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Film focuses on restoring Batak weaving tradition
Aug '14
Sandra Niessen/c: bataktextiles.com
Sandra Niessen/c: bataktextiles.com
Sandra Niessen, a Netherlands-based anthropologist, has produced a film titled ‘Rangsa ni Tonun’, depicting the in-crisis Batak weaving tradition and the urgency to restore weaving tradition of the vibrant cloth.
Batak textiles, one of the oldest forms of indigenous fabrics woven by the Northern Sumatran tribe Batak, are almost on the verge of extinction, mainly due to the growing demand for mill-produced modern day fabrics.
Traditionally woven on backstrap looms by the Toba, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing ethnic groups, the weavings are believed to protect the body and soul and are considered as of high symbolic and ceremonial importance. However, due to a decline in demand the technique is gradually disappearing, and so is the number of Batak weavers.
The fabric usually features zig-zag, circular or floral patterns designed from a mix of colourful yarns dyed with local plant extracts like salaon (blue in colour)  and the red ‘bangkudu’ (Morinda citrifolia).
The patterns are woven in a supplementary weft using a warp substitution technique in which a second set of white warp threads are used to replace the coloured warp thread for a section of the cloth during the weaving process.
The textiles are used for various purposes, including ulos godang, a type of shoulder-cloth which contains two weft bands featuring Romanised Indonesian text ‘Selamat Pake’ (meaning blessings to the wearer) and bulang, a head-cloth worn by married women.
In an attempt to bring the Batak textiles back in vogue, a Netherlands-based anthropologist Sandra Niessen has produced a film titled Rangsa ni Tonun, depicting the in-crisis and the urgency to restore weaving tradition of the vibrant cloth. 
The movie uses the almost lost Rangsa poetic genre of Batak oral literature as the medium to convey the message. Written by Guru Sinangga ni Adji in 1872, the poem describes the step-by-step process of the weaving technique. 
Made between 2010 and 2013, directed and filmed by the Javanese artist MJA Nashir, the film was showed in Batak villages to bring Rangsa ni Tonun back to the Bataklands. The film had an inspiring effect on the local culture and the weaving tradition, which is now in crisis and in danger of becoming extinct.
In 1979, Niessen began to study and write about the Batak cultures of North Sumatra, Indonesia, especially their weaving tradition. She has taught in Canadian universities and worked in museums in Europe and Canada. Rangsa ni Tonun (2013) is her first film. Her latest book publication, with the same title, is about the film. Her encyclopaedic volume, Legacy in cloth: Batak textiles of Indonesia (2009) about Batak textile types, including their history and techniques of production, appeared in 2009.

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