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Muruts - advanced in ideas about unity
Published on: Sunday, November 29, 2009

TO many, they may have been viewed as people going about their lives armed with blowpipes and machetes containing hair from the scalps of human trophies and attired in little more than loincloth (cawat).

But indigenous groups like the Muruts in Sabah's interior have debunked the myth that ability to read and write - the hallmark of being literate or educated - is necessary for survival.

Not in the jungle where survival depends on having an intimate knowledge on the cures for all sicknesses that can be sourced from nature's best pharmacy and co-existing with all those who also regard the rainforest as their home, be they human or wildlife.

Which today's western researchers and scientists are still trying to figure out to counter diseases, including newer ones.

Similarly, the importance and power of symbols and the meanings they convey or represent was not lost on the Muruts long before the piece of territory that we now call Sabah was traded on a piece of paper among interested parties in the world capitals.

In fact, the Murut motif on the cover of the "Spirit of Borneo" that chronicles the works of pioneer Hollywood wildlife film-makers, Martin and Osa Johnson, is believed to be at least 200 years old.

The ancient design depicting four figures (people) in a square is an icon or symbol of unity, according to Associate Professor Dr Ismail Ibrahim, 54, of Universiti Malaysia Sabah's (UMS) School of Arts Studies.

It is evidence that the Muruts were very advanced because they knew about the importance of unity and how to project unity through a decorative design or pattern even centuries ago.

This unchanging Murut pattern that has survived the times is called tiningulun or tiningaulun (a Murut word meaning pattern of a person).

Fundamentally, it is based on a human figure and found mostly on woven materials like hats and baskets.

"Every pattern has its origin. This symbol (tiningulun) originates from the word 'ulun' (meaning people.

It is a symbol of people. We can see an intellectual element in the tiningulun.

"Though it is an old pattern, it is an attractive traditional designÉpositive and very geometric. The composition of this motif portrays a structure that is well-composed, systematic and parallel.

In fact, the human figure is complete with headgear in a simple yet lucid form.

"If you take a closer look, you can see that the arm and the limb in the pattern blend into each other to achieve a dynamic Murut symbol of unity.

A symbol is an icon. From a contemporary perception, it is a strong design," Dr Ismail said.

According to him, the composition of the Murut motif (on the book cover) adequately fulfils the criteria for contemporary design.

"The motif (tiningulun) is ahead of the times so to speak. This is the strength of Murut designÉit is really advanced and was made even before the period when we could interpret that the pattern tells the story of unity."

However, the owner of this intellectual property (tiningulun) was lost in history. It was picked from Dr Ismail's collection of Murut motifs, which formed part of his research into the Murut culture in Sabah for his Master's thesis.

Dr Ismail supports the idea of registering the indigenous symbol associated with the "Spirit of Borneo" book for official government use.

"It will be a good move in the interest of perpetuation. It can be patented for use in Sabah only.

I haven't seen this design being used by others, not even in Sarawak. I guess other people may be allowed to use it too but of course not for official purposes."

Asked whether patenting would lead to complications, he did not think so.

"After all, we are encouraged to patent our creations or inventions."

Asked when he first spotted the tiningulun, he said he came across the motif in an old photo in the museum, but it is also found in old designs.

"Sometimes, it is not easy to get this motif unless we can find it in the museum. If not, then we take it from an old picture and have it re-drawn."

Even before he returned to Sabah in 1999, Dr Ismail had stumbled upon the tiningulun. "But at that time, I wasn't really interested in this motif."

It was while researching in Tenom in 2000 for his PhD, that he encountered for the first time that the tiningulun had been incorporated into Murut woven rattan items, among others.

Somebody was even wearing a hat with the pattern woven into it. It was hardly visible to the public before he took the initiative to document it.

His interest in Murut symbols and what they represent having been stirred, Dr Ismail decided to document all the Murut motifs, one by one.

"I took a picture of the motif and then redrew the design. It is not a new creation but extracted from an original pattern that had existed for centuries.

"But we don't know when it started. What is important is that it is turun temurun (passed from one generation to another)," Dr Ismail pointed out.

"In any one ethnic design or pattern that has been created, we attempt to study its essence.

What is its origin? Does the motif originate from a human form or the shape of a turtle, for example? And that's how from there, the motif or pattern was executed."

Dr Ismail said every Murut motif (or pattern) has a strong icon (theme or idea that is directly related to their way of life. Such motif focuses on a subject or theme, which is directly translated into an attractive pattern Take the case of the nantuapan (a Murut pattern that symbolises a meeting of people). This pattern can be found on Page 159 of the book, the "Spirit of Borneo", a collector's item.

"From a human figure, the creator of the design had composed it in such a way so as to represent a meeting of people by way of showing a 'grouping of heads'.

"The lying position of four people (in the motif) is based on the way of life during the Pesta Menuai (Harvest Festival). I feel that the nantuapan has a strong icon. Not only that, there is an element of intellect in the design," he explained.

Asked whether Murut motifs have a common theme, regardless of whether they are based on the human form or animals, Dr Ismail said the tiningulun, which symbolises unity, is the most common design compared with other patterns.

Relating his experience, the teacher-turned lecturer said he was transferred to the teachers training college in Cheras, KL and spent four years there in the 1990s.

While there, he felt the quiet around him unlike in Sabah "where I was always surrounded by a multi-racial society. In KL, life was moving at a fast pace though. Somehow, after that, I developed a passion for indigenous art in Sabah."

More than anything, while in KL, Dr Ismail was also nostalgic about the Harvest Festival in Sabah.

"I had become accustomed to the way of life in Sabah. I missed all that while working in KL. Had I stayed on there, I would have lost Sabah's indigenous cultural art for good. So, I decided to come back here to study the ethnic groups."

Howeverm he notes that the Harvest Festival today is a far cry from that of the 1970s "when its original cultural art could be seen in Penampang, Kota Belud or the Interior."

"It's no longer visible today except perhaps in Sapulut. Which is why I normally go there and not Penampang for the Harvest Festival."

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