Pua and Ikat — Wong Pui Yi

JUNE 1 — Festivals are a good time to learn about others — their traditions, histories, religions and food!

Kudos to Petronas for their advertisements in conjunction with Hari Gawai and Hari Keaamatan. The short stories enabled all Malaysians to experience the richness of East Malaysia’s cultural diversity.

This year’s heart-warming advertisement for Hari Gawai is a good starting point to address two common misconceptions about handwoven ikat textiles from Sarawak, which like the inavol and dastar from Sabah, are less well known in Malaysia compared to batik and songket.

Sarawak-made ikat and Indonesia-made ikat

Ikat refers to a resist-dye method where intricate designs are tied onto yarns before they are dyed and woven into a textile. The ikat technique is known as ‘kebat’ or ‘ngebat’ in the Iban language.

A main item in the Petronas advertisement was the ‘baju burung’ worn by Iban men during important occasions.

But the ‘baju burung’ worn by the protagonist, supposedly passed down from his father, was made from ikat textiles most likely recently made in Indonesia.

I say most likely because I have not personally met the suppliers. However, my research thus far has not disproved the repeated claims and evidence given which showed that ikat textiles with that design were not locally made. (I would be glad to be proven otherwise.)

The Iban ikat textile weavers of Sarawak are one of the few weavers in the world who still use the backstrap loom which relies on the weavers’ bodies to create sufficient tension in the loom for the weaving process. This requires much skill and technique, or the textile will be crooked.

But ikat textiles from Indonesia have flooded the local handicraft market. In the past decade, their textiles have increasingly resembled Sarawak ikat and buyers are usually none the wiser about the differences.

This has dire consequences on the weavers who weave for souvenir markets (which is distinguished from higher-end textile art markets).

Local weavers have complained that retailers don’t want to buy their handmade textiles anymore. The Indonesian textiles are cheaper and have higher turnovers. Many shops also tend to display the Indonesian textiles more prominently.

I’ve stumbled upon a handicraft shop where the pile of locally-made ikat textiles was growing. The shopkeeper said that he couldn’t bear to turn the weavers away as they had already made the journey from the interiors, most likely Kapit, all the way to the city.

However, the Sarawak ikat were simply not selling well compared to the Indonesian ikat.

This unfortunate circumstance is pushing ikat weaving, one of the major handicrafts of the Iban people, one step closer to extinction.

What can we, as tourists or buyers, do?

There is a simple way to differentiate Indonesian ikat and Sarawakian ikat. If the design is repetitive and every textile looks almost the same, those are from Indonesia. If the textiles have dynamic patterns and it’s difficult to find similar textiles or even similar colour tones, they are most likely locally-made.

Ikat and Pua Kumbu

The next misconception I’d like to address is the difference between ikat and the better-known pua kumbu.

Handicraft or souvenir shops have labelled locally-made ikat textiles as ‘pua’, ‘pua kumbu’ or ‘ikat Sarawak’. Many labelled ikat textiles from Indonesia as simply ‘ikat’, or even ‘Sarawak pua kumbu’.

Ikat is an important material culture of the Iban; their ancestors have been weaving ikat textiles as garments and for ritualistic use for centuries (other Iban textiles include sungkit, pilih and karap).

The most well-known Iban ikat textile is the pua kumbu, a ceremonial blanket used in weddings, births, harvests, and most intriguingly in headhunting rituals in the past.

Other ikat textile items made are tube skirts (kain kebat), vests (baju burung, kalambi, or baju manang), loincloths (sirat), sashes (selampai) and baby wraps (pua belantan or pua sandik), all of which differs from the pua kumbu. (However, small pieces of textiles may be known as pua mit (small blanket).)

While other ikat textiles could be purely decorative with patterns of flora and fauna, the ‘pua kumbu’ has a much deeper significance to the community.

‘Pua’ in Iban means blanket and ‘kumbu’ means ‘to cover’, referring to the warp (longitudinal) threads that are ‘covered’ before being dyed. ‘Kumbu’ could also refer to the function of the sacred cloth to cover subjects or objects during ceremonies.

The designs on the pua kumbu were believed to have come from the Gods through dreams, featuring the cosmology of ancient Iban beliefs.

Only accomplished weavers may copy the most powerful patterns of the pua kumbu. Sometimes the imitator may give the original weaver or her descendants some offerings of goods or cash to protect both parties from the power of the textile.

The dyeing and weaving processes were also shrouded in mystic and taboos which must be strictly observed lest illness, even death, befalls the weaver.

There is an ancient practice of mordanting cotton yarn called ‘Ngar’, where wild ginger, lime and other ingredients are used to soak the yarns to enable the natural dye of the Morinda Citrifolia root (also known as engkudu, mengkudu or noni) to become more vibrant and colour-fast. This red colour is iconic and integral to the Iban pua kumbu.

In the old days, a weaver who successfully led the ‘Ngar’ was accorded similar prestige as men who were triumphant in headhunting as the knowledge was revealed only to master-dyers with the blessings of the goddess Kumang and/or Meni.

Sadly, this practice is also close to being lost as there are very few master-dyers left.

Threatened Ties

Many Sarawakian ikat textiles (less so for the pua kumbu) these days are dyed using chemical dyes or other natural dyes which are not colour fast.

If we cease to identify, promote and buy the Sarawakian ikat, we would be robbing the weavers the opportunity to continue weaving, to improve their processes and products.

With this, I hope that more Malaysians would have a better appreciation of Iban material culture and would be eager to learn more.

Wishing all who are celebrating, Selamat Hari Gawai, Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai and Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Kaamatan

* Wong Pui Yi is researching Iban ikat textiles at the University of Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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