Monday, November 22, 2010

The sky, the earth and the lake

This afternoon (Nov. 22), we filmed Mas Nashir’s vision of soft, fluffy cotton dropping out of the sky as though the clouds themselves were dropping down into the lens. The Rangsa ni Tonun text that we are filming is all about the connection between Batak weaving and its powerful spiritual origins. Nashir has been excited about this idea for months. I don’t think that he can see a cloud without thinking of cotton. Luckily, the day offered us lovely, white clouds piled dreamily atop each other.

We found a spot north of Tuktuk where there was quite a rapid decline down to the lake. Sprawling on the ground, Nashir oriented his lens so that the clouds were swirling close to the earth and the lake. It was the job of Mas Jerry, our chauffeur, and myself to toss wisps of cotton into the air, to be carried on the breeze into the view of the camera. We had to rehearse because the breeze was not constant and so that we didn’t get our hands in the picture. We tried all kinds of things, but eventually stood just below the crest of the hill and as one of us tossed out the cotton bits, the other fanned them upwards with a piece of cardboard. By the time we were done, the grass was littered with clouds, and our noses and mouths and eyes were filled with them as well. Through the camera, it looked like the clouds were scudding right into the lens.

didn’t accomplish much today by way of finding our pipisan, bosur, sorha and iraniran, but nature was kind to us because the skies were just right, the lake was gorgeous and the wind was light and he day was crowned by a rainbow that Mas Nashir compared to our missing bosur (it is bow-shaped). It arched over Samosir Island etched luminously against an iron-grey sky. They say that a pot of gold is buried at the end of the rainbow. This rainbow cascaded with intense light right to the place where the sky, the earth and the lake met.

The man and the museum (21 and 22 November)

Near the northern tip of Samosir Island there is a museum. Not the Simanindo Museum, but the Gok Asih museum. We spied it from the road, a big sign saying MUSEUM in front of a Batak house. We didn't want to leave a single rock unturned. It seemed that what we were looking for (the pipisan, busur, sorha and iraniran) were simply too old, and of no use for far too long, to be likely to be found in some shed or still stored in someone’s attic. Our chances seemed greater if we looked to a museum for help or some facility that consciously wanted to preserve old Batak objects.

The museum did not seem well cared-for. The path beyond the house was overgrown with the weeds testament to the fact that few people had walked on it recently. It was even difficult to know exactly where one should walk.  Suddenly, I caught sight of a man washing his face in a full rain barrel and I called out to him. His reaction was warm and enthusiastic; he came straight over to me and as we walked over to the Batak house cum-museum together, he asked me if I had lived in Balige and been associated with the hospital. I said that I had lived in the nurses’ residence some 30 years ago but that I had had nothing to do with the hospital. And then he amazed me by recounting our meetings 30 years ago. He had provided the entertainment at Carolina Hotel (on Samosir Island) when I had stayed there, and he had joined us when I was with the man, Sidauruk, whose vision had created the Simanindo Museum. He explained that he had brought his Batak house (to serve as a museum) down from the higher land of Samosir (by deconstructing it and then reconstructing it here) and had filled it with objects that he had found and purchased here and there.

By the time we had climbed the steps into the house, he was tearfully explaining that because tourism had slowed down dramatically and he had no land, he had been forced to sell his collection bit by bit. The objects that we were looking for were no longer there. The spinning wheel (sorha), he recalled, had been purchased by an Italian museum but he didn’t know in which city. He could get a job as a driver in the city, he pointed out, but then he would have to leave the house and it would fall into decay. His sad fate seemed to me to tell the quintessential story of the decline of culture in the Batak area. Even the best of intentions are fruitless in the face of economic conditions that force one to destroy even one’s own culture to stay alive. I could understand his emotion and wished that there could be some way to help him. It seemed so utterly tragic and the tragedy was so much greater than what was happening with this man’s life and possessions. It was the story of his culture.

