Why a new festival was created

Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai – long life, good health.

THE Gawai Dayak, a festival of the non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Sarawak, was gazetted by the government in 1964 as a public holiday in the state. It has been celebrated ever since without fail.

After more than half a century of existence of its official recognition, the history buffs may be interested to find out why the festival was created, and then recognised by the government.

My information on Gawai Dayak has been obtained from various sources – verbal, written and personal knowledge. Others may like to help out with additional information of the history of the Gawai. They are welcome to add more information.

During the colonial era, several Dayak leaders were informally discussing the proposal of an official Gawai – among them were George Jamuh, Edward Jerah, Edward Brandah, Dr Mason, Ah Guan, Austin Jaga, Benedict Sandin, Pancras Eddy, members of the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU), and its Women’s wing. And many more!

The intention was to discourage the holding of too many gawais, held at various longhouses and villages over a long period of time. Some of these were seen as a waste of money (of which the Dayaks never had a lot anyway) and a loss of valuable time, which should be spent on economic activities. Speaking for the Dayak people as a whole these mainly Kuching-based leaders asked: Why not hold one large scale festival, on one day in a year?

After my return from overseas in 1965, I enquired from several people why the necessity for an official Gawai.

The late Pengarah Anggu P Otoh of Lundu, the late Temenggong Salau Pa’Nyaun of Bau, and the late Pengarah Rahun of Serian District told me more or less the same. They were in favour of a big scale annual festival (gawai sowa) to be held once a year, celebrated statewide together with the other Dayak groups. These elders felt this would economise time and resources for festivals.

Veteran teacher Michael Buma gave another pertinent reason for the necessity to have a day set aside for the Dayaks – identity for a Dayak race.

Tra Zehnder, appointed member of the legislature, via her Private Member Bill on Sept 27, 1962, had fought hard for its recognition. Her proposal was debated in the august house; there was a strong objection to Zehnder’s proposal from other members of the council. She did not get what she wanted during her tenure as a legislator. But she continued advocating the creation of the Dayak Day.

It was only after she had finished her term that June 1 as Gawai Dayak day was recognised. However, it was only recognised as a harvest festival, not a ‘Dayak Day’ as such.

Zehnder, brought up in Simanggang and spent most of her time in Kuching, had a very straightforward opinion on the matter. She told me, “We have been visiting our Malay friends at their homes during Hari Raya and our Chinese friends during the Chinese New Year … Don’t you think that we Dayaks should also open our homes to our friends, the Malays and the Chinese? But we have no festival for this purpose. Therefore, we must have one day that we can call our own and celebrate it with our friends.”

To many people this was a ‘racial project’ – so how does it differ from Chinese New Year in that respect anyway? But for people like Michael Buma, a teacher, and many other opinion leaders at the time, there was more to it than mere festivity. They wanted the government to recognise a day in the year as Dayak Day, as a symbol of Dayak unity. What’s wrong with that quest for unity?

At once it became an issue –political or even racial depending on how one looked at it. Nevertheless, Michael Buma went ahead with celebrating June 1 in 1964 as Dayak Day at his house in Siol Kandis, a village now part of Petra Jaya.

To me that’s a historic event. Many people may not realise how significant this event was that took place at the Dayak settlement in Siol Kandis.

Gawai politicised

Over the years, the Gawai has been politicised. Partisan politicians take advantage of its popular appeal among the Dayaks. Some organise street processions to mark the day, with government grants (or all their own resources? Can somebody tell me?).

And instead of celebrating one single day in a year as originally conceptualised, two days are required – one for the Gawai Day itself and the other for ngiling tikai or ngiling bidai. In a normal Iban festival, the ngiling tikai is held on the third or fourth day of the same gawai. It literally means rolling up the mats (tikai), cleaning the floor, and finishing off what is left of the food and drinks. There may be another organised gawai but this would be of another kind – Gawai Antu or Kenyalang but the present gawai is different and it is over for now.

I don’t know how, why, or who added the ngiling tikai to the Gawai proper, even though there is a custom among many Ibans to have a ngiling tikai. I suppose there is no harm in having another set of celebrations within a month of the Gawai Dayak, if you can afford the expenses. However, to associate it with the gazetted Gawai is not compulsory or even necessary.

Call it progress or an improvement from its original concept, if you like; a digression if you are inclined to be cynical; counter-productive, if you are an economist; or an opportunity not to be missed, if you are a politician.

But think about its significance as the late Zehnder or what the Bidayuh leaders had told me. They had a good rationale for the creation of the one-day festival. One day is enough for festivities; time and resources are valuable. Don’t worry – there will be another gawai next year. Keep your resources for a bigger one next June 1.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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