Heritage in her hands

Published on July 4, 2010   ·   No Comments

Nortipah Abdul Kadir, an 11th generation tenun weaver, relates her love of this craft to VIMALA SENEVIRATNE

THERE’s something gratifying about watching a person do what he or she does well — a pottery maker teasing a lump of clay into a beautiful water jar or a dancer leaping in the air effortlessly.

But watching a 65-year-old grandmother slightly bent over her old wooden loom weaving exquisite material out of fine silk threads is perhaps the most inspiring. Pushing her thick glasses up the bridge of her nose, Pahang-born master weaver Nortipah Abdul Kadir carefully untangles the threads on her wooden loom.

“That’s what happens when you lose concentration.” The soft-spoken mother of three is not flustered over it.

“It’s a tedious job untangling the knots but I am a very patient person. I don’t let such things bother me,” she says, flashing her toothy smile.

She leans back and decides to take a short break from her work.

Nortipah, who has been weaving tenun for 52 years, is working on a four-metre-long material blooming with the natural shades of the rainbow.

She has been at it for almost five hours since 8am. She is seated at her wooden loom at the Pulau Keladi Cultural Complex which is nestled among the quaint wooden houses in Pulau Keladi in Pekan, about 20km from Kuantan.

On this hot and balmy afternoon, Nortipah is in a chatty mood. She is personable and friendly, and it is easy to warm up to her.

Her eyes gleam with enthusiasm as she talks about her love for weaving, a craft that has been in her family line for 11 generations.

Nortipah, a grandmother of five, is not only nationally acknowledged as a master tenun weaver, she can trace her ancestry to Tuk Tuan Keraing Aji, a Bugis aristocrat from Makassar, Sulawesi, who fled his native Indonesia when the Dutch invaded the country.

Settling in Pahang, he is said to have introduced the art of tenun weaving to the village folks in the 16th Century.

“This has been the family trade for about 500 years, each generation passing on what they have learnt to the next. I am now passing it on to my youngest daughter Noorhidayah and I pray she will pass it on to at least one of her three children.” Although she comes from a family of highly respected tenun weavers, she is down-to-earth. “My work means more to me than my lineage. This is a dying craft and I want to teach those interested in the fine art of weaving tenun,” she says. Nortipah has trained scores of students interested in the art of tenun weaving at the complex where she has been teaching for more than 20 years.

Although not as flamboyant as the songket, the Pahang tenun is distinct in its colourful weave plaids where the thread patterns are either arranged vertically or horizontally.

This hand-woven material was once an exclusive item of the Pahang royal palace.

These days, tenun Pahang is worn on special occasions by aristocratic families, the well-heeled and locals.

There are about 20 traditional motifs and patterns for Pahang tenun.

Pahang tenun is highly priced as every piece of hand-woven material is a timeless, unique work of art from the hands of the weaver.

A four-metre single-coloured tenun (without any designs) costs about RM450. “It is expensive for several reasons. You must realise that this is no ordinary textile. It’s 100 per cent hand-woven and made of pure silk, woven with the finest of silk threads,” says Nortipah.

She pauses for a moment as if searching for the right words. “This is an art work produced by a person, usually a woman, and it carries an imprint of the character, thoughts, emotions, feelings and spirit of the weaver.” Nortipah was introduced to the world of tenun weaving when she was 11.

Her mother had two wooden looms in the backyard of her house in Pulau Keladi where she did all her weaving. “I was intrigued and fascinated by what she did — silk threads going through one end of the loom and at the other end you see a beautiful material emerging.

“Everyday after school my three sisters and I watched what she did.” Nortipah, the third in a family of six, soon fell in love with the craft and decided to make it her career. She is keen to show us some of her finished works that are for sale and invites photographer, Surianie Mohamed Hanif, and me to her house, a 10-minute walk from the complex.

There is a mischievous glint in her eyes as she lowers her voice and whispers, “I can also show off my own collection of tenun baju kurung.” How many does she have? “Just a handful” is all she is willing to say. She obliges us by wearing one of her tenun baju kurung for the photo shoot. Her husband Mohamed Sharif Abdul Ghani, 70, who until recently ran a foodstall business in downtown Pekan, joins in the conversation.

“The showroom is a new extension to the house because we need a place to show off all her creations,” he says beaming with pride.

He sheepishly admits that he has never tried his hands at weaving.

“Nortipah is the expert. From the time we got married, 35 years ago, I just watched her create all the beautiful silk tenun. You need perfect co-ordination of the hands and feet for this job and lots of patience, which I don’t have,” he says with a laugh.

Mohamed Sharif helps Nortipah sell the tenun materials.

There are two wooden looms in the backyard of Nortipah’s house which she inherited from her mother who is now 87.

“When I am in doubt about some aspects of weaving, I dash off to my mother’s place, which is close by, to get her opinion.” Both looms are in perfect condition and is put to good use by Nortipah. “Sometimes, when I get the inspiration to create a new pattern I head to the backyard, sit at the loom and start weaving. Sometimes I work till one or two in the morning.” She still puts in a full work week, sometimes pushing 16 hours at a stretch.

“When you get inspired you can’t stop,” she says.

She keeps aside at least one day a week to spend time with her grandchildren who visit her on the weekends and holidays. “That’s also how I relax. I tell them about the beauty of weaving and encourage them to watch while I weave.” The word “retire” does not exist in her vocabulary. “I love what I am doing. It’s like an addiction. Once you get hooked, you can’t stop. I will weave for as long as I can.”

Read more: Family: Heritage in her hands http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/Family_Heritageinherhands/Article#ixzz0sbhRQQee

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