After reviewing what was left of his museum collection, I told him about our textile project. He was convinced that he would be able to find the missing instruments so that we could get on with things. One would have to search in the hills, he said, far away from where the tourists had purchased everything of value. I gave him some money to compensate him for his efforts and he promised he would call later that evening. He did not, but he called this morning and said that he had had success and that we could meet to see the objects at 2 p.m.. The owner was working in the fields until 4 p.m. but we could take the longish journey and meet them there.

When we finally managed to reconnoiter, it turned out that the owners of the instruments were in Jakarta and he had sought an alternative source for the objects. The people whose help he had marshalled were bringing us right back to the museum in Tomok where we had had our first disappointment upon arrival in Samosir two days earlier. Once again, there had been a confusion between weaving equipment and yarn-making equipment. Obviously, few people anymore know what yarn-making involves, let alone the instruments needed. We had no more time to search further and as we turned our vehicle around and headed towards the ferry from the island to the mainland, I saw the very sad face of our one-hopeful helper and host. The regular wall (the disappearance of culture) that we had stumbled up against again and again on this journey had been a painful experience for him. I know that he really had wanted to help me. I had paid him well, in advance, and he had let me down. I could not help but think that given the painful circumstances surrounding his museum, it was a misfortune that he should not have had to endure on top of everything else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Origins and Endings (20 – 21 November)

Another golden day. It started out with that hopeless feeling that throws one back onto one’s intuition and grim trust that things will go well. Sometimes one must sail without a compass. One shrugs one’s shoulders. One sets out with a brave smile and leaves logic and fear behind. One simply sets out on blind trust. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It was fairly late in the day to “just set out”. 2 pm and we still hadn’t found any of the yarn-making equipment that we were looking for to demonstrate the ancient textile techniques that haven’t been practiced in many places for more than a century. We were getting no luck. There were so many people who said that they had the equipment, but they were people who didn’t know the difference between weaving and yarn-making and we were led again and again to looms rather than spinning wheels. Museums didn’t have it in their collections or their collections were inaccessible. Some remembered having had the equipment, but when they searched for it, they came up empty-handed. Some had burned it as firewood because it no longer had any use. We could have found the items if we had been looking 30 years ago. That was when Ompu Sihol had showed me her equipment. And I remember that the spinning wheels were hard to come by even then. We need a pipisan to squeeze the pits out of the cotton, a busur to fluff it, a sorha to spin the fibres, and an iraniran to wrap the spun yarn.

Where to go next? What to do? Where to turn? Like looking for a needle in a haystack. Every house that we pass as we drive down the Samosir roads may have a piece of the equipment stored there somewhere. How many have we passed without knowing it? Or have we reached the stage when there really is not a single one left in the Batak area?

And now we were heading for Sianjur Mulamula, the village, as its name says, where the Batak people originate. Si Boru Deak Parujar, the goddess of weaving, the Earth Mother, came down there from the upper world on her spun yarn. This was her village on the edge of Pusuk Buhit, navel mountain. If I could name a place where I would most like to find this equipment and see it demonstrated, it would be Sianjur Mulamula, the village of origins. It was late to head in that direction and it was a long shot. I didn’t know anybody there, but I had a longing to go there again (especially since I didn’t go there in June) . I have only been there twice, very briefly, before.  So we tossed caution to the wind and simply set out. Pak Jerry, thankfully, was, as always, up for the adventure.

Jerry and Nashir and I pretending to be relaxed, but we were sitting
on the edge of a precipice. Nashir used the self-timer on the camera.

Limbong was the first village where we stopped. We pulled up beside an enormous mausoleum being constructed by a ragged crew. I called out in Batak to one of the workers and he came over to talk with us.  He had a beautiful face and was friendly, but he tried to discourage us. Our search would be fruitless, he said. The ancient houses had been renovated and in the process they had been cleaned out. Besides, most things had been sold in the 1980s. I couldn’t tell if he was being realistic or a good gate-keeper. In any case, we could not afford to be discouraged, so we pressed on, back to the main road. At Sianjur Mulamula, I saw a road leading to the right and asked Pak Jerry to back up and turn into it. It took us to another village.

