Bringing the shine back to a disappearing heritage

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KLAK. Klak. Klak. The monotonous sound of the loom in motion piques the little girl’s curiosity. Edging closer, she settles herself in front of a kindly-looking woman who’s completely engrossed in the repetitive act of shedding, picking and battening.

The spacious cocoon under the wooden kampung house has always been the little girl’s favourite place. Here’s where she’d catch her mother at work, bent for hours over her equipment, as she wove and wove, producing some of the most beautiful handiwork the little girl had ever seen.

“My mother was a weaver. I have very fond memories of sitting under our kampung house watching her as she wove, sometimes sneaking away with her tools so I could play with them,” reminisces Datu Dr Sabariah Putit, her eyes misting under her dark-rimmed glasses.

The image of the young Sabariah, currently the Deputy State Secretary, Performance Transformation and Service Delivery, Sarawak State Government, and her childhood idyll is conjured in my mind’s eye as I try to imagine what could have spurred such a passion for the preservation of Sarawak’s cultural heritage in this elegant woman seated across from me in a quiet corner of a Kuala Lumpur hotel.

Classy in a silver Baju Kurung songket, a rich dark burgundy veil with gold embroidery cascading down on one side, the bespectacled mother of four is in town for the 16th Piala Seri Endon Competition Finals where the Sarawak Ethos batik collection, the latest initiative by the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) in collaboration with Old Kuching Smart Heritage (OKSHe), is being showcased. The range of Sarawak-inspired batik collection is introduced by local design house, Batique Sdn Bhd (Batique) in collaboration with Universiti Teknologi MARA (UITM) fashion school.

“I remember those early years vividly. The loom was kept in that space under the house. Those were the days… almost everyone in the kampungs in Kuching owned a loom and ladies were well versed in the art of weaving songket (a gold-patterned handwoven cloth of the Malays) and keringkam (a gold thread embroidery done on veils),” elaborates Sabariah, who grew up in one of the traditional Malay kampungs minutes from the Kuching Waterfront where wooden houses on stilts lined both sides of the road. This stretch of villages is known to locals as Kampung Nombor (Numbered Village) because of the way the villages have been named – namely Kampung No.1 to Kampung No.6.

“Today, there are hardly any songket weavers in my kampung.” continues Sabariah, forlornly. Brows furrowing in thought, she adds: “As far as I know, there are only two people left doing keringkam – two sisters. There’s a lot of concern among the Malay communities about this worrying loss and many are keen to conserve and preserve their valuable heritage.”

Her voice low, Sabariah, who has served in the state civil service for the past 30 years, confides that when her mother passed away, she tried to see what she could salvage of her mother’s handiwork. “I remember opening the cupboard and finding only a few pieces of songket woven by her. Most of them had been eaten by termites. The ones I could save, I got them framed. It’s sad.”

Her expression earnest, Sabariah confides that she wants the younger generation to also recognise the beauty of this heritage craft and in turn, pick it up. “There’s not much time to do what we need to do so we have to move fast. By presenting the craft in an attractive way, for example, that it’s something that can take them to the global stage; that it’s trendy, perhaps the young will then be lured to exploring it. It’s important that they cultivate a sense of attachment to their unique heritage – just like I have.”

REVIVING A DISAPPEARING HERITAGE

Suffice to say, growing up in a traditional Malay kampung, rich in culture and tradition, has much to do with Sabariah’s love for the arts and her determination to preserve what she can of what’s left. This is why, together with her team, initiatives have been undertaken to get all the communities throughout the state to come forward and be a part of the Sarawak songket and keringkam community. Shares Sabariah: “In the last one year, my team and I have worked really hard towards this agenda, holding expos and fashion shows, and all the while encouraging everybody to join our team.”

To begin with, there’s the Sarawak Heritage Innovation (SHI) project, which has been under the patronage of Datuk Amar Hajah Juma’ani Tun Tuanku Haji Bujang since 2018 and whose main objective is to conserve, preserve and commercialise Sarawak heritage.

It’s essentially collaboration of expertise and skills from UNIMAS, IPG Kampus Tun Abdul Razak, Centexs (Centre of Technical Excellence) as well as the local songket and keringkam communities with the Old Kuching Smart Heritage (OKShe), an initiative encompassing Historical Monuments heritage, Kampung heritage, Business heritage and Riverfront heritage, covering large areas of the city.

“This project runs under a model based on community participation to ensure its sustainability,” elaborates Sabariah, who’s also the project’s chairperson, before adding that redeveloping these intricate crafts and sustaining the supply chain have been among the main challenges on this journey thus far.

But, she hastens to add, thanks to the continual support of the steering committee and commitment given by the existing and emerging artisans of songket and keringkam, this project has been able to make gradual progress in terms of improving its supply chain and participation in knowledge transfer between the academics, artisans, designers and the global textile players.

Under the SHI project, identifying songket and keringkam communities was the first step taken in the quest to build and strengthen ties between all the communities involved. Among those that are actively participating are the songket makers from Taman Hijrah (Kuching), Kampung Gedong (Simunjan), Kampung Rajang (Rajang), Kampung Mang (Kota Samarahan), Limbang and Betong.

Meanwhile, the keringkam makers hail from Kampung Lintang, Jalan Merdeka, Kampung Samariang, Kampung No.3 and Kampung No.5, Matang, Kampung Belimbing and Betong. The networking initiatives have also been extended to Brunei and Sambas, Indonesia.

