Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bentenan in Bandung

My central purpose in going to Indonesia this time was to prepare an exhibition of Batak textiles in conjunction with the Batak musical, ‘The Story of Buku Ende’. The exhibition was set up in the aula of the auditorium and beside it I had a stand proffering our books and T-shirts where we were able to share the story of Pulang Kampung I, II and III with visitors.

One of the visitors to my stand was a Brigjen. TNI Joni L. Tobing. He lived in Bandung now but had travelled extensively and had lived in Manado. He was struck by my attention to Batak textiles and wanted to bring the Kain Bentenan to my attention. He believed it to be an exceptional textile. He then kindly invited me to dinner and brought a kain Bentenan for me as a gift.

Unbeknownst to him, he was helping me walk in the footsteps of Jasper and Pirngadie. When Jasper visited Manado in 1907 he had been very struck by the beauty of this textile. He noted that it was on the verge of disappearance. In his report on his journey he described how he worked with the local ‘Controleur’ on plans for a craft school so that the knowledge of the elderly weavers would be passed on to young women.

Pirngadie's depiction of the Kain Bentenan
Mas Pirngadie made a fine pen and ink drawing of the Kain Bentenan for their volume on The Weaving Arts (De Weefkunst) that was published in 1912. I compared my newly acquired textile with the drawing and saw, not surprisingly, that the motifs in the modern cloth are larger. Further, the modern cloth was made on an ATBM (semi-mechanical upright loom) and not a backstrap loom.

My modern Kain Bentenan
Detail of my modern Kain Bentanan
Someday, when I retrace Jasper and Pirngadie’s footsteps in earnest, I will find out what became of the plans for that craft school in Manado, whether it led to a revival of the Kain Bentenan, and whether the knowledge of the elderly women continues to be passed down. When was the ATBM brought in? Is the cloth still being made with a backstrap loom?

Somehow it feels urgent to have these questions answered in the affirmative.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jasper's footsteps

It could scarcely be otherwise, given the extent of his travels. Nevertheless, from the moment I got to Java I felt that I was tracing J.E. Jasper’s footsteps -- something that I would love to do much more of.

Faithful followers of this blog will remember the name J.E. Jasper. He, together with mas Pirngadie, is the author of the magnificent five-volume set: De Inlandsche Kunstnijverheid van Nederlandsch Indiƫ. In 2012, I was given the opportunity to make an exhibition about him and Pirngadie for Museum Tekstil in Jakarta. Mas MJA Nashir and I researched Pirngadie and Jasper respectively for the exhibit catalogue. After the exhibition opening (16 October 2012), we retraced some of their footsteps in S. Sulawesi but only enough to whet the appetite. I subsequently wrote a first follow-up volume about their research journeys based on publications and archives in The Netherlands. This was just hot off the press when I arrived in Jakarta this time (April 2014) and I went straight to the Textile Museum to pick up a copy. Another appetite whetter to research their further travels. I am convinced that my work will continue to shed more light on how they researched their astounding five-volume set on Indonesian craft.

During my week in Jakarta, this time, I worked in the archives. After spending days to find the material I needed, I was told that the section of the archives that I needed is closed for review. I was bitterly disappointed, as I had looked forward to accessing the material in Indonesia’s national archives for a long time.

After Jakarta, I travelled to Bandung (26 March2014). Being there offered a bit of relief from that disappointment. Jasper had retired to Bandung after he finished his term as Governor of Yogyakarta. When I arrived in Bandung I immediately sensed why he chose that city. (Relatively) cool climate. Lots of green. Jasper was not alone in his selection, if the number of colonial homes in that fair city is any indication. The tempo doeloe sphere in Bandung is still very strong. I could imagine Jasper living in comfort on Jalan Riau close to the palatial headquarters of the governor of West Java within close proximity to all that he needed.

Jasper’s grandson sent me the precise address and I visited it at the first opportunity. It was, alas, not one of the houses that had been maintained. It was stuffed in behind a modern furniture store. The door was swinging half open on its ancient hinges, not in welcome but from neglect. I was so bold as to step inside for a moment. Perhaps that was the room where he had kept his library. Perhaps it was the room where he took breakfast with his wife. The tiled floor looked original – a windfall of neglect. But I was shooed out of the house before I could get any further; I was told that the owner was not present to give me permission to enter.
The modest house in dilapidated state

An extension to the left. Perhaps the servants' quarters?

The interior of the front room with the original tiles

I surveyed the house from a distance, trying to imagine it without the furniture shop in front of it. Presumably the grounds had once been relatively vast and perhaps lovely; the house itself was relatively modest. The street was now commercial and extremely busy; I couldn’t say that there was any colonial sphere left hanging there.

