Batik Culture (Part 1 of 3): The History Of Batik

Batik is known to be the oldest method of using wax to dye textile. Batik, originally derived from Ambatik, is a portmanteau of Javanese word “Amba”, to write, and Malay word “Titik”, to dot. The original history of Batik is still obscure, but an ancient encyclopedia called Naturalis Historia noted that in 70 A.D., Pliny the Elder described Egyptians applied designs on cloth resembled the methods of making Batik. In the sixteenth century, recorded on a lontar palm was the first known form of Batik refers to Tulis (Malay word for ‘write’), which is now regarded as the finest hand-drawn Batik art in Malaysia and Java. Some scholars also believe the art of wax resist dyeing textile process originate from Egypt, Africa, India, China, and made popular throughout the world like Japan, Peru, East Turkistan, and many others.

Historically, according to 17th century Malay Annals, legend has it that Laksmana (Admiral) Hang Nadim was commanded by Sultan Mahmud to sail to India to get 140 pieces of serasah cloth decorated with 40 types of flowers on each. Disappointment loomed when he couldn’t find what the Sultan wanted. As an alternative, he created his own batch of Batiks. Unfortunately, on his way back the ship capsized and only four pieces were presented to the outraged Sultan.

Batik technique was first introduced in Europe by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles through History of Java in 1817. In 1873, a Dutch merchant Van Rijckevorsel introduced Batik pieces to the ethnographic museum in Rotterdam and to date, Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam has the biggest collection of Indonesian Batik.

Batik is an artist’s artistic expression through complex drawing and color-blocking. Each colour, flower, and figure represents a significant meaning. Traditionally, by using only natural primary colours such as red, yellow and blue, the wax-and-dye method is repeated to produce deep colours such as orange, brown and green. These rich hues remain the staple colours for classic Indonesian Batiks.

There are various forms of Batik, but the major types you can find in Malaysia are hand-drawn, block-printed and silk-screening Batiks. Hand-drawn Batik, or Batik Tulis, uses ‘canting’, a wooden-handle copper beaker (filled with hot wax) with a tiny spout that functions like a pen for overlapping pencil-drawn designs on plain white cloth. Block-printed Batik method is called ‘cap’, or chop, incorporates pre-designed metal hand-stamp, initially invented to increase the production of Batik printing. Silk screening (or screen printing) is a modern process that uses different pre-designed screens that act like a stencil to apply wax on the textile. This method is mainly for commercial use when there is a demand for mass production. All methods of Batik involve wax, whose purpose is to resist the dye from coloring the unwanted areas of the cloth. The process of waxing and dyeing is usually reiterative, especially when there are more colours involved. After waxing and dyeing, the cloth goes through boiling for the wax to be removed and eventually drying before it is ready for use.

Today in Malaysia, as a national identity the government has inaugurated Batik clothing as a national identity. Local Batik makers and designers have worked hand in hand to come up with fresh new ideas that embody the Malaysian spirit. The outcome is splendid; men and women alike were seen donning traditional and colourful motifs at important state functions. It was also said that civil servants are encouraged to wear batik on the first and fifteenth day of each month.


Continue to part 2: About Batik Painting

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