Saturday, August 17, 2013

Meeting some of the Pulang Kampung Crew

Photograph courtesy Bapak Tatan Daniel
Today I went to Taman Mini (a route embellished by Pulang Kampung posters and banners) and saw in ‘real life’ the places that I had been privy to through Mas Nashir’s photographs on Facebook. I also met the people about whom he had written and many more. I experienced first hand how things “roll along” (I don’t know any other way to describe it) at Anjungan Taman Mini. First this, then that, then the other. As much as the place throbs with life and ideas, it is calm, not harried, and seems to comfortably accommodate everything that comes its way.

We started out on the ground floor of the Malay house seated around a small table. Everybody had his turn to explain his connection with the Pulang Kampung pre-voyage preparations. It was moving because nobody is paid or ordered to do anything. There is no written schedule and no boss. There are only regular meetings and discussions, in-depth sharing that imparts everybody with the sense of schedule and inspiration for the next step. Nobody has ever done anything like this before and the concept is new. The path is being made by walking down it. It defies every manual of business organization. Jeki Simatupang explained the Batak word: marsiadapari: facing every day together. Bataks in villages once had informal meetings in the mornings and this ‘managed’ (poor term because it suggests bosses, hierarchy and schedules) village life. People shouldered burdens collectively, helping first him, then him in the fields or building a house. There was no payment; there was only the sharing of responsibility to achieve shared goals.

Pak Tatan explained his vision of filling the architectural wonders from North Sumatra with creative synergy so that they would not be 'just empty buildings'. His vision and support have built this remarkable crucible in which the concept and project of Pulang Kampung will be launched on 24 – 25 August. He described it in terms of colour: taking the colour of the archipelago and letting it sizzle on the grounds that are his Taman Mini jurisdiction.

He is a quiet and wise man. One feels the space that his being offers to allow things to transpire.

Ojak Tampe joined us quietly. When it was my turn, I referred to him as being one of the special wonders of the Pulang Kampung voyage. He had come all the way from North Sumatra out of conviction that something was going to transpire that would be important in his life. He took the opportunity to explain why. It moved him so deeply that the tears rolled down his cheeks. How could I not feel the privilege of having him aboard? He mourns the loss of his culture and wants to do what he can to fill himself with the knowledge of the ancestors. His path is as unique as it is lonely and difficult. There is no teacher for him and no institution to support him. He was soft-spoken, polite, clear, authentic. Independent of spirit. Infinitely dear. How could I be anything but curious how things will unfold for him? And anxious for them to unfold well.

Ompung Yan Harahap was with us all the time. He said little but he was utterly devoted to what transpired. His wily person jumped up to fetch water, and cassava chips; he was a kind of bridge between everybody and all activities, the oil in the machine. Nashir had said that he reminded him of Pak Jerry and I had to agree. A painter (our meeting took place beside one of his paintings that brought the feeling of Samosir Island to the table) and logistical genius devoting himself to ensure that things stay on track.
Ompu Yan Harahap beside eda Ani Simanjuntak

These were the members of the Pulang Kampung crew that I met today, a hodge-podge mixture thrown together by passion and fate – and especially Mas Nashir. Mas Nashir said very little at the meeting; he just let it happen, but I and everyone around the table knew that this magical crew had coalesced around his magic, his film clips, his writing, his simple, golden heart.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Blessing Three: Ancient Batak Wisdom

Batak men were once great orators. They had a written language but when it came to the powers of conviction, they exercised their oratory skills rather than wield the pen.

A tremendous arsenal of sayings, aphoristic and poetic, are part of Batak oral culture. To this day, the best Batak speakers use these sayings to capture the essence of a matter. The sayings give legitimacy to their thoughts; they are ancient oral seals confirming wisdom. Audiences listen to these saying with rich satisfaction and approval.

This past week, I found some time to write down the thoughts that I would like to present during our opening ceremony. I sent them to Panusunan Simanjuntak for his comments and advice.

