THE DEFINITIVE CLASSICAL PUA KUMBU by Venon Kedit
Please know that what I write is strictly what I have learned from our two grandaunts. They learned from our foremothers, the greatest unbroken line of masterweavers of the Saribas in living memory. So what you are learning is the definitive essence of Saribas pua kumbu tradition as taught and passed down to me; the highly refined and esoteric weaving tradition of five Indu Tau Nakar Tau Gaar: Mindu, Mengan, Selaka, Merta and Sendi.
First, we must learn that a pua kumbu is a composite made up of many parts. Each part has a term. And each part has a meaning and a purpose. Nothing is accidental or irrelevant. I would like to propose Indai Gumbek’s Kumbu Bali Bugau as the definitive classical pua kumbu as this pua kumbu not only has all the parts that a proper and complete pua kumbu should have but these parts are also displayed in their most purest and correct form.
Why do I use the terms Definitive and Classical?
THE FOUR DISTINCT PERIODS
First, let me explain Classical. As a student of the tradition, I classify pua kumbu into four distinct periods. Ancient (Pre Great Krakatoa Eruption), Old (Great Krakatoa Eruption to Turn of the 20th Century), Classical (Turn of the 20th Century to 2nd World War) and Modern (Post 2nd World War). Weaving stopped during the war.
Ancient : Pre Great Krakatoa Eruption 1883
Old : Great Krakatoa Eruption 1883 to Turn of the 20th Century
Classical : Turn of the 20th Century to 2nd World War 1939
Modern : Post 2nd World War 1945 onwards
My classification is loosely based on the classification used by my two grandaunts who also referred to anything woven before the Great Krakatoa Eruption as pua kelia (ancient blankets, and therefore highly prized and valued as heirloom), anything woven by their mothers or grandmothers as pua lama (old, just as highly prized as heirlooms), and anything woven after as pua baru (new blankets, symbols of wealth and prestige). Because they were contemporaries with and lived through the 2nd World War, blankets woven by my grandaunts then were obviously considered new by their reckoning. But as we are now in the 21st century, I would prefer to call their works Classical instead of new.
A second reason why I choose the term Classical is because the years between the Great Krakatoa Eruption and the 2nd World War saw a great increase in material wealth in the Saribas. The cultivation of rubber and coffee meant surplus income and coloured and commercial threads were easily purchased from Chinese traders. Slaves and hired labour worked the padi fields and weavers could allocate all their time and resources to weaving.
With the advent of the imported chinese and indian commercial threads which were finer and consistent in size, weavers were able to create very fine patterns on the warp as opposed to the old taya threads handspun from homegrown cotton which were coarse and inconsistent. The artform of pua kumbu weaving reached its zenith in these years as almost every woman of noble blood wove and the best masterpieces of Iban weaving and technique all come from this period. It was literally the golden heyday of pua kumbu weaving when the most intricate and refined patterns were created. Hence, the Classical period.
(This is only a brief discussion of periods. I shall extrapolate on my definition of periods in another entry in the future.)
Now, Definitive. During the Classical period, weavers adhered to very strict rules and laws of the weaving tradition. Indai Gumbek was the foremost weaver of her day and in many respects was the guardian of the Classical style. It follows that if one were to propose a Definitive model or prototype or example of the Classical pua kumbu, one would use a blanket by Indai Gumbek as the exemplary model. Hence, Definitive.
Is there a need to have a Definitive type or model? I would like to believe so. We need a marker, a measure, a rule, a benchmark, a standard. Weaving is a dynamic tradition. It needs a constant to mark out the boundaries and parameters that respect the tradition laid down centuries ago.
THEREFORE, a pua kumbu has six principal parts:
- Buah pua (main body)
- Kelemebai and/or sengkalan (fencing)
- Punggang pun (preceding accompaniment)
- Punggang ujong (proceeding accompaniment)
- Anak pua (side borders)
- Ara and Tisi (selvedge)
Note: If you wish to copy this entry and the photographs contained herein for your research, you may do so. However, please credit the Definitive Classical Pua Kumbu to Indai Gumbek Tau Nakar Tau Gaar (Sendi anak Ketit), Bilik 4 (Bilik Gerasi), Stambak Ulu, Layar, Saribas, circa 1920s.
