. Rules of design and technique (intangible ulos) result in a physical outing (tangible ulos) of traditional Batak thinking or worldview (intangible heritage). Precisely this has disappeared in ulos production for the market. There are several reasons for this. One is that the Church has discouraged the traditional Batak worldview. Another is that for a long time now, the ulos market has not supported the best work that a weaver can make at the slow tempo required to produce high quality. Now weavers just produce quickly, quickly. They have to compete with the faster production on semi-mechanical looms, and that means that they will always fail. They will always have a sense of being deficient because their work is slower and their income less than that of the factory owner and workers. It has also got to the stage that the quality of their work is also lower.
|The longest ulos from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
|Photo from FB
I wonder if ulos can be revived. It will be an anachronism if it is revived, a reference to the world of the Batak of the past. I believe there is value in such revival because I notice that many Batak people are hungry and thirsty for knowledge about their heritage. It will yield a fuller understanding of their identity. The days of the past will never return, but a weaving tradition can still be passed down in a treasured, artistic, limited form. Does it still exist anywhere in its intangible form? Because revival of the ulos tradition depends on the accessibility of this intangible knowledge. Intangible knowledge is the inspirational source of the tangible cloth. Did intangible Batak heritage benefit from National Ulos Day? Did backstrap weavers benefit?
I would like to issue a challenge to the organizers of National Batak Ulos Day. I challenge you to harness the energy and the enthusiasm of this ulos celebration in future years to benefit Batak weavers. I challenge you to investigate the ‘intangible character’ of Batak ulos (beyond the function of the cloth) and then make it known for posterity; celebrate it for your children and grandchildren so that future generations may also have access to it. What point is there in celebrating intangible heritage if that heritage is extinct? What exactly was being celebrated on 17 October? Was it perhaps just Batak ethnic pride?