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KARAMA AK DAMPA-THE PASSING OF A WEAVING MATRIARCH

By: EDRIC ONG

Rumah Garie longhouse along the Sungai Kain, Ulu Kapit District is in mourning. Their matriarchal figure, Mdm Karama ak Dampa, grandmother of Tuah Rumah Garie and wife of Tuah Rumah Atong, has passed away on 24th January at the age of 88.

The weaving looms lay silent in the longhouse; the shuttles are quiet for at least a month or so. Mdm. Karama-the matriarch of the famous community of Iban ‘pua kumbu’ ikat-weavers, is no longer around to cast her grey-blue eyes over the shoulders of Bangie, Malaya and Helen as they weave; or to nod in approval as they perform the ‘Ngar’ ceremony for mordanting the cotton yarn.

MILESTONES OF SUCCESS
I came to know Mdm Karama in 1988, when she was one of the weavers invited to a workshop on revival of natural dyes in textile weaving known as “Weaving Cultural Links” at the Dewan Tun Razak in Kuching organized by Society Atelier Sarawak, Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak and the Sarawak Museum, sponsored by Canada Fund. She and her daughter, Bangie, were among the 70 Iban women invited from 5 weaving districts to revive the practice of natural dyes and to introduce silk yarn for ‘pua-kumbu’ weaving. Up to that time, all Iban weaving had been done in cotton.

Of all the women who received the silk yarn, Karama’s longhouse group were the only successful ones who achieved success in using the silk yarn in their ‘pua-kumbu’ weaving in natural dyes. More yarn was given to them and in 1990 a milestone exhibition of the silk weavings was held at the Sarawak Museum.

Since then, there was no stopping the creative energy of Karama and her weavers at Rumah Atong (old name of the longhouse known now as Rh. Garie). At almost any State wide weaving competition, they would sweep up all the major prizes. Their fame spread nationwide and culminated in 1998, when Karama and Bangie won the joint First Prize at the UNESCO Crafts Prize for Natural Dye Weaving for Asia-Pacific held in Chiangmai, Thailand.

WOVEN DREAMS

Before she was married at the age of eighteen, Karama had this dream.
‘Eight men were lining up to ask for her hand in marriage, but she refused each and every one of them. Finally, a handsome and strong stranger appeared to ask for her hand. She consented and followed him up a hill. Every one of the other eight suitors and their families were mad with her.

She was curious because he was not from her longhouse or anyone that she has seen before. So she asked him: “Are you 'kidjang' (deer in Iban)? Or are you monkey?" She thought for a moment that he might be one of those spirits that can change its form from animal to man and vice versa. He replied, “No, I am an Iban.”

He then took her to his longhouse and introduced her to his mother, an aged lady with white hair. This old lady took Karama into her ‘bilek’ (room) and pointed to her numerous ‘beliak’ (wooden weaving beaters) that lined the walls. The ones on the top were white with mold whilst those at the bottom were shiny and polished.

“See the beliak.” said the old lady. “The white and moldy ones at the top represent the people who cannot weave. Those at the bottom, the shiny ones represent those who can weave.” Pointing them to a beautifully carved and shiny ‘beliak’, the old lady told Karama, “ This one is yours!”

She then proceeded to show Karama heaps and heaps of ‘pua-kumbu’ textiles lying on a corner of the room, “All these weavings are your works!”

WOMEN’S WARPATH

Karama is an acknowledged “INDU NAKAR INDU NGAR” – a master weaver and dyer. This is the highest status of a woman in the longhouse weaving community accorded to one who knows how to mix and use the oils, gingers, and salts in the correct proportions for mordanting the cotton yarn in order that they can absorb natural dyes. She could only earn this status after having had a dream from the weaving goddess Kumang ordaining her into this role.

The ritual of the mordanting of the cotton yarn is known as “NGAR”, which anthropologists describe as the ‘Warpath of the Women’; for indeed it is the ceremony of ole solely performed by Iban women, equal in importance to the ritual of ‘head-hunting’ for the Iban men in the past.

Karama has passed on the mantel of leadership amongst her longhouse women to Bangie ak. Embol, her adopted daughter, and mother of Tuah Rumah Garie. During the ‘Ngar’ ceremony in 2003 held at the longhouse as part of the Post-Forum tour for the World Eco-Fiber and Textile (WEFT), Bangie was conducting the ‘Ngar’ under the supervision of Karama. More than 30 Iban women were involved in the ceremony of mordanting cotton yarn observed by textile scholars from USA, Canada, Japan and Europe.

 

ARTISTIC LEGACY

Karama’s textiles are uniquely her own; with a vocabulary of motifs that cannot be copied or matched. Her dream inspired images of ‘The sunset wedding of the Iban Princess to the Indian Prince’ has a beautiful ‘julok’ poem which is still recited by the weavers she leaves behind. She sometimes injects a bit of jest into her textiles as when she depicted my Indian friend sleeping in her longhouse, titling it “Raja Tambi tindok”.

Her silken gift to me of the Four Beasts from the Book of Revelations of the Bible holds a special place in my textile collection. A large silk ‘pua-kumbu’ she wove recently now hangs in the Sarawak Textile Museum. Other pieces that she wove in her lifetime are now treasured in collections of foreign museums such as the Ethnographic Museum in Gotenburg, Sweden and at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

We will sadly miss her at our Textile gatherings, but the artistic legacy she leaves behind will always be a constant reminder of a great and kind lady who gave so much to her family and friends; and to the Textile Art World!

 

 


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