Opinion

Batik around the world

The art of batik has come a long way from being a mere handicraft. Today, it is at the forefront of fusion in the fashions of the world.

Rico Rinaldi Tono was surprised when he was named as the winner for the fashion category in the Piala Seri Endon Batik designing competition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, recently.

The Piala Seri Endon, now in its seventh year, was held in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur International Batik (KLIB) Convention and Exhibition at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

The KLIB is a biennial event under the Malaysia Batik - Crafted For the World movement, bringing in more than 20 speakers from various countries (including Singapore, Indonesia, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Japan), as well as holding a three-day batik exhibition.

The 23-year-old Malaysian designer beat other participants with his "Republic Flora" collection to bring home a trophy and RM30,000 (US$8,800) in cash.

He opted for floral motifs, drawing inspiration from anti-war efforts in the United States, where the term "Flower Power" was used especially against the Vietnam War during the 1960s.

He used satin, chiffon and cotton for his designs, creating floral jodhpurs with boleros for women's casual wear and long black dresses with flowers for women's evening wear, while for men he designed black jodhpurs with floral shirts.

Rico said he was overwhelmed by the victory as all the other designers had showcased creative and fabulous creations.

He started to learn batik shortly before participating in the Malaysian Batik Fashion Accessory Design Competition in 2006, where he also won first prize.

He said competitions such as this were a good opportunity for young people to showcase their talent for designing batik.

"I hope that I can stick to designing batik because, as a designer, my job actually promotes *batik*," he said.

Rico is just one among many people around the world who are trying to preserve batik.

The word "batik" actually means "wax writing" and that is basically what batik is all about. It is a way of decorating cloth by covering a part of it with a coat of wax and then dyeing the cloth.

Batik has become part of Indonesian people's life as it is often used in various traditional rituals, from the seventh-month ritual, when the mother-to-be is wrapped in seven different layers of batik cloth, to using batik as a shroud at the delivery of a newborn baby.

People use a canting (a pen-like tool to draw the batik pattern in wax) and malam (beeswax) to draw batik pattern on white cloth, called mori. The canting technique later developed into a larger printing device made of brass or copper.

After drawing and retracing the pattern with melted wax, people will dye the cloth several times to achieve the desired shades.

The traditional practice of batik making has long been quite natural as it uses either beeswax or wood sap from certain kinds of plants for the dye-resistant ink and natural materials for dyes such as indigo.

Not only Indonesia, but other countries across the globe also have their own unique batik creations. In Malaysia, it is believed that batik was developed by people living on the east coast of the country, in Kelantan and Terengganu.

Malaysian batik has free-flowing and colorful styles with the most popular motifs being leaves and flowers.

In making hand-drawn batik, the prepared and measured-out fabric is stretched over a metal or wooden frame and the pattern is traced with a soft pencil, then it is drawn in liquid wax by using a canting.

The next step is painting the parts of the fabric that are not covered in wax.

"We use brushes of different sizes in the painting process. Different shades are obtained by diluting the color with water. The color has to dry before fixing," said Anjang Sarina, a staff member at the Katanga Malaysia (The Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation) in Kuala Lumpur.

Finally, the wax is removed with hot water, and the fabric is rinsed several times in order to remove excess dye and wax residue.

Besides hand-drawn batik, there is also block-printed batik, which is done by means of a metal block made by welding together strips of metal. The block is dipped into molten wax and pressed against the fabric in order to make the pattern.

Batik has also been long known in Sri Lanka as it has been very much a part of the country's art and craft circle, said Somali Dharmawardena, artist-cum-fashion designer.

Just like in Indonesia, batik in Sri Lanka has been going through ups and downs. There were times when batik died as a craft and nobody did anything about it.

Then in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a man named Vipula Dharmawardena, who is Somali's father-in-law, revived the industry and brought a whole new dimension to it.

"He was a poor man in a village and he became a mega-millionaire with his batik. He reintroduced the trend of batik to Sri Lanka and revived it to make it one of the strongest commercial industries in the local market from the late 1960s to the early *80s," Somali said.

