Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Watublapi: Weaving life from cultural heritage

Watublapi: Weaving life from cultural heritage
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Sun, 10/08/2006 10:06 AM

Filomena Reiss, Contributor, Watublapi, Flores

""Oh, helelarak! Oh, helelarak!"" Welcome, welcome! As visitors walk toward the village of Watublapi on Flores island, they are greeted by the colorful spectacle of traditionally dressed women singing and dancing, welcoming guests to their village.

Their words of greeting mean friendship, loyalty and respect for customs. Visitors are blessed by the village elder with a sprinkle of holy water, and a selendang (shawl) is placed around a lucky guest. The show is just beginning.

Watublapi is derived from watu (stone) and blapi (sitting), and thus means ""sitting together"". The village is situated in the hills about a 45-minute drive northeast from the capital Maumere.

The drive is spectacular. Due to the active volcanoes scattered in different parts of the island, the land is extremely fertile and the land is thickly covered with all types of plants and trees: coconut, clove, cashew nuts, cacao and coffee. As visitors approach Watublapi, their eyes are immediately drawn to the colorful woven sarongs drying on clothes lines.

All the men and women in the welcome party are members of the Sanggar Bliran Sina cooperative, founded 21 years ago by Romano Rewo, a native of Watublapi.

Romano had traveled to many different hotels trying to sell hand-woven textiles made by his family, but he thought there must a better way to sell them; so he decided to form this organization. Another aim of Sanggar Bliran Sina is to revive and preserve ancient dyeing techniques, using natural dyes.

Following Romano's death in 1990, his enthusiastic son Daniel David took over Sanggar, which now consists of 55 active members of not only weavers, but also dancers and musicians.

The villagers' performance includes a selection of culturally significant dances and songs. The heartfelt singing and exuberant dancing is quite infectious, and visitors will soon be tapping their toes to the music.

The opening dance, Roa Mu'u, demonstrates the bonding of two families in a traditional marriage ceremony. The bride's family prepares the sacred adat (customary) sarong while the groom's family must bring an elephant tusk.

The sarong must bear an ancient motif called werak or wiriwanan, which symbolize fertility. These elephant tusk motifs existed before the arrival of Christianity to Flores, as trade goods to eastern Indonesia at the peak of the spice trade, and are a symbol of male fertility.

Roa Mu'u is the cutting of a banana tree, which represents overcoming the hardships that the new couple may encounter during their married life. Banana trees are known to grow back, even when it is cut down repeatedly.

The Togo dance and song depicts the communal threshing of harvested rice, using their feet to separate the rice seeds from the straw. Traditional prayers and poems are sung to the rice goddess. According to local beliefs, rice originally derived from the blood of a girl named Ina Nalu Pare. Singing songs dedicated to the rice goddess ensures that her spirit will stay close to the paddies, guaranteeing both good crops and protection from negative forces.

Included in the cultural program is a demonstration of producing handmade textiles -- from cleaning the cotton, spinning, tying (ikat), coloring with plant dyes and weaving the final textile, called tenunan.

There are two types of yarn used in weaving textiles. Homespun yarn is very time-consuming to make and uses cotton that is grown in weavers' gardens. Commercial yarn is bought at the market, ready to be dyed. This yarn is produced in Java and is sold at markets all over Flores.

""Tying"", or mengikat, refers to tying the motifs and designs on to the prepared yarn, which prevents the dyes from spreading into the tied part creating the motifs. The yarn is tied with strips made of leaves from the lontar palm or young coconut leaves, called gebang.

The dyeing process is the most tedious, especially in preparing natural dyes from plants. Dyeing the yarn takes at least three to four days, over which the yarns are dipped and soaked in the prepared dyes several times until the desired color is achieved by the weaver.

Indigo plants are harvested in the lowlands of Flores, and are valued for the deep blue shade they produce.

For the earthy brown shade, the entire root system of the mengkudu (morinda) tree are dug up, but only the bark of the root is used. This is pounded and mixed with the powdered bark of the loba tree. If the resulting reddish color is not satisfactory, three more types of tree bark are boiled and the yarns are soaked again in this dye.

Turmeric is pounded with the bark of the mango tree to obtain a yellow dye.

A recently introduced color is green, which is produced using the leaves of the mango tree. Because these leaves are very strong and difficult to crush, this color is the most difficult to produce.

Papaya and cassava leaves are also used to make green dyes, and are preferred by some weavers. The weavers are very resourceful and always looking for different varieties of plants, experimenting with the color intensity the plants produce as dyes.

It takes three to four weeks to make a small selendang from a commercial yarn using natural dyes, and three months if the yarn is handspun.

Men also play an important role in the process of making textiles, particularly in harvesting plant material for dyes. Digging the roots of the mengkudu tree is very strenuous, while sacks and sacks of indigo plants are harvested from the lowlands to make blue dyes. Other plant materials are found in the forest, and the men are usually given this task.

They also help pound most of the plant materials, and cooking the materials into a dye is also now part of the men's work -- especially when the women, often the men's wives, are busy weaving.

The cultural program concludes with a viewing of these labor-intensive, finished textiles. This is when the weavers are hoping -- perhaps anxiously -- that one of their textiles would be purchased, or at least appreciated, by visitors.

Since the founding of Sanggar Bliran Singa, the local economy has improved tremendously. One weaver commented that since joining Sanggar, she could send her children to school and she always had a stock of rice in the kitchen.

The cooperative has encouraged the hardworking people of Watublapi to retain their heritage through weaving while establishing an economic gateway in selling their woven products.

A trip to the village is a wonderful experience of seeing a cultural heritage not only being maintained, but also enhanced further toward the betterment of villagers' lives.

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