Do patterns and motifs that appear on these parts have personal titles (ensumbar) and names/terms (nama buah)? Of course. But I shall not attempt to discuss ensumbar or nama buah in this entry. That is a whole subject on its own.
1. BUAH PUA
The main body of a pua kumbu is called the buah pua (main pattern or main body). A buah pua is composed of the indu’ buah or principal outline and the pengalit or decorations. Within this main body lies the spiritual potency (mali) of a pua kumbu.
Every weaver would endeavour to leave as little background space as possible in the main body. This was to display her proficiency in the kebat (tying of the warp) technique. Large untied spaces indicated laziness and a lack of skill in estimating her kayu and the enfolding pattern.
A pua kumbu has no ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ in the pictorial sense. Instead, it has a beginning (pun) and an end (ujong). The pun of a pua kumbu almost always begin from the kelemebai as it is here that the weaver begins her pattern using the kelemebai as a ruler. But this is NOT a strict rule, merely a device for counting.
The mungkal (to begin the main body) is the most ritually significant moment of the entire kebat process and the weaver must not stop tying the warp until all the gelong lima (coil of five) of the first row are completed. This row is called the pun jari (the first touch). In a fifty kayu pua, a weaver may tie up to two gelong lima. In a hundred and nine kayu pua, she will try to squeeze in at least six gelong lima in the first row!
When a weaver begins to kebat at the pun, she must wear a kain kebat (patterned skirt), sit on a tikai bebuah (patterned mat), offer a piring (food offerings) and tabak (sireh leaves and betel nuts) at the base of the tangga ubong (warp frame), slaughter a burik (white) cockerel and sprinkle the blood on the warp frame and attach the family’s pengaroh (charms and amulets) to the tangga ubong in a yellow piece of cloth. The two main types of pengaroh used by Indai Gumbek when doing the kebat were the batu semut gatal (the itchy ant stone to make the weaver constantly itch to weave) and batu pengerawang ati (the encouragement stone to strengthen the weaver’s resolve). She also used a third stone when tying ‘dangerous’ motifs, which she kept close to her breast. It is imperative that silence and respect is observed during the mungkal pun jari as unseen guests are present!
The whole act of tying the main body onto the warp is understood as a duel between the weaver and the ‘spirit’ of the pattern. It is during this laborious and meticulous process that the weaver’s spiritual strength is tested. She will encounter supernatural happenings and dream dreams. This period is when the window between her world and the spiritual world is open and she must be on guard. If she is spiritually strong, she will emerge from this stage of the weaving unscathe. If she is weak, then she risks becoming layu (illness, madness and even death).
The Iban repertoire of main body patterns is vast. I shall discuss them in other entries. There is also a particular motif that can only be woven at night and by moonlight, on the tanju (verandah), with the entire longhouse in darkness, which I shall discuss in another entry. Spirit and human figures are strictly forbidden (mali) to inexperienced and young weavers. Even aged weavers attempt them with caution and only after a dream encounter. It is not unusual for a mother to tie such figures in her daughter’s pua kumbu, as age and experience take precedence when having to encounter the supernatural.
2. KELEMEBAI AND SENGKALAN
The main body is always ‘fenced’ in by either two kelemebai (one at each end of the buah pua) or one kelemebai and one sengkalan (one at each end of the buah pua). This ‘fencing’ is to ensure that the buah pua is clearly delineated as well as ritually enclosed and confined.
The row of alternating black and white ‘sticks’ is called the kelemebai, after the milipede. Basically, this device is used as a ruler for the weaver to count her kayu, and also to indicate width and size. The smallest pua kumbu has fifty kayu while the largest pua kumbu has a hundred and nine kayu.
The sengkalan is a broad band made up of three smaller bands of white, black and white respectively. It literally means ‘board’. The sengkalan can only be woven by a weaver who has tembu kayu (completed her cycle of weaving nine pua kumbu) or who, despite not completing her cycle yet, has sufficiently shown proficiency in weaving; this proficiency generally acknowledged by her community. Therefore, the sengkalan is a prestige indicator to state proficiency and tembu kayu.
3. PUNGGANG PUN, 4. PUNGGANG UJONG
The main pattern is always enclosed by two end accompaniments, called the punggang pun and the punggang ujong. Where the punggang preceding the pun is called the punggang pun, the punggang proceeding from the ujong is called the punggang ujong.