The area is spectacular: rocks and boulders strewn everywhere, or nicely arranged into formidable walls. Many traditional-looking villages with ancient Batak houses are made of pillars and planks so huge that one is left gasping at the knowledge that the forests of old-growth trees that once grew here must have  been spectacular giants. The villages are now modest brown blotches nestled against the sides of the mountains. The open stretches are desolately beautiful, or deliciously fertile patchworks generously supplied with water from laughing, gurgling streams originating in the hills. This area even feels more ancient than any other area in Batak country. The magical origins are almost tangible.

In that next village, we were greeted by a man who seemed unperturbed by our visit and quite open to whatever our plans might be. I always worry about disturbing the peace and privacy of the inhabitants of a village knowing that in the past a visitor was required to request permission from the village leader in order to enter legitimately. I put my question about yarn-making equipment to this easy-going man and he pointed to an elderly woman who had difficulties straightening her back and walked bent over. Later, I would learn that she was Ompu Sabar, the Grandmother of Sabar. She set off to look for her spinning wheel (sorha) and disappeared into a Batak house on stilts behind us. A while later, a younger man followed her with a bleached, wooden ladder, wider at the base and narrower at the top. Then we saw them on the veranda of the house where musical instruments used to be installed during Batak rituals. Eventually both re-emerged on the village plain. Once again, no luck.

Mas Nashir sitting at the corner of the house where
Ompu Sabar looked for her old spinning wheel.

Then she climbed the ancient, wooden staircase to the sopo (rice barn) where she used to weave. I clambered up after her and she showed me the equipment that she had used to weave the great sibolang textile, the central, majestic textile of the repertory in this region. Then she fetched her textiles to show me. Surely her sibolang was the most beautiful one I had ever seen. She had been a brilliant weaver. This was “boanonna”, the textile that she wished to be buried in.

A crowd of elderly women had gathered at the base of the sopo. When I explained our desire to document ancient weaving techniques, they all turned out to be former weavers who remembered the techniques and began to pantomime them, complete with sound-effects and outbursts of laughter and enjoyment. The mood was warming up and becoming festive. In this village of origins, we had found women who knew the first steps in the weaving process: the production of yarn. But they were also the last of their kind and represented the end of the tradition. All of them elderly grandmothers.

One of them, especially, was a ham and most detailed in her representation of the making of yarn. Suddenly she called across to the young woman living in the house on stilts next door, asking her to bring over the hapas Palembang. I couldn’t believe my ears? Hapas Palembang? Suddenly, in this village of origins, we had stumbled across the very origins of textile-making: the fibre. After we had gone to so much trouble to ship some cotton here from Bali? What was this Palembang cotton used for?  I braced myself against all reason to hear that they were still making yarn, but that was silly. They had one little shrub, less than 1 year old, and the little bit of cotton that it had managed to yield they were going to stuff into a cushion. But our elderly former weaver was able to show us how she extracted pits from it and roll it up to make bundles ready for weaving.

The film project had perhaps switched to Plan B. If it was no longer possible to demonstrate the old techniques because too much time had elapsed, it would be possible to show how it was remembered, in pantomime, by older women. The film would be about the last remaining memories of the last weavers.

The elderly weavers were uncomfortable using Indonesian and spoke a pure Batak. Many, though not all, were illiterate. Their way of speaking reminded me of Ompu Sihol, although their weaving vocabulary was closer to what is used in the northern regions of Lake Toba and not the Samosir Island region to the south. We passed the time in silly hilarity, not yet having time to let our discoveries sink in. But I still had hope that they might be inspired by our generosity and the good mood that prevailed and may begin to expand the search for the missing equipment. We exchanged mobile phone numbers with members of the younger generation in the village.

The next day it occurred to me that, given the memory of one weaver and the presence of her cotton, we could go back and at the very least film, in a detailed fashion, the making of luli pinale, the rolags or rolls prepared for spinning. The only equipment required was a plank and a couple of joints of narrow bamboo. So we went back to do this, carefully, in the sopo, the rice barn where weaving traditionally took place. We didn’t have a plank especially for the job, but used the lovely planks of the floor of the sopo. Ompu Sabar handed several of her hasoli (bamboo joints used for wrapping weft) up to us, so we were set to make luli pinale.

