A textile trail

Cloth culture

A textile trail

Some years ago, her life was enmeshed with currency notes and climbing up the corporate ladder.

Today, it is woven intricately with textiles and holistic wellness. Chennai-born, Bengaluru-educated, Singapore-based, Balinese textile guru and the woman behind the intriguing wellness retreat BeingSattvaa, Renuka Vaidyanathan has obviously veered off course from her original ambitions and meandered into rather unchartered territories. No regrets, though. In this spontaneous journey, Renuka has discovered a path to finding herself. Bliss is all about being open to what life has to offer, seizing opportunities and enjoying the journey, isn’t it?

It was her husband’s job that took them to Singapore. Renuka took a leap of faith, quit her job and moved her family to Singapore. They found Singapore a lovely place to bring up their girls and have since then been living there. With her daughters going to college, and her voluntary work with SIFAS in the Indian fine arts space leaving her feeling unfulfilled, the idea of doing something more meaningful gnawed her. She looked into herself and considered, she and her husband Subba had always been yoga practitioners and into holistic living, in total harmony with nature and with fellow beings. They found that this helped alleviate the stresses of corporate life.

Someone who had schooled in Bengaluru and graduated from IIM Bangalore, Renuka has a soft corner for Bengaluru and had originally considered both the City and Bali to locate BeingSattvaa. She shares, “When we started travelling to Bali, we found the ecosystem conducive to our idea of a retreat centre.”

Along the way, Renuka learnt quite a lot about Balinese culture: Of how the Balinese, predominantly Hindu, chant Gayatri and other mantras and worship Hindu gods — without idols of the deities though. Instead, in the temple, there is just a stone which signifies the god, and is worshipped; she discovered how Balinese ceremonies are social in nature, rather than purely religious, and of how life in Bali revolves around the village, its inhabitants, and its rice fields.

Journey of a cloth

Renuka’s fascination for traditional fabric goes back to her banking days, when she would often be spotted wearing handloom sarees. When she landed in Bali and saw the diverse textiles of that tiny island, its embedded notions, and everyday connect, the old passion was sparked off again and she started studying and collecting these textiles.

Indeed, in Bali, textiles are a living tradition and a medium through which the divine nature of the universe and its material manifestations are recognised and expressed. Elaborates Renuka, “A cloth called cepuk, which is woven in the island of Nusa Penida in four colours (red, black, white and yellow) is considered sacred. It usually adorns deities. The simple black and white checked poleng is also considered sacred. It adorns almost all shrines in Bali. This simple cloth stands for the dualism of life — mountains and sea, dry and wet seasons, night and day, heavenly radiance and demonic gloom. But the ultimate sacred cloth is the double ikat geringsing, which means ‘no disease’ as this cloth is supposed to ward off evil (diseases). The motifs of the double ikat represent cosmic harmony.

The colours of red, black on a base of white represent the world of man and the lower world, while the base of white represents the upper world. It is used in rites of passage ceremonies. As cloth is central to all spiritual activities, it is also a medium through which all Balinese worship nature and the divine. A simple example is the daily offerings, which are done unfailingly by the woman in the family, who will wear her traditional sarong and sash and carry the offering (canang) to shrines.”

From Renuka, I get a broad sense of the textile framework of Bali. While the major textiles used in Bali are forms of ikat and batik, a form of ikat used in everyday life is called endek, which is a weft ikat. Endek (woven by hand by women from tied and dyed yarn) continues to be a popular article of Balinese dress today, and a badge of cultural identity for both men and women.

But apparently, the double ikat woven in Tenganan, in a back strap loom in a loose weave, is the ultimate fabric. “Extremely intricate, it takes a long time to weave, and the few double ikat pieces in existence are considered heirloom pieces; they are too expensive to be used in everyday life. A piece the size of a 6x4 sheet takes a year to weave and costs close to $5,000. However, batik is exceedingly popular with tourists,” she shares.

A historic perspective

To put things in perspective, historians generally opine that Balinese textiles are connected to traditions of pre-10th century Java, triggered by the debacle of the Mahapahit Kingdom of Java, which prompted Javanese aristocracy to migrate to Bali. Of course they took their textiles with them to Bali. However, the Indian textile connect in Bali goes hand in hand with the Java connect, says Renuka and points out that the great Javanese empires from the 8th century AD were influenced by Hindu and Buddhist scholars. For instance, the people of Tenganan who weave the double ikat believe they are descendants of seafarers from Odisha (known as Kalinga in those days).

Like in India, where textile traditions like the Pichwai painting, Cherial scrolls, Patachitra, and even Kalamkari traditions are legacies of textile art/traditions figuring in everyday life, many traditional motifs in Bali are symbolic. “The handwoven fabrics are worn by everybody — while silks (called sutra) may be worn by the upper classes, cotton handwoven fabrics are used for everyday wear as well as the elaborate ceremonies, of which there are several — from weddings to funerals to many others in between.

I attended a cremation ceremony called ngaben the other day. The Balinese celebrate death as much as they celebrate life — death is considered a natural progression: tears are not shed. Ngaben is a funeral ritual to send the deceased ceremoniously on to the next life. Everyone from the village was dressed in traditional sarongs for the occasion,” says Renuka.

She muses, “The correlation, as I see it, is that while Indians wear handwoven sarees and dhotis for special occasions too, Indians have become ‘modern’ and don’t necessarily adhere to tradition all the time. Balinese strictly adhere to tradition, despite rampant signs of modernisation everywhere. Tradition and modernity blend seamlessly in Bali.”

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