Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Sarawak blowpipe — a legacy of art and survival

AMI Unja is a humble guy who ‘dresses up’ or adorns blowpipes with rattan weavings.

He has been selling his attractively designed blowpipes and other artefacts at the Miri Handicraft Centre for the past 15 years.

Ami and his wife, Aweh Emang, from Long Moh, have made a name for themselves among the cultural beaders and craftsmen in the resort city.

While Ami is an Iban rattan craftsman, specialising in weaving rattan decorations on blowpipes and a wood carver especially with kayu hujan panas, Aweh is a Kenyah beader as well as a basket weaver.

Both are enterprising and talented in their own specialities. And not surprisingly, Aweh is a shooter to be reckoned with in women’s blowpipe competitions.

Nelson Janting, a handicraft stall owner and retired teacher, said the Iban blowpipe is similar to the ones made by the Penans.

Previously, a blowpipe would take three to four months or longer to make using very primitive methods of ‘plain drill and jungle scaffolding’.

In the old days, the longhouse blowpipe was not only for decor but also a functional weapon — with the craftsman holding special social status as the pride of the community.

The blowpipe is perforated by means of a long metal rod with a chisel-shaped bit. The craftsman chooses a good hardwood such as belian with a dark colour. Some blowpipe makers even build a hut just to get their work done in isolation and solitude.

Today, Ami sells belian blowpipes, some of which can fetch RM800 each.

A factory nowadays can easily bore a hole in a rod of any width and size,  producing a blowpipe in a matter of hours. But Ami pointed out it is just not the same because a slight mistake may mean the blowpipe is not ‘chun’ (accurate) in hitting its target.

“A hand-made blowpipe is still the weapon of one’s heart’s desire,” he said.

The blowpipe is usually around seven feet long with a metal spear tied with rattan at one end. The dart is inserted at the other end, using the spear to point to the target.

Some blowpipes are shorter – two feet in length — for short distance shooting. The Americans have even copied the blowpipe by coming up with a metal foldable version obtainable from reputable stores in Labuan.

An article describes the blowpipe as a weapon made with a piece of strait-grained wood, roughly shaped to about two metres with a 15-centimetre diameter.

From time to time, water is poured into the hole to float out wood chips. The pipe is trimmed and whittled to a diameter of about five centimetres after the drilling is completed.

Then the finished weapon is polished with a tough-grained, slightly waxy leaf. The bore of the blowpipe is very slightly curved to compensate for the weight of the weapon in use as it is horizontally held. The bore is polished by means of pulling lengths of rattan through it.