The punggang act as complementary patterns to the buah pua. They enhance and support the ‘story’ of the buah pua, and also ‘guard’ the spirit of the buah pua. Sometimes, the punggang can also depict ‘food’ for the spirit of the buah pua e.g. if the main body is that of crocodiles, then the end accompaniments would portray ‘preys’. Where the buah pua of a pua kumbu is not known or is kept secret, the punggang are almost always good hints and clues as to the meaning of the main body.
There is no hard and fast rule how a pua kumbu is to be displayed ritually when hung. Often, the pun would be at the bottom when hung vertically but it really depends on the overall design of the pua kumbu and the pattern on the main body. The weaver makes the ultimate call on how her pua kumbu is to be hung or displayed. Sometimes, the weaver could be mischievous and intentionally start the pun WITHOUT a kelemebai but a sengkalan instead.
5. ANAK PUA
The buah pua must always ‘give birth’ (beranak) to the anak pua or side borders. The reasons for this is two-fold: aesthetically pleasing as well as spiritually complete and harmonious. A buah pua that does not beranak is considered incomplete and therefore trangressing a dicta of weaving. This invites the displeasure of the goddesses of weaving as well as the spirit of the buah pua.
The anak pua is made up of either one main vertical band or several vertical bands of differing sizes on both sides of the buah pua. Most anak pua depict animals such as omen birds, snakes, lizards and insects; ‘offsprings’ of the buah pua. Sometimes, human-like figures are also represented, with very distinct meanings.
6. ARA AND TISI
Finally, all pua kumbu are finished with a selvedge, or ara, and the outermost band is called the tisi or tisau, depending on the context of the sentence. The ara is made up of vertical bands of block colours. The coloured bands may be arranged in various configurations, depending on what the weaver wishes to state.
- If she has not tembu kayu (completed a cycle of nine pua kumbu), she is only allowed to use red as the outermost band (tisi) of the selvedge (ara).
- Once she has tembu kayu, she would use white as the outermost band on her tenth pua kumbu and all proceeding pua kumbu as a prestige indicator. A white outermost band is often referred to as semalau labang.
Although the real semalau labang should strictly be a white tisi next to a black ara, correctly imitating the white and black feathers of the semalau bird, like in the pua kumbu below.
- When she has attained the status of an indu tau nakar tau gaar and is acknowledged by her community as a ‘leading lady in all matters feminine and spiritual’ as well as a weaver accomplished in weaving and most importantly dyeing, she will have the singular honour of using yellow as the outermost band of selvedge on her pièce de résistance or masterpiece pua kumbu. A pua kumbu with a yellow outermost band is called a pua wo. A weaver will not use yellow as an outermost band twice; it is a reserved priviledge.
I have yet to see any other colour beside red, white and yellow as a tisi. The usage of these three colours respectively as a tisi on the ara is a strict rule as it indicates the technical proficiency and spiritual maturity of the weaver and must never be transgressed.
Technically, this is not part of a pua kumbu, but it is one of the strictest rule in pua kumbu tradition that the fringes of the two halves of the loop must never be joined lest the weaver encounters difficulty in childbirth.
Indai Gumbek stitched the numeric 4 on some of her pua kumbu to denote ownership. The number 4 refers to Bilik Empat of Stambak Ulu, her address.
Cousins, nieces, nephews and future generations of Gerasi’s bilik, you must first learn to recognise and identify all the six parts of a pua kumbu before you learn anything else. Even the menfolk of the Stambak of Mengan and Sendi’s day could identify all these parts; and they were leaders and warriors!
Finally, the classical pua kumbu must satisfy four dictum:
- Is composed of all six parts;
- Visually and aesthetically balanced (a matter of taste and style associated with an era);
- Physically well shaped (e.g. uneven warp tension can cause inconsistent width; the two halves of the loop must meet perfectly when joined), and;
- Spiritually complete (e.g. depictions of gaping mouths or orifices must have food or offerings to consume; spirit or human figures must be accompanied or appeased with offerings).
Who came up with these terms and dictates? I don’t know. I was taught that these ‘weaving laws’ have existed from time immemorial and were taught to Iban weavers by the ancient goddesses of old. Indai Gumbek deftly displayed them in all her pua kumbu and in her day, her pieces set the benchmark in her community. This is now a tradition and legacy we are dutibound to uphold. Even if we may not weave anymore, we must never forget what our weavings mean.