Breathtaking 'batik'

Beauty on cloth

Breathtaking 'batik'

One of the most ancient forms of art, the ‘batik’ has travelled across continents from Asia to Europe. From traditionally hand-drawn motifs to computerised ones, Swapna Dutta traces the past , present and future of ‘batik’

I had never realised the significance of batik or knew about its ancient beginnings until my visit to the temples of Nara more than two decades ago. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous silk screens there, exquisitely decorated with trees, animals and birds. There were flute players and hunting scenes and stylised mountains, all of them done in batik. It was then that I learnt that batik was one of the earliest forms of art in Asia, practised since the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) in China and the Nara period (710-794 AD) in Japan.

Origins in Asia

Early examples of batik have also been found in the Far East, Middle East, Central Asia and India, some of them as old as 2,000 years. Many of the frescoes in the Ajanta caves have veils and garments that look very much like batik. The craft spread from Asia to the islands of Malay through the caravan route. But it reached the acme of perfection in Indonesia, particularly in the island of Java. The export trade became quite brisk between China, Java, Sumatra, Persia and India by 1677, and the art was eagerly tried out everywhere. It is interesting to note that linen and woollen fabrics belonging to the 5th century AD with blue and white patterns that resemble batik were excavated in Egypt too.

The Western world was introduced to batik, when the Dutch brought back the Indonesian artisans to Holland with them during their trading trips in 1853. These artisans taught them the craft and the batik process was modified for use in their textile factories. The process was soon adopted in other parts of Europe as the demand for this beautiful and exotic fabric grew by leaps and bounds.

Originally, only the royalty, members of the upper class and highly placed government officials could afford to wear garments made from batik fabric, as it involved a lot of expenses as well as time. For a long time, the art was limited as the pastime of the female members of the court. Many of the designs created at the time had a special significance. For example, there was a particular motif called Satrio Wibowo which means, ‘man with dignity’. Only those gentlemen who could be described as such had the right to wear it.

After the Industrial Revolution, the batik artisans developed large copper stamps or ‘caps’ that made it possible to apply wax on a larger scale. By the early 1900s, the Germans had also developed the technique of mass production of batiks. The Swiss learnt to produce imitation batik in the early 1940s. As a result, this creative medium was soon popular all over the world. However, the most important fact was that it could now be enjoyed by anyone who could afford it, including the common man.

All about technique

Batik is actually both an art and a craft. The word originates from the Javanese word ‘tik’, which means, ‘to dot or write’. In a nutshell, it is a specialised method of applying dye to fabric, usually silk or cotton. Historically, it is the most expressive and subtle among what are known as  ‘resist methods’ of dyeing. It has often been described as the reverse of painting. Instead of painting an area of the design with colour, it is covered with hot wax so that the covered area is protected from the dye and retains the original colour of the fabric. The fabric is then immersed in the dye, colouring all the parts that are free from wax. The fabric is then dried and the wax is removed either by placing it in hot water or ironing it from the reverse side. The more colours a batik design contains, the more times it has to go through the process of waxing, dyeing, drying and then finally removing the wax. Moreover, the process has to follow a precise order and in a definite sequence as to which colour should be dyed first, so that the colours maybe reproduced most effectively.

Traditionally, batik was done by drawing on the fabric with a wooden pen that was filled with wax. It might interest you to know that there are over 3,000 traditional recorded batik patterns, including those that contain flowers, trees, birds, animals, insects, popular motifs and geometric forms.

In recent times, the use of computers for developing batik designs has led to many more new and exciting designs to this collection. Although contemporary batik owes a great deal to the past, it is quite different from the traditional and formal style of batik. To take a simple example, the modern batik artist often uses etching, discharge dyeing and stencils in addition. He might also use different tools for waxing and dyeing and wax recipes with different resist values. Today’s artist works not just with silk, cotton and wool, but often uses leather, paper, wood or even ceramics for his art. Hence the countless variety!

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