I met Ompu Fabian/Panusunan Simanjuntak, when I delivered a lecture to the Bona Pasogit, a Batak group in London, a few months ago. A quiet man, modest and unobtrusive, I really took notice of him when I heard him speak. His skills elicited my attention and admiration. At the conclusion of the gathering, he delivered one of his own poems, written in the Batak language. I knew that I was having the privilege to encounter a sensitive inheritor of the Batak literary tradition. We have never compared our genealogical trees, but I decided to call him tulang, the teknonym for ‘mother’s brother’; in the Batak universe a tulang is a source of blessings. I sensed his wealth of spirit.

I met Ompu Fabian, Panusunan Simanjuntak and his wife
 in London  not too long ago.
His response to my email was immediate. He advised me to close my remarks with one of those pithy, aphoristic sayings and he had selected the perfect one for me to use. Then the actor/orator in him gave me advice on how to deliver it, which hand motions to use, what I should do with my eyes and my head, and how my body language would convey a humble stance. His response transformed me into an apprentice. I thrilled in being offered this glimpse into Batak oral culture and I learned that tulang Panusunan’s own demeanour was the culmination of self-awareness and self-control paired with aspirations to his culture's wisdom.

His words were like a blessing and brought tears to my eyes. This journey leading up to the launch of Pulang Kampung III is magical and bountiful, filled with privilege.

On the road in the night

Jetlag is not all bad. At 1 in the morning, I went out onto the street. I was hungry and awake. The night is friendly in Indonesia, warm and throbbing with life, particularly here at the entrance to Taman Mini. I ambled aimlessly (careful to avoid motorcycles) and quite arbitrarily selected a spot where I could ask for a package of instant noodles. I sat down on a piece of plastic on the sidewalk beside the seller….and wouldn’t you know it, I heard her speak Batak to the two young men beside her. So I joined in as well as I could, to their surprise.

Seeing that I knew a little about Batak culture, the young man from Bakkara leapt to conclusions about Westerners having more access to his culture than the youth in the Batak area. There was certainly some truth to what he was saying though not exactly the way he conceptualized it. I decided to use his words as a kind of entrance call to share with them my concept of ‘Pulang Kampung’. I talked about the importance of getting the information out of the museums and back into the villages and schools, the possibilities that digitization offered, the need to take responsibility and share knowledge with the youth.

They listened thoughtfully. I wondered how they felt. They are the ones losing their culture and the ones without the means to do anything about it. They are poor, on the street, earning a penny here and a penny there. I shared my vision, mentioned possibilities that I saw. They were thoughtful. I wondered if they felt hopeless, whether they were just being polite?  They recognized that an infusion of funds was needed to rebuild the Batak area, to have solar energy, to distribute information from the libraries in Holland etc. etc. I pointed out that a new ethic would have to emerge, that the Bataks with means would have take responsibility for what is happening in the villages. 

Or is this whole Pulang Kampung thing is too late? Will it build in momentum quickly enough?

Those people selling on the street said they would try to make it to our launch on 24 August.

We shall see what happens.

Blessing One: No Future without a Past

I might be sitting in the very last row of this plane that is carrying me to Kuala Lumpur in 11 hours and 40 minutes, but I am counting my many blessings.

The up-coming fashion designer, Olivia Sinaga, wants to be present at the launch of the Boat Budaya. Our theme, ‘Celebration of the Batak Weaving Tradition’, is what she is all about. She has been converted into a staunch supporter of her own culture’s textile heritage.

She contacted me by email while I was sitting in the departure lounge. She wanted to bring me her beautifully crafted shawl inspired by the Batak sibolang textile. Now if this isn’t a blessing…

Olivia visited the villages of Tano Batak to learn about her own textile heritage. Her study inspired her beautiful new creation. I hope to wear it during the launch of Pulang Kampung III and to use it as a dramatic illustration of the axiom: without the past, there is no future.