We are now carrying around our little bundles of carefully rolled cotton, still in the hopes that we will stumble across a spinning wheel. They said that they had located an iran2 or reel in the meantime, but none of the other required pieces of equipment.

Our search continues, but we have the origins down pat: the cotton plant, the plucking of the cotton, the de-pitting of it by hand, the fluffing of it by hand and the making of the rolls or rolags to prepare it for spinning.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Back to Boru Panjaitan’s Village (17 November)

Boru Panjaitan is depicted in Legacy on page 461. She is weaving a tumtuman textile. I knew that she lived in the then Kecamatan Lumban Julu (a political division), one of my favourite regions for spectacular cloths rarely found in museums. I recalled how much I had enjoyed visiting her and how amazed I was at her capacity to weave in her old age. During the Back to the Villages project last June, I had her plasticized photograph in hand and we stopped here and there along the road looking for someone who could tell me where her village was, but we could find nobody who recognized her.


Ompu Okta’s village in Lumban Julu has been the most important site for filming our Rangsa ni Tonun text about Batak weaving techniques. Ompu Okta boruboru (Okta’s grandmother) is our weaving star Ompu Okta doli (Okta’s grandfather) turns out to be our narrator because of his wonderful voice and his affinity to our project. In the evening, he likes to go to the local cafĂ© – a little wooden structure at the edge of the padi fields where he purchases a glass of tuak (local palm wine) and exchanges the news. Early on in our project, he explained to me that he often met up there with the son of someone depicted in my book. “The first time I opened the book, it was to that page,” he explained. “The weaver is a member of my family”.

How amazing that this should be the case, given that I had sought br. Panjaitan and because my search was in vain, I had given a copy of Legacy to Ompu Okta, a weaver that I had never met before, because I wanted to be sure that a copy of Legacy would be left behind in this amazing weaving region. It turns out that Ompu Okta is not only related to Boru Panjaitan, but a close neighbour. Standing on the bridge by the river beside Okta’s village, br. Panjaitan’s house can be seen nestled against the trees scarcely more than a stone’s throw away.

I had two copies of Legacy left over from the Back to the Villages project. I had stored them in Medan and I now had them with me. My friend, Loan Oei in Amsterdam, with whom I have shared my love of textiles as well as the vicissitudes of life for many decades, had given me a text and urged me to donate a book in her name if the occasion ever presented itself during this filming project. I decided to pair her up with br. Panjaitan’s descendants.

At the end of our stay in Ompu Okta’s village, when our favourite driver from the back to the Villages project, Pak Jerry, had come to pick us up and we were loaded and ready to go, Ompu Okta doli climbed into the vehicle too and brought us to br. Panjaitan’s home. Luck was with us because her son had already returned from his work in the padi fields and his wife was there, too.

The house was as I remembered it; a beautiful wooden colonial structure. They had made some changes to the interior by removing a wall and this had only enhanced its airy spaciousness. Br. Panjaitan’s daughter-in-law fetched some coffee and they told me stories about her. She had continued to weave until the end. Her son, my host, had also learned to weave and knew all of the steps in the process, but was so mercilessly teased about being a weaver that he had stopped. Someone had come and claimed her weaving equipment. Only one baliga was left, a heavy, sword-like piece of wood used for beating in weft. Br. Panjaitan’s was very narrow. They fetched it for me from the room where she used to work and gave it to me to remember her by. It was an extraordinary gift to receive on my birthday. I promised that I would oil it as this is how weaving swords are maintained.

Just like many other people in this region, br. Panjaitan’s son knew all of the steps in yarn production, but had none of the instruments that we were looking for: pipisan, busur, sorha and iraniran.


