Monday, January 25, 2016

Weaving Reflects the Soul

Batak weavers know, at some fundamental level, that their craft is sophisticated -- despite the poor returns they get on their work and their low social position. They have an awareness of the intricacy and level of difficulty of their work.

I shudder when I recall the tall tales told to aspiring young weavers by those former Batak weavers who have been deeply disappointed by the reception of their work, things like "Don't learn to weave or you will go blind," and the well-meant advice, "Weaving will condemn you to poverty; it is best to not begin." Of course these are reflections of, and reactions to, the drop in prices and lack of appreciation that weavers have been experiencing.

Lasma's first bulang ready for the complex technique
called warp exchange
In Lasma's village the women had all stopped weaving and none was willing to teach her the craft. Slowly Lasma has been making a difference. Some can't stop themselves from giving a word or two of instruction as they pass by her window and see her at work at her loom. Lasma's enthusiasm is unflagging and appears to be infectious. She is convinced there is a future for these textiles -- especially now that weaving has become a rarity. Some are willing to take up the sword and shuttle again because they are convinced that there may be a market. Weaving may have stopped but suffering from poverty has not.

Lasma has reached that stage in her learning curve when she wants to seriously work on a textile for ritual purposes. She has selected the bulang, as consistent with the tradition in her village. I was touched deeply when she told me her neighbours' reactions. Their story has changed. They are acknowledging the nobility of the work once again and they are encouraging her in wise ways.

"Weaving is a highly complex craft," they confide to Lasma. "We can see and sense the spirit and characteristics of a weaver through her finished textile. Weaving is not just about practising complicated techniques, it is about learning patience."

I am writing this blog in Thailand. For a brief two weeks I have joined a team in Bangkok that is studying the collection of batiks collected by King Rama V in 1871, 1896 and 1901 in Java. Some of the works are truly extraordinary but there is next to no information available about the makers; they have been left out of the annals of written history. They are present only in the cloths they decorated. This presence is reminding me of the words of Lasma's neighbours. I detect from these cloths that the makers were patient to an almost incredible degree. Applying the wax on those detailed, precise cloths can only have been an endless, meditative, spiritual exercise.

Everyday I emerge from the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles where I have undergone an intensive encounter with those batiks and I return to my hotel and an intensive encounter with the buzzing Khao San district of Bangkok, famous for its confection sales and entertainment scene. I reel from the dissonance between the two worlds. I wonder how Lasma will fare in her self-imposed challenge to enter the cognitive space of the master weaver.  We will talk about that when I see her in a few weeks. 

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