Saturday, July 18, 2015

Goodbye Ompu Sandra, Selamat Jalan

The Pulang Kampung team met Ompu Sandra in 2013 when we moored at Hasinggaan to show our film Rangsa ni Tonun and thus restore to the Batak people in that isolated little bay a sacred and beautiful piece of Batak literature about weaving. Ompu Sandra lived in the village next to the harbour.

This is the shore where our boat put in. Ompu Sandra lived in the house
to the left with the blue trim around the bottom.

Without knowing anything about her or the village, we knocked on her door to ask where there were weavers and to make an initial contact. We needed to find a place to show our film.

Ompu Sandra woven underneath her house
where she was shaded from the sun.
It was bull’s eye immediately. Ompu Sandra turned out to be a weaver and we were able to watch her carefully thread her weft through her warp. Then she left her loom and made her house available for an impromptu film showing. It was a small gathering but it was important for all of us because of Ompu Sandra’s reaction. She wept as she watched the film.

Ompu Sandra was very moved by the film.
She knew all the weaving techniques show in the film.
She identified with the weavers in the film. 

I needed to know why she wept and I asked what it was that had touched her so deeply. She expressed admiration for her ancestors; was touched to see all of these processes in the film, processes that she had not seen for decades. “But why are you crying”, I asked, “if you are filled with admiration?” The cat gradually came out of the bag: because the work was so very arduous. She was empathizing with the weavers of the past. She was imagining how difficult and time-consuming all the processes of weaving had been, from spinning to dyeing to setting up the loom to finishing a textile. “Is it the hard work that makes you cry?” I asked in all innocence. But then the cat emerged fully. No, because there is no recompense for the effort expended!

Ompu Sandra was living the end of the Batak
weaving arts and experiencing the pain of it.
Ompu Sandra launched into her tale of woe. She had brought up her children on the proceeds of weaving. She worked very hard. Morning and night. Under her house on stilts that sheltered her from the burning sun. But now the money that she was receiving for the sale of a finished textile was so paltry that her long hours were for almost no recompense at all. How could women be expected to look after their families? What was to become of them? She asked us to show our film to everybody who would pay attention to it, especially government, consumers, anybody who might be able to ameliorate the problem. She advised us to penetrate deeper into Hasinggaan and to play the film again and again.

I gave Ompu Sandra a copy of Rangsa ni Tonun. We gave
all of our hosts a copy so that they could refer to it after we were gone
 and share it.  
The screening of Rangsa ni Tonun with Ompu Sandra is not something I can forget. Nor do I want to forget it. I later looked for a market specifically for her but circumstances made it hard to get in touch with her. I hoped that, when finally successful, I would not be too late and she would have stopped weaving altogether.

But I am too late. Ompu Sandra has stopped weaving forever. Lasma knows someone who hails from Hasinggaan and thus she learned of Ompu Sandra’s death. She shared the news with me on the telephone. We don’t know the circumstances of Ompu Sandra’s death. Given my brief association with the elderly weaver, I have a dull, heavy sense that she died of grief from the hardship of weaving fruitlessly. If it didn’t kill her, this grief accompanied her to the grave. It is hard to know how to stop mourning this fact, especially knowing that Ompu Sandra is not alone in reaching the end of the market and the end of her tether at the same time as Batak weaving, as the world has known it, also comes to an end.

We did as Ompu Sandra bid us to do: we showed Rangsa ni Tonun again and again, to consumers, to government, to everybody who would pay attention to it. All agree that it is a crime if the Batak weaving arts disappear. Nobody knows exactly what to do to ameliorate the situation. Ompu Sandra’s plea lives on, even if she does not. May she rest in peace.

(All photographs, except the first, are by MJA Nashir)