On our way to the main road, we dropped off Ompu Okta at the bridge leading to his village. We were a threesome once more, back again with our favourite chauffeur, the skilled and indomitable Jerry Hermansyah. While I was talking inside, mas Nashir had been inspired to take a few stunning pictures of him while he waited for us. When he pretended to do a bit of a Moon Walk, I dubbed him Jerry Jackson and the name has stuck. Mas Nashir has even set up a facebook account for him under that name. Our winning team was back together and we were heading off for new adventures.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Merapi has spoken

Mount Merapi 13 Nov 10. AP
The sky here in Medan, North Sumatra, is grey and heavy. I wonder if it is part of the great Merapi’s speech? The mountain has changed the course of many lives. It gave me cause to waste a day in Jakarta trying to figure out whether or not to go to Yogyakarta as planned. The whole point of coming to Indonesia at the beginning of November was to participate in the WISDOM conference in Yogyakarta. By the time that I became conscious of the fact that I was crazy to be considering entering a disaster zone just when everybody else was leaving it, the airline companies had cancelled their flights anyway and the conference had been postponed “until further notice”. The gods of the Merapi seemed to be saying, “Go to Medan” and so that is what I did.

The fire-spewing mountain generously offered me unexpected time to be with Nia Fliam. She happened to be in Jakarta exhibiting her wonderful batik textiles. Nia and her husband, mas Ismoyo, are the central organizers of the Fiber Face 3 event scheduled to take place in the springtime in Yogyakarta . The WISDOM conference had given me an excellent opportunity to piggy-back so that I could work on the preparations for the exhibition. Nia had asked me to curate the “Batak spotlight” of this Fiber Face 3 event, and I had accepted with alacrity. A special synergy had begun to emerge relative to the Fiber Face 3 event and now it even had the Merapi co-operating. The discussions with Nia were rich and helpful. And now the Merapi was telling me to use the extra time to go to the Batak country and do “the job” properly!

What is the job? It has two aspects: a documentary film about weaving techniques and a specific collection of photographs and textiles for the Fiber Face 3 exhibition..

The film is based on an ancient Batak text, Rangsa ni Tonun, committed to paper in the 19th century by Guru Sinangga ni Adji who lived in the village of Sait ni Huta in the Silindung Valley (south of Lake Toba). It describes the techniques of weaving from the purchase of raw cotton on the market to the completion of the finished textile. The description of these techniques in the flowery and esoteric language of the Batak knowledge specialist lends the text a sacred and mythical air. The text is so technical that it is hard to translate it without an unwieldy quantity of footnotes. I have always loved the text but never really knew what to do with it. I discussed it as early as 1980 with my weaving teacher in Harian Boho, Ompu Sihol and many times afterwards with different weavers. The exhibition in Yogyakarta offers the perfect occasion to “do something with it.” One of the goals of the exhibition is to link the ancient knowledge of the villages with modern know-how. The text represents ancient knowledge. Filmer, MJA Nashir, will transcribe it into the timeless, international language of images through the medium of film and make it accessible to all.

He is sitting in front of me in this fast-food chicken restaurant in Medan with a frown on his face. His hands are moving as he spins and weaves imaginary yarn. Occasionally he jumps out of his seat as he visualizes the succession of scenes that will comprise the film. He is writing the “screen play” and it entails understanding the techniques of weaving. I have given him the original Batak version of the text, called Rangsa ni Tonun, as well as my English translation. He is inspired by the text particularly because of its sacred and mythical qualities and enjoys the challenge of transporting that into the technical component.

All of the techniques related to the preparation and spinning of cotton have disappeared since spun yarn has come onto the local markets. In a few days, we will head off again to the villages to film not only the techniques that are still being practised, but also to reclaim for posterity the last, faded memories of techniques of yarn preparation. I am curious what kind of success we will have. When I did my fieldwork thirty years ago, the memories were already faded.

The organizers of Fiber Face 3 have recognized the importance of building bridges in the textile world between village practitioners and urban fiber artists and between ancient knowledge and modern know-how. Ancient Batak textile knowledge is threatened but this text is an archival jewel that deserves attention.

I am assuming that the Merapi knew that it was important to give us this extra time to devote to the documentary.