Just prior to leaving Bandung, I found the time to look for Jasper’s grave. I had been told that it was located on Jalan Pandu. One section is a memorial graveyard maintained by the Dutch government to commemorate those who died during the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies.
The graveyard maintained by the Dutch government on Jalan Pandu

It was easy to find the section and number of his grave by looking up Jasper’s name in the book. He is buried there beside his son in the last row before a beautiful pool of water filled with flowers and surrounded by trees.

Calm, peaceful, beautiful, well kept.

Sharp contrast to the last years of his life in the Japanese Internment Camp of Cimahi. I sent pictures of the grave to his grandson.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Salaon and Bangkudu

During the Weaving Workshop, the participants learned about dyeing with natural indigo. In the Muara region, they use the plant locally called ‘salaon’.

Restuala, our guru, showed us a salaon branch.

Lightly dyed indigo yarns. It takes a long time and repeated dipping
to obtain the deep blue colour that was once so typical of the Ba

Afterwards we went looking for salaon at the edge of the lake.

Restuala showed the participants an old
textile dyed with natural indigo

The process of making the indigo dye takes several days. Restuala had prepared for the workshop by fermenting the indigo in advance. When we were present, his assistant removed the rotten leaves and branches from the soak water. The workshop participants were allowed to do the magical part of mixing ‘kapur’ or powdered lime into the water to experience the magical transformation from putrid green to beautiful blue.
Adding powdered lime to the soak water
Our blues were not as brilliant as we would have liked, but we dyed our yarn and cloth in the solution anyway. The material was cycled away from the body, hand over hand. I explained that the dye only turns blue after it comes in contact with oxygen.

Yarn and cloth are dyed by circulating it in the dye bath.

Afterwards Lasma referred to it as an “oh, ya” experience. In other words, she had finally seen the way it worked and she had satisfied a curiosity that had been growing. She felt confident that she would be able to replicate the process back home.

Then we turned our attention to red dye or ‘bangkudu’ (Morinda citrifolia). Restuala had arranged to have the roots of the plant available. These were chopped and pounded and then other ingredients added. We did not get to the point that we dyed Lasma’s fabric in the dye because it needed to be oiled first. The oiling process takes a long time if the dye is to work optimally. Instead we saw how some of Restuala’s yarn, that he had already begun to dye, received another application of dye.

Restuala said that he was looking for the Batak recipe and that he was using a recipe that he had received from Threads of Life in the absence of a Batak recipe. I ran off to search for one of the copies of Legacy that was in the village and pointed to the recipe in my book. It was such a glaring example of the need for my book to be translated. What a shame if it is not used in such revival activities!

Rangsa ni Tonun has now been to Bandung

We decorated a corner of the huge aula of the Sabuga building on the ITB campus by displaying Batak textiles on panels, thus creating a cozy space. Within that space, we projected Rangsa ni Tonun. We were able to offer copies of the film and book about the film for sale in a neighbouring booth.

I would like to thank the executive team of The Story of Buku Ende for their generous and kind support of the Pulang Kampung III expedition. Our textiles and film were invited to be part of the performance of The Story of Buku Ende; we were allowed to set up our exhibition and project the film in the aula of the Tiara Hotel in Medan in September 2013, and now once again in Bandung. Both have been wonderful opportunities to share our film with the public.

MJA Nashir's poster designed for
The Story of Buku Ende

‘The Story of Buku Ende’ is a musical, a choral drama that highlights the relationship that Batak Christians have (had) with their hymn book (buku ende). Audiences love it. The songs go straight to their hearts and many just can’t refrain from singing along with it—and the Batak are renowned for their musical abilities. They know the tunes because they sing them every Sunday and during rites of passage. They remember their youth and their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. The musical is a compilation of vignettes from daily life.

There is a synchrony between Rangsa ni Tonun and The Story of Buku Ende. Both are artworks that take Batak history as their starting point. Both translate Batak culture using contemporary media and interpret it for the modern world. People often assume that I want to “bring back” the Batak world of the past. This is far from the truth. What I sincerely hope is that the Batak people will be able to build their future on their past so that it remains meaningful to them and there is a measure of coherence in their lives. Both Rangsa ni Tonun and The Story of Buku Ende are examples of artworks that have brought the past meaningfully into the present day.

There was another connection between Rangsa ni Tonun and The Story of Buku Ende. Both have the great Prophet of the Bataks, I.L. Nommensen, as their point of origination. Nommensen was instrumental in having the Rangsa ni Tonun text committed to paper and in bringing German hymns to the Bataklands. In the first instance, he was the reason why a Batak text ended up in a German archive and in the second instance why German musical culture became grafted onto the Batak musical tradition.

