By HARIATI AZIZAN
Rabindranath Tagore, father of modern batik in India? Well, not officially, but the Nobel Laureate might very well have been.
As the story goes, he was responsible for the revival of the wax-resisting dyeing technique in India.
Tagore apparently had fallen in love with the latticework prints of the kain panjang (skirt) worn by dance girls at the royal court when he visited Java in 1927.
What had caught his eye, interestingly, were not the aesthetics of the material, but the mark of a lost, ancient Indian tradition in its design. You see, some historians believe that batik originated from the Coromandel coast in the south-east region of the subcontinent – in the 17th century, European trading there were paid in textiles. They are thought to have bartered those cloths for spices with the South East Asian traders.
Captivated by the notion, Tagore had taken the material back with him to Shantiniketan, inspiring the growth of a batik cottage industry there.
This amazing travel of the batik is one of the tales that will be shared at a one-day symposium, Trade, Ties And Transformations: Stories On Textile And Modernity at Ilham gallery, Ilham Tower in Kuala Lumpur on May 14.
Held in conjunction with the Love Me In My Batik: Modern Batik Art From Malaysia And Beyond exhibition, the symposium will explore how meanings, patterns of circulation and artistic forms in batik and other textile traditions of South-East Asia were transformed by technological and social changes since the late 19th century.
Open to the public, it features leading textile experts from India, Thailand, Australia and Malaysia.
“The symposium should appeal not only to textile lovers but a larger audience – particularly those interested in South-East Asian history – as it discusses how textiles shape and are shaped by the geographical, historical and economic aspects of the region,” says Rahel Joseph, Ilham gallery director, who also co-curated the Love Me In My Batik exhibition.
Speaking on Tagore’s textile connection is Supriya Roy from the Sutra Textile Studies in Kolkata.
West Bengal town Santiniketan’s batik cottage industry was part of the comprehensive education scheme envisaged by Tagore, says Roy.
“The development of cottage industries had always been one of his chief aims. He had three objectives: to revive the many dying crafts which were once the pride of villages; ensure the villagers’ well-being and open diverse channels for self-expression for them,” she says.
Batik, she adds, was one of the traditional crafts introduced there, along with weaving, calico-printing and durry-making (rugs).
Dr Maria Wronska-Friend, senior research fellow at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia will put a spotlight on batik’s other fascinating journey – from Java to Europe to Africa.
First introduced in the Netherlands in 1890, the batik had attracted young Dutch artists who wanted an alternative to their mass-produced material.
“They chose batik because of its unique features and possibilities for personal expression,” she says.
Around 1930, the batik moved from the field of decorative arts to fine arts in Europe.
“It is quite a unique case where the art of the colony influenced the colonizer!” she muses, highlighting some of the artists influenced by batik, including French artist Henri Matisse, who in 1935 created a series of ink drawings featuring “a nude woman against a background filled with Javanese designs like parang rusak and tumpal.”
By the end of the 19th century, when Java’s textile industry grew, the Dutch started marketing batik to Africa.
From carbon copies of Javanese batiks they slowly attained a more “African style”, adds Dr Wronska-Friend.
“The Javanese motifs became enlarged, presented in new combinations and in brighter colours.
“Today more than 400 million inhabitants of West and Central Africa wear fabrics inspired by the visual language of Javanese batik, but most are not even aware that their splendid motifs originated from Java!”
Also looking at the evolution of cultural identity, Eksuda Singhalampong from Silpakorn University in Bangkok, will deconstruct Thailand’s national dress – created by the country’s Queen Sirikit – in relation to the Thai identity.
Welyne Jefferey Jehom, a senior lecturer in Gender Studies from Universiti Malaya aims to take us on a journey through the Iban consciousness with the folklores behind the designs and motifs of Pua Kumbu, Sarawak’s ikat-based textile tradition.
Welyne believes it is crucial to conserve not only the traditional techniques of Pua Kumbu like weaving and natural dye processing, but also its whole ecosystem, such as the rhymes and stories in each piece of the traditional cloth.
“Only by conserving the intangible heritage of Pua Kumbu weaving can this tradition be sustained and passed down to the next generation,” she says.
Trade, Ties And Transformations: Stories On Textile And Modernity is on at Ilham gallery, Level 5, Ilham Tower, No. 8, Jalan Binjai, Kuala Lumpur on May 14 from 10.30am to 6pm. Free admission. There will also be a contemporary dance performance created by choreographer Joseph Gonzales and Aswara dancers in response to Ilham’s public sculpture, Breast Stupa Topiary, by Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak. For details, go to: www.ilhamgallery.com.