Malaysia's rich art fare

Malaysia's rich art fare

Only a few days into our visit to Malaysia and we had already seen a staggering range of Thai, Burmese, ethnic Malay, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian art all over the bazaars, art galleries, religious places and even in the interior decor of the hotel lobbies and the rooms we stayed in.


We soon understood that Malaysian art and craft reflects the melting pot of cultures that this country has become.


“The diverse artistic traditions of these communities are reflected in our art and crafts,” our guides told us. Pointing to a hoarding of Tourism Malaysia, they read out the tagline ‘Truly Asia’ and said this was the meaning — Malaysia reflects all or at least much of Asia’s culture.

A varied take

Wood, ceramic, porcelain, silver, and cotton and silk textiles are among the many materials with which the talented artists of the country work to create stunningly beautiful works of art. Looking for small souvenirs and gifts to take home for family and friends, we were spoilt for choice.

From beautiful batik products in dress materials, wall-hangings and mask; to tribal bamboo blowpipes, small and big kites, animal and human figures, representations of the Buddha in various materials and designs, beautiful pottery, fans, pen-holders and other desktop items carrying colourful images of women and farmers in traditional attires...the country offered a cornucopia of choice.

The best-known product of course is batik. A traditional technique of hand-dyeing fabric, the art involves the use of hand-painted or block motifs. For colours, there are dyes and wax, which is used in select places to keep out the dye.

You also find printed fabrics decorated with classic batik motifs that generally cost less. Batik, which is traditionally worn as sarongs in villages is now becoming trendy worldwide and is featured in international fashion shows as well.

A traveller will be introduced to the Malaysian love for batik even before he enters the country. The air-hostesses of Malaysian Airlines wear long, blue-coloured skirts in batik. In batik, you can pick up the kebaya (traditional blouse) and the sarong which goes with it. It also features in scarves, masks, stoles, table mats, coasters, etc.


Songket, a kind of brocade, is another variety of Malaysian fabric which uses gold and silver threads in its weave.

Unlike Indian kites which are only used for flying, the Malaysian ones are used to decorate walls. These enormous and colourful kites are called wau. The frame of the kite is handmade using light bamboo, and the richly-detailed patterns and motifs are glued on to it from rice paper. The common motifs are animal figures, flowers or geometric shapes.

The moon kite called wau bulan is a big favourite. A cat kite is also popular. We saw large, elaborate kites in vibrant colours at craft stores, museums, five-star hotel corridors and even on the walls of rest-rooms.

Sticking to traditions

If you want to see the best of earthenware, ceramic ware and pottery, visit the states of Perak and Sarawak. You will be taken in by the labu sayong, a clay vessel with a distinctive gourd-like shape.

It is generally black in colour. Traditionally used as a water receptacle, a few fancy pieces now also find places as decorative art in homes, art galleries, hotels, etc. We could only gaze in admiration at the Sarawak pottery pieces we were shown in a crafts store.

With its intricate tribal design and fine craftsmanship, it was beautiful. Some specimens reminded me of the Bidriware back home in Karnataka and Hyderabad. The reddish-looking Mambong pottery, angular-looking terenang, the bulbous buyung and the belanga, which has a wide rim and round base, are the other traditional pottery items.

Walk around the markets and you will see elegant fans in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Personally, I think they make for great gift ideas — they are reasonably priced and the large spread-out fan can be neatly folded into a compact piece and tucked away in a corner of one’s suitcase.

Woodcraft is ubiquitous in Malaysia. After all, a traditional Malay home is crafted with hardwood. You will find shelves crowded with wooden items at souvenir shops and craft centres across the country.

If you have missed these, then try the store at the Kuala Lumpur airport. You can choose from lovely jewel boxes, lampstands, masks, blowpipes, photo frames, mirror-frames, pen-holders, shields, table-clocks, paperweights, musical instruments, and decorative figurines, all in wood and elegantly crafted.

Among the characteristic wood ware are panels of olden-style or traditional Malay houses, shutters and friezes. In fact, you will see a representation of these traditional homes even on magnets.

When in Malaysia, ask for the pandanus mats. Even if you don’t buy one, it is interesting to know how they are created. These beautifully woven mats are made of mengkuang leaves and are painstakingly handcrafted by the skilled hands of rural folk.

These leaves are stripped of their thorns, dried, boiled and dyed before they are woven into baskets, hats, slippers, and bags, besides table/floor mats. Once confined to functional objects, the craft now includes fancy decorative stuff.

And yes, we must tell you of those fabulous night markets. You can go shop at the posh, world-class malls and elegant boutiques till you drop, but you also have to take a stroll through a night market. They are a characteristic feature of most Southeast Asian countries.

Every major city in Malaysia has them. From groceries and fresh produce to clothes and fabric, household items, a vast range of home decor, handbags, luggage, footwear, costume jewellery, electronic items, clocks, etc, the shops are bursting with goods.

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