KEEPING ALIVE ART OF MAKING ‘LABU SAYONG’
Elderly woman preserves craft with love and patience
IN Kampung Kepala Bendang in Sayong here, the art of making labu sayong (traditional water pitchers) is being kept alive by the tireless efforts of elderly village folk, such as Marjenas Sulaiman, 54.
Marjenas, known to locals as Kak Jan, said many people regarded Kuala Kangsar as a hub for Malay traditional craftsmen, who were sought after for making keris (traditional Malay dagger) among others. However, she said, the traditional craft was slowly being forgotten.
She said many labu sayong potters left the profession due to old age and their children were not keen to take up the trade in their pursuit of urban living.
Realising that the skill is in danger of being forgotten, she dedicated her time to keep the tradition alive by passing on her know-how to a new generation of craftsmen.
“I have had apprentices in the past, but from my observation, many young people had neither the patience nor the skill despite their enthusiasm.
“It takes time and lots of work to transform lumps of clay into objects of beauty and utility,” she said in an interview with the New Sunday Times recently.
The pumpkin-shaped water vessels, made of clay found along Sungai Sayong in Perak, allows the stored water to cool even on a hot day.
She said there used to be hundreds of labu sayong makers in the village as it was once a popular cottage industry, but the number had dropped to only a handful.
She said running a profitable labu sayong business required not only an eye for artistic flair but also business skills.
“A business that does not make enough profit will go out of business,” she said.
The small number of surviving potters also face competition from machine-made labu sayong, which are mass-produced by using the slip casting technique, where liquid clay mixture is poured into a plaster mould.
“They are cheaper and widely available, but I’m happy to see that many people still prefer the handmade ones because of the efforts that went into making them.”
She said handmade labu sayong represented love, commitment and tradition.
“The art of making it is imbued with love,” said Marjenas, who has been perfecting her pottery skills since she was 15.
She said although mass-produced labu sayong were enticing due to their uniformity, smooth quality and durability, it was the handmade ones that were better appreciated by the people for their meticulous artistry.
“The potters preserve the dying tradition by transforming their creativity into a practical piece of art,” she said.
These days, when she is not making labu sayong, Kak Jan conducts workshops and give demonstrations at her workshop to visitors, including tourists, with the help of her two sisters.
At the workshop, visitors can try their hand at sculpting labu sayong using the traditional pottery turntables.
The income generated from conducting such workshops was not much, she said, but it provided her much satisfaction in her efforts to preserve the traditional craft.
For her, labu sayong is more than just a household utensil: it is also a tangible expression of the Malay community’s unique culture.
“I feel proud to have taken this on for most of my life, and I hope to keep it alive for as long as I can.
“This centuries-old craft skill will die one day, unless younger people make an effort to keep it alive with love, dedication and commitment,” she said.
Making ‘labu sayong’ requires skill and patience.