T’nalak weavers shun commercialization
LAKE SEBU, South Cotabato—Inside a dimly lit longhouse set against three serene lakes, a platinum-haired woman sits before a steady spread of loom, her creased fingers snaking through filamentous black strands of 6-meter long abaca fiber.
This t’nalak (T’boli cloth) design has been a source of pride for hundreds of years, embodying pride, strength and a deeply rooted bond among the ethnic T’bolis.
Now widely used in South Cotabato by well-known men in their own versions of haute couture, the t’nalak art, on its profit-making agenda that it is known today, has taken its toll on its nobility.
The commercialization and widespread popularity of the t’nalak produced outside the tedious weaving process has shattered prime weaver Lang Dulay, a 1998 awardee of the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan or the National Living Treasure Award conferred by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
Traditionally, the weaving industry has been one of Lake Sebu’s thriving sectors of mass employment for the T’bolis. Abaca plants abound, but the living conditions among the people have adversely affected the traditional design and credibility.
Behind the fading image of Dulay and then President Fidel Ramos in a celebrated memory that put the T’boli to national limelight, the glorious days of t’nalak art has caught up with the aging of Dulay.
Now 87 and holding on to her hazy sight on the right eye, random panting and twinge in the knees and pelvis, Dulay was diagnosed last year with a heart disease and had stayed at the hospital’s intensive care unit for weeks. Every month, she spends P3,000 for three drugs she takes daily.
Despite her ailment, Dulay meticulously works on a 52-centimeter wide and 6-m long cloth, a half-done order from a client expected to be delivered in two weeks time.
Experts have evaluated her works as outstanding based on precision of shapes, authentic color and symmetry. These are currently on display at the National Museum. Over a thousand luxurious and intricately designed cloths are spread all over the world.
A little over a hundred weavers live in Lake Sebu, weaving mainly for the domestic market. But since the widespread popularity of t’nalak, the traditional design is closely vanishing with only a handful choosing to preserve the genuine article.
“I’m not at all healthy and strong just like the old days when I used to visit the women in other barangays persuading them to weave the conventional way,” Dulay spoke in flair T’boli one cool late day. Her 36-year-old grandson Lauro served as interpreter.
“Designing is all I can do now,” she said.
The incessant sting in her knees and pelvis that started three years ago has been too much for her health. Weaving requires her to wear a wide band that strains her back and pelvis for over 70 years of artistic toil.
The art, which has been with Dulay’s family for centuries, eats up a month to make.
Dulay started weaving at 12 and has worked on over a hundred patterns. She has woven over a thousand since she learned from her great-grandmother Siol Sengid through her late mother Luan Kambay, and based on designs she has dreamt of.
“In my dreams, I met Fu Dalu, the spirit of the abaca, weaving the t’nalak. She taught me the various patterns including the bankiring (hair bangs), the gondong sungi (classic), the bulinglangit (clouds) and the kabangi (butterfly) in full red and black dyes,” she narrated.
The colors show the character of the T’bolis. Black spells the struggle of the ethnic heroes which characterizes the people now, and red for their love and courage.
In her school, the Lang Dulay Weaving Center, 15 T’boli women no younger than 30 years master the art of the olden ways with teacher Dulay for four years.
“I assess their works every three years and they graduate after four years,” she said. But only a few have graduated since the center was put up in 1998 through financial aid from the NCCA. She receives P24,000 from the NCCA to maintain the center and monthly pay.
The survival of the genuine t’nalak art depends only to a handful of weavers that she had trained, or “our rich traditions and history instilled in the cloth will vanish forever,” Dulay shared.
Long widowed with only two sons, she called the four who have remained loyal to her, including her younger sister Linggang Sulay, 69, and daughter-in-law Ansim, 51. The rest have gone through ways of earning more by producing more, often outside the customary design of the t’nalak.
“Most t’nalak sold in the market these days do not conform to the rigid way it should have been processed,” Dulay said.
“One has to make it with deep focus and careful attention to detail—following the precise design, measurement, color, and it should be tight, and the finished product is shiny and smooth to the hands when touched.”
Currently widely sold in the market, as Dulay and her heirs observe, are rough, loose and wobbly abaca hemp, and the smudging colors of red, black and white. Weavers often produce t’nalak in other colors, such as green, blue and brown.
“It’s fashionable, yes, but it violates the essence of the t’nalak tradition. But I respect the sense of freedom they expressed in their designs,” Dulay said.
The demand in the industry is somehow blamed on entrepreneurs who impose their own designs on T’boli weavers to look good on a bags, dresses and accessories.
“These are the current weavers who rush in making the cloth, but the agenda is solely based on making profit. I can’t blame them, though. They need to live, they have children to feed, and most T’bolis live in poverty,” Dulay said.
“I have predicted this,” she said, but appealed to the women and the youth to relearn and study the intricacies of t’nalak weaving.
The “hastily done” t’nalak is sold cheaper as compared to Dulay’s P1,200 by a meter. “But what you get from me is the tradition that I have preserved in my design,” she said.
“But I will leave the art to a few whom I trust will spread the tradition,” she said.
One who picked up the skill is her 15-year-old great-granddaughter Lanie Joy, who gets frequent training despite attending a regular school.
“I will teach the old and hard way so she and the ones she will teach will not forget. As long as I live, I will never stop teaching whoever wants to learn and study our traditions in the t’nalak, and continue the symbol for Lake Sebu’s culture and the arts,” Dulay said.
“It is through Lang Dulay that the South Cotabato bestows honor to the t’nalak that she made famous through the T’nalak Festival, simultaneous with the province founding anniversary,” quipped Lauro.
Dulay smiled at the thought that yearly, the provincial government pays homage to the T’bolis’ struggle to preserve the t’nalak. “My only hope is that they will not forget us,” she said.