But with the flooding of the market and a situation where people wanted to make quick money, the industry started shrinking again. The civil war worsened the situation, causing the batik industry to become dormant.

The 41-year-old woman was inspired to revive the popularity of batik when she saw some of Vipula's masterpieces.

"I thought it was a beautiful thing so why did people not use it? I'm an artist, I did not know anything about batik, but when I looked at it I thought it was lovely. I thought it would be nice if I started to use a little bit of batik," she said.

But the problem was the design was out-of-date.

"When you look at things like that, you need to have tradition but you also need to make it more modern. You stick to the same frame but you modernize it.

"You might be able to use very traditional things, let's say, maybe in the inner lining or just for the color," she added.

So she started playing around with batik and using it. Somali, for instance, takes a piece of batik and puts it on traditional cloth saris.

Sri Lankan batik, she explained, is a bit different from the Indonesian. With the Sri Lankan batik, the motifs are a little bigger. But the technique of batik making is fairly similar to the one used in Indonesia.

"We use the canting tool and hot wax. We block the color with hot wax, submerge it in a dye bath, boil it and then put on the next color," she said.

"It's more like the Indonesian technique than the Malaysian. The Malaysian technique uses paint. We don't paint at all."

She felt proud to say that today there were a lot of young people in her country who were using batik in swimwear, lingerie, evening clothes and saris.

She added that she would not even bother if someone copied her collections.

"You know why, because while they are copying it, I have to think other ideas. So I have something different and new," she said, adding that she did not register her batik.

"You can't register a batik design because it's a work of art. It's very difficult to register. Anyway, when I design the saris, I only do one of each kind because I hand-draw it."

As well as Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan also recognizes batik. The batik pattern can be found in its women's silk scarves, known as kelagai, which have been part of women's clothing there for centuries, said Azerbaijani artist, Tatyana Agababayeva.

For a long time, batik in Azerbaijan has been not only a craft but also a cultural source for making original, creative compositions.

From ancient times, fabric produced using the batik technique was an object of special love and now leading Azerbaijani couturiers are introducing batik in their exclusive creations.

Kelagai themselves, Agababayeva explained, were first produced in the village of Basgal and were created using the stamping method and natural colors.

"It is interesting that the cocoons were traditionally processed by women while the hand-printing with hot wax was only entrusted to male artists," Agababayeva said.

The silk spinning and production of kelagai in Azerbaijan slumped after the fall of the USSR.

It was the Inkishaf Scientific Center which revived kelagai in the country. "With financial support from the Japanese Embassy and the sponsorship provided by directors of local companies, the production of silk textiles and kelagai in Sheki was restored," she said.

Kelagai is worn by women both old and young. "Young women prefer bright colors, while older women wear dark colors like black."

"Now, many young people wear other variations of kelagai, using them if they go to the seaside, for instance," she added.

Meanwhile, among the nations of Southeast Asia, the tradition of making batik has not extended to the Philippines.

It's mainly because the Philippines has its own traditional textiles, fashion designer Alfonso Guino-o said.

In the southern island of Mindanao, for instance, people weave textiles from abaca fiber, made from the abaca plant which is indigenous to the Philippines, using the ikat technique.

Muslim women wear the malong, an extended version of the sarong worn in Indonesia and Malaysia, a tubular dress made from two hand-woven silk pieces enhanced by tapestry weave inserts.

Such finely woven malong, however, have given way to cotton batiks that have been traded to the Muslims from the neighboring Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Even though the country does not produce batik, Alfonso said, many Filipinos have a great appreciation of batik.

"A lot of Filipinos get batik from Malaysia or Indonesia," he said.

As a designer, he often combines batik with other fabrics, twisting it into the Filipino style.

He also had the chance to present his batik creations at a fashion show at the KLIB. He, for instance, combined a white blouse with a batik sarong, while he paired a white blouse with a shocking red batik sarong and a matching shawl.

Let's just say batik has come a long, long way from a mere handicraft of days gone by to having a place on the fashion charts all over the world.

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