Batik is an iconic fabric it is known the world over. Although similar techniques of manual wax-resistant dyeing are also found in other countries from Nigeria to China, each country has its own unique motifs, inspired by local traditions and flora and fauna.
Evidence of early examples of batik have been found in the Far East, Middle East, Central Asia and India from over 2,000 years ago. It is possible that these areas developed independently, without the influence of trade or cultural exchanges. However, it is more likely that the craft spread from Asia to the islands of the Malay Archipelago and west to the Middle East along the caravan trading route.
Indonesia, most particularly the island of Java, is where batik has reached its peak. Here, Chinese, Arab, Indian and European traders bought and sold textiles and batik is first specifically mentioned on a cargo bill in the mid-17th century. From around 1835, textile manufacturers in Holland started attempts to mechanise the production of batik using copper rollers and a resin resist. When the Javanese proved unwilling to buy this cloth, it made its way to West Africa, where it began a life and a tradition of its own, one which continues to this day as “waxprint”.
A tradition of making batik is found in various countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria; the batik of Indonesia, however, is the best-known. Indonesian batik made in the island of Java has a long history of acculturation, with diverse patterns influenced by a variety of cultures, and is the most developed in terms of pattern, technique, and the quality of workmanship. In October 2009, UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The word batik is Javanese in origin. It may either come from the Javanese word amba (‘to write’) and titik (‘dot’), or may derive from a hypothetical Proto-Austronesian root *beCík (‘to tattoo’). The word is first recorded in English in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1880, in which it is spelled battik. It is attested in the Indonesian Archipelago during the Dutch colonial period in various forms: mbatek, mbatik, batek and batik.
Observing the National Batik Day, Indonesia Design takes a closer look at this living art around the world and the motifs unique to each country.
Indonesian batik only recognises two kinds of traditional batik processes stamp and write using canting and wax as the medium. Indonesian batik has hundreds of motifs from various regions and provinces spread across the archipelago with each part contains a deep philosophical meaning with predominantly brown, gold and black colours.
As each region has its own traditional pattern, batiks are commonly distinguished by the region they originated in, such as batik Solo, batik Pekalongan, and batik Madura. Batiks from Java can be distinguished by their general pattern and colours into batik pedalaman (inland batik) or batik pesisir (coastal batik). Batiks which do not fall neatly into one of these two categories are only referred to by their region. A mapping of batik designs from all places in Indonesia depicts the similarities and reflects cultural assimilation within batik designs.
Malaysia also claims that batik is the cultural heritage of their ancestors. Batik was mentioned in the 17th century Malay Annals. The legend goes when Laksamana Hang Nadim was ordered by Malacca King, Sultan Mahmud, to sail to India to buy 140 pieces of serasah cloth (batik) with 40 types of flowers depicted on each. Unable to find any that fulfilled the requirements explained to him, he made up his own. On his return unfortunately his ship sank and he only managed to bring four pieces, earning displeasure from the Sultan.
The method of Malaysian batik making is different from those of Indonesian Javanese batik, the pattern being larger and simpler with only occasional use of the canting to create intricate patterns. It relies heavily on brush painting to apply colours to fabrics. The colours also tend to be lighter and more vibrant than deep coloured Javanese batik. The most popular motifs are leaves and flowers. Malaysian batik often displays plants and flowers to avoid the interpretation of human and animal images as idolatry, in accordance with local Islamic doctrine. However, the butterfly theme is a common exception.
China, Vietnam, Thailand
There is a long history of batik production in China, dating back to the sixth century. Nowadays the tradition of batik is still practised by the minority groups - the Miao, Bouyei and Gejia who live mainly in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in south western China. And as some of these people (particularly the Miao) have been migrating out of China and into the neighbouring countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, since the 18th and 19th centuries, their traditional textiles including batik can also be found there. When they live outside of China, the Miao people are known as the H'mong - they are the same people.
Hemp and cotton is waxed usually with beeswax and dyed with a strong natural indigo to produce a very deep blue. Indigo dyeing is widespread throughout the area and there is great expertise in producing the indigo paste from the leaves, and dyeing the cloth. The designs are mostly geometric and traditional and redolent with symbolism such as double spiral designs. The most exquisite work is very fine indeed with tiny fine blue lines on a white background.
Indians are known to use resist method of printing designs on cotton fabrics, which can be traced back 2000 years. Initially, wax and even rice starch were used for printing on fabrics. Until recently batik was made only for dresses and tailored garments, but modern batik is applied in numerous items, such as murals, wall hangings, paintings, household linen, and scarves, with livelier and brighter patterns. Contemporary batik making in India is also done by the Deaf women of Delhi, these women are fluent in Indian Sign Language and also work in other vocational programs.
In Africa, where batik was originally imported by Dutch merchants from Indonesia (then the Netherlands East Indies), paste made from starch or mud is used as a resist instead of wax. The most developed resist-dyeing skills are to be found in Nigeria where the Yoruba make adire cloths. Two methods of resist are used: adire eleso which involves tied and stitched designs and adire eleko that uses starch paste. The paste is most often made from cassava starch, rice, and other ingredients boiled together to produce a smooth thick paste. The Yoruba of West Africa use cassava paste as a resist while the Soninke and Wolof people in Senegal uses rice paste. The Bamana people of Mali use mud as a resist.