Another initiative towards reviving interest in the heritage of songket and keringkam is by offering weaving skills proficiency programmes that would help to revive the activities of songket-weaving and keringkam embroidery, particularly among the Sarawakian Malays. In Kuching itself, according to Sabariah, there are more than 250,000 Malays, most of whom are spread out in the Malay villages.

Songket and keringkam business owners are also being encouraged to embrace entrepreneurial and digital technology knowledge in order to be competitive in the global market, which in turn, would ensure their longevity in the business. Training programmes in the form of practical workshops have been facilitated in the Faculty of Computer Science and Information

TECHNOLOGY AT UNIMAS

Pulling out a hardcover coffee table book from among a pile that’s been sitting on the table in front of her, Sabariah excitedly motions for me to come closer for a better look as she leafs through its glossy pages. Titled Songket & Keringkam – Warisan Melayu Sarawak (Malay Heritage of Sarawak), I discover that this book, launched by Sarawak’s Chief Minister in conjunction with the “Malam Pesona Songket dan Keringkam Antarabangsa 2018” (the first fashion show of Sarawak Malay heritage textiles) and published by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), explores the textile history of the Sarawak Malays, including the usage of songket and keringkam, as well innovations in songket and keringkam products.

Turning to a page with a picture of a familiar face, looking completely regal modelling a beautiful songket and keringkam ensemble, Sabariah, whose father was a government servant, sheepishly offers: “That’s me – when I was a lot younger!”

A PRECIOUS HEIRLOOM

Keringkam, a gold thread embroidery, which is embroidered onto veils is essentially a traditional head cover worn by the Malays especially for special occasions. This keringkam veil made by the Sarawak Malays would usually be in a rich red colour, not unlike the one worn by Sabariah during our chat today. I duly learn that there are two types of keringkam – one is the long version, which is used much like the selendang (shawl). The other is a shorter version and known as selayah. It’s also placed on the head and would rest on the wearer’s shoulder in lovely folds.

“In every household, even today, people would have their family’s keringkam and songket, which they’ve probably kept for generations,” offers Sabariah, before adding: “Even mine. My late mother had kept it for a long time and it was whipped out during my wedding day. In turn, I will also keep it for my children. So it’s like a family heirloom.”

To make the keringkam isn’t easy. It’s a highly skilled work of art demanding care and precision. Many hours are initially spent counting the weft and warp of the fabric to ensure that all the motifs would be woven on one straight line, or that each motif would be in its rightful place on the veil.

The motifs, which are commonly inspired by and named after plants or flowers such as rose, orchid, bamboo shoots etc, cannot be drawn. The embroiderer would need to count the thread vein before commencing with the embroidery. It’s imperative that the counting process is correct so that the motifs are balanced.

The main “tool” that’s used to make the keringkam veil is a finely cut silver or gold foil that’s threaded using a special needle fashioned specifically for this type of embroidery, which is normally ordered from goldsmiths. Flat and made of copper, there are usually two big holes for the foil thread to be attached. Sabariah tells me that the silver or gold foil that’s used isn’t cheap; in fact, this is probably one of the main reasons why the growth of keringkam-making is so slow today.

“Yes, the threads can be expensive but of course, there are different grades of threads. Suffice to say, the more expensive ones will last a long time,” says Sabariah, before bringing my attention to her keringkam veil: “You see this material? It’s first grade kasa rubiah. It’s getting harder to find this now but we’re searching. Perhaps there’ll be some in India or Turkey.” Fabrics which are commonly used for making keringkam veils are those that are transparent such as gauze, voile and gossamer fine.

PASSION AND MISSION

“I’ve been passionate about the arts ever since I was at University where I was an active student leader,” confides Sabariah, before adding with a chuckle: “My first degree was actually in Genetics! When I was a student at Universiti Malaya, I actually modelled for Batik Ibrahim at Pertama Complex. So you can imagine… even in my position today, where I’m charged with taking care of Human Resource and Transformation, Digital Government and so on, my heart remains very firmly with the arts.”

The attractive Sarawakian muses that the inclination for the arts from a young age would have most likely been stirred by her weaver-mother. “But then again, sometimes I think it’s just inherent in me,” she adds, smiling.

Asked what’s the most creative or artistic thing about her, Sabariah chuckles before replying: “I like home decorating! I have an eye for detail, colours, you name it. I also love cooking although I’m not trained in it. I cook a lot for my family. You can imagine as a mother of four grown-up children who love to eat, it can be a LOT of cooking going on!”

To de-stress from her hectic and challenging job, Sabariah confesses that she finds going to the wet market very therapeutic. “I love shopping for ingredients. The colours, smell and bustle of the market are things that I actually find quite charming.”

From the corner of my eye, I note a group of people dressed in fetching batik and songket slowly making their way towards the escalator near where Sabariah and I are sat. It suddenly dawns on me that she’s required to grace the prestigious Piala Seri Endon event, which is mere minutes away from commencing.

A last question Datu? And Sabariah nods graciously. What are your hopes for your songket or keringkam? I pose. She pauses briefly to contemplate the question. Leaning back into her seat, Sabariah replies: “I really hope that one day we’ll see more people wearing the songket and keringkam. Maybe when they attend weddings or formal events. It can be like a “signature” attire for Sarawakians. I know that the cost factor is a stumbling block but we’re striving to do something about that so the price can be managed. This is one way of keeping this unique heritage alive…”

[Source: “Bringing the shine back to a disappearing heritage” published by New Straits Times, New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd.]

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