Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The talkative fabric

THE BOOK OF BATIK by Fiona Kerlogue (Archipelago Press, 2004, 191 pages)

This isn’t a Malaysian book. The author is a mek salleh and it’s printed in Singapore. Worse, Malaysia is barely mentioned it in. There’s a list of museums at the end which have batik collections, and we weigh in with three, but Germany and the UK have six each!

And so it comes to pass that The Book of Batik is all about Indonesia. But that’s no reason to get upset: I am sure there are other books that explore what this craft has come to mean within our own shores. (It’s the sort of topic that our politicians’ wives tend to sponsor books on anyway, but since I have not picked up those books I can’t be certain.)

I am no expert (the few batik shirts I have are, I suspect, inspired not by ancient Javanese motifs but by the efficacy of the Hawaiian tourism board) but I became interested after attending a talk by Farish A Noor on it. He made the subject so vivid that I rushed out to get this book. Luckily for me, it happened to be on sale: culture always goes down easier on a budget.

Farish stressed that batik was a lingua franca in this region, much like any spoken language. The patterns and colours functioned as sophisticated codes for the wearer to announce details about her or his class, race, age, marital status, mood and so on. It was a responsive medium in which artists (most often women) recorded the world around them. Far from being a homogenous kampung medium, batik was primarily an urban form with each city having specific styles.

his very attractive book even talks about batik tiga negeri where the cloth needs to be taken to (you guessed it) three places, because each specialises in a certain dye. The use of natural dye has been mainly supplanted by industrialisation, but some diehards (or dye-hards) persist, so good for them! Even the original use of wax to create batik patterns is on the wane, but was there ever a lovelier phrase to explain the process than, simply,  "wax resists"? 

The story of batik becomes, rather movingly, the story of an evolving nation. It was initially such an exclusive craft that use was restricted to members of the aristocracy. Arcane variations in patterns did a lot to signify rank and allegiance, although this may strike the more democratic among us as being as useful as the bit in Gulliver’s Travels about cracking eggs at the narrow or broad end.

Colonialism played a big part, because the Dutch (we are talking about Indonesia, remember) inspired new motifs and also got into production. Imported cloth from Europe threatened the native batik and unwittingly helped trigger nationalism. And even the idea of ‘native’ is problemmatised because of the many Peranakan styles; the Chinese, for example, preferred blue and white, in the style of Ming porcelain.

In the field of Theology (and no, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who Theo is), we can see how Hindu-Javanese motifs gave way or combined with Islamist styles. An apt syncretic symbol comes from how the wings of the garuda (the mount of Vishnu) can also be interpreted as those of Bouraq (the other winged horse, this time carrying the Prophet Muhammad to heaven).

It’s also the story of how different, previously distinct, regions were made to assimilate in post-independence: Sukarno encouraged a standard style (batik Indonesia) as a nation-building strategy, although I don’t know if any had a 1Indonesia logo. Luckily for scholars, regional particularities still exist: I am particularly intrigued by how batik Jambi produces “the impression of shimmering gold” although you won’t get any spoilers from me.

Word has it that Malaysians are getting sick of political parties, but even out jaded selves would be intrigued by the communist-inspired sickled hammer batik that was produced in the 1960s.

I enjoyed the stunning pictures here, and the text has an unfussy vitality. It made me think about all those things around us that we have been taking for granted all this while. Sometimes it’s good to shut out the chatter and let a deeper language do the talking.

(Malay Mail, 20 May)


mizzyN said...

i guess batik malaysia is still a unique subject then.

Vaijanthi said...

Nice post!

Batik has always fascinated me. There's something about the cloth that's so full of character and the rich visual flavour of culture.

Indonesia and India both claim to have been doing batik long before the art was brought to Malaya. I wonder where the art really originated from.