The contemporary connections are also vivid. Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu, the artistic directors of The Story of Buku Ende, arranged, performed and recorded the music for Rangsa ni Tonun. They recruited the filmer of Rangsa ni Tonun to direct the stage visuals of The Story of Buku Ende for the Bandung performance. Under MJA Nashir’s expert and creative guidance, the stage became satisfyingly colourful and complex.

It was an honour to be able to show Rangsa ni Tonun to the audience of The Story of Buku Ende. We hope that Rangsa ni Tonun’s following might also have augmented the audience of The Story of Buku Ende. It was fun to meet the huge and dedicated crew of The Story of Buku Ende. All of them loved to be part of The Story and hope that they will succeed in having the musical staged again next year in Jakarta.

I hope so, too. All Bataks love the musical. And if there is an opportunity to show Batak textiles again as a sideshow, I will leap at the chance. I would like to explore the integral role of Batak textiles in The Story of Buku Ende and thus in Batak culture.

Thank you to our dear friend, Christian Gultom, for his assistance in setting up our exhibition, and also to your friend Edianto Karokaro who helped out. His role was crucial and highly valued.

Nai Ganda's Reaction to Rangsa ni Tonun

Attending the weaving workshop in Muara presented the possibility of a day trip to the Silindung Valley. In my book Rangsa ni Tonun I recognize Ompu Tiurma as one of the people who helped me translate the original text. I remember being delighted with her help. Prior to meeting her in 1986, I had gone through the text with Ompu Sihol in Harian Boho. At the time I was not aware of the regional differences in weaving terminology. Ompu Tiurma – in 1986 she was still Nai Ganda --  lived in Hutagalung in the Silindung Valley. Born into the Tobing marga, she originated from the village of the writer of the text. To my surprise, she was able to answer several of my questions about the text with relative ease and she brought the translation a significant step forward.

When we conducted the Pulang Kampung III journey, we brought the film back to Sait ni Huta where Nommensen and Guru Sinangga ni Adji had lived. We showed the film in the church where Nommensen used to preach. But then our time was up and we had to go. My longing to thank Nai Ganda/Ompu Tiurma for her help had only grown in the meantime. The day after the weaver workshop in Muara, I climbed into our rental vehicle and my faithful driver, Pak Jerry, took me to her home.

She had changed since our last visit. She had complained then about fatigue but now her decline was more evident. By chance she was standing near the door when I arrived. She stared at me and I called out a greeting but she did not recognize me. It was not until I moved closer and we were face to face that she said, “Si Sandy!” and knew who I was. Her eyes must also have been in decline. Her speech was a bit rambling and her step was slow. She was not the Nai Ganda that I had once known and I was gentle. I was not even sure if she would remember the text or whether the film would be meaningful to her.

I handed her the book and explained my mission and my desire to thank her. Was it she or was it her husband who expressed a strong desire to see the film? I don’t know, but suddenly I was back in Pulang Kampung III – although this time without the rest of the team and without a projector. I opened up the computer and set it up on the table in front of Ompu Tiurma and her husband, then pressed a key and the film started to play.

The effect of the film was like magic. I saw it conjure back the old Nai Ganda. Once again she became the energetic woman whom I had known. She had always spoken with a special conviction and an energy that emanated from the core of her being. She was knowledgeable and consistently knew precisely the right thing to say. This time I was witness to her immediate perception of the value of the film. “This is ancient Batak knowledge and it is disappearing,” she said. “Nobody knows most of these steps in weaving anymore. Only a few of them are practised today and even those are in decline. But you have recorded everything for future generations. You, a non-Batak from Europe, have salvaged this information from complete and eternal loss. You have done a great deed for all future generations of Batak people. In one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years, they will still be thanking you.” I was moved. The film had given back to me, just for a moment, the woman who had been most influential to my fieldwork in the Silindung Valley in 1986, a woman whom I could only admire and respect. A woman whom I had learned to love. And now she was saying these things about the film that I had made with MJA Nashir.

Ompu Tiurma watched Rangsa ni Tonun on my computer screen
in their sitting room.

I pulled out my camera and set it to “film”. There, in front of Ompu Tiurma and her husband with the camera in my hand I just let it run. They did not know that it was on and I was able to capture their unabashed reactions to the film. Because the camera was on, I only responded out loud to their words when it was absolutely necessary. Mostly I just smiled, nodded and spoke to them with my eyes to encourage their streams of thought. It was a remarkable half hour. Nai Ganda shared her reactions and her husband shared his reactions. They both talked more or less constantly throughout the film, in counterpoint with the film. Their reactions were not the same and for the most part they didn’t listen to each other or respond to each other. 

It was a bit surreal, like recording two films at once. Like obtaining reactions to Rangsa ni Tonun but also insight into an elderly couple that had lived together for decades.

P.S. At the end, I told them that I had filmed them and they gave me permission to retain the footage.
Ompu Tiurma and her husband talked throughout the film, in counterpoint
to the film.