A batik exhibition at the Universiti Malaya Art Gallery in August. For Malaysia, batik should be indigenous, yet have a cosmopolitan outlook. FILE PIC

WE do not have to wait for Visit Malaysia Year 2020 to promote local batik, nor wait for Thursdays, or for some formal occasions. Or wait for our wakil rakyat to adorn it in Parliament, perhaps make a drab debate more colourful.

We have lost that distinct expression of a national identity (in the batik) which all can consume, regardless of economic status, social class, and ethnicity.

Batik is as indigenous as the nation. The history of batik is the story of diversity and inclusiveness. If pantun is the crucible of the budi (wisdom, network of intelligence), batik carries the derived expression of rasa and rupa (as in Malay culture and world view).

It is a visual creative process to be experienced and appreciated. We should have, in an informed way, popularised batik yesterday. Over the decades, we were confused — manufacturers, designers, sellers and consumers. Perhaps ignorant leading to some misplaced ideas. There is no literacy — no engagement with its past, no consciousness on its design and concept.

Why Indonesia has done so well (a cliché, I suppose) — and much of the recent revival of men’s batik wear in Malaysia is Indonesian inspired — is because its citizens can articulate about its fabric and wear. And its sellers are an enlightened lot. Talking to batik sellers in outlets either selling traditional or designer batiks is like engaging in a brief discourse on origins and design.

We cannot get a similar treatment in Malaysia. Batik sellers are just sellers — ignorant of the origins and the creative process.

They only sell, and they make poor sellers. I would not want to buy from a seller who does not know what he is selling. In one prominent outlet in Kuala Lumpur, the sellers are not certain if it is from “Kelantan” or “Terengganu”. They only sell whatever bulk consignment is received. There is no sense of soul and aesthetics.

Batik is not just a commodity. Campaigning for batik in Malaysia needs a whole lot of thinking and intellectual effort. We are faced with not only a marketing problem. It is intellectual.

And a whole set of attitude and aptitude. We have to re-educate our population, and create prolonged and consistent consciousness on the nature of the textile and its design, material and method of production. Batik has to be known and worn in all its splendour.

Let us not be entangled with ownership and nationalism. It is erroneous to conceive of batik as bounded by nation state identities. The notion that batik in its art, technique, economics and consumption — must be founded on a national identity is as erroneous as saying that there must be a Malaysian satay different from the Indonesian satay.

Differences will be there due to time, locality, culture and consumption throughout the Malay archipelago. Similarities will also exist due to cultural interaction, the import of ideas and technology, tastes and preference.

Historically in the Malay peninsula, there is batik made by the Malays, mainly for Malays; there is also batik made by others for the Malay community. There is also batik made by the Malays (in Kelantan) for the (Chinese) Peranakan community (in Penang). In the Malay archipelago the areas of batik production are centred in Java and the rest are from the peninsula and the Malay areas in southern Thailand; and Sumatra and the coastal areas of other islands in the archipelago like Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

Apart from the locality of production, batik can be classified by colours and design. And the Indonesians know fairly well what they are selling, traditional or designer. The genius of batik can be linked to its locality, as well as its market. Kelantan and Terengganu batik is quite well known in Malaysia. But there is also Kedah batik, and Malay batik in places like Songkhla, Narathiwat and Patani.

The central Javanese classic designs of Jogjakarta and Surakarta (Solo) stand in stark contrast to the styles from the coastal communities on the Javanese north coast such as Pekalongan, Lasem, Semarang, the kraton of Cirebon and the island of Madura. These are called batik pesisiran (coastal batik). And in Sumatra we have Aceh, Jambi, Bengkulu, and the islands of Belitung and Bintan as centres of batik production.

The kraton batik of Central Java, also known as batik pedalaman (inland batik), comes in earthy and demure tones of yellow, brown and blue on a beige or white background. It was the preserve of the aristocracy. The motifs of parang (sword) and parang rusak (broken sword) are most common.

In the second half of the 19th century, batik production became increasingly commercialised. It freed itself from court restrictions. One such was called batik Belanda, the Eurasian batik combining local influences with European floral and fauna designs. Apart from the Javanese, Eurasians and Chinese too were involved in batik production and trade.

And in Jambi, Arab patronage in design and wear was predominant.

There is also batik petani and batik sudagaran, inspired from traditional kraton motifs. Batik bertulis or batik basurek/ bersurat (calligraphy), batik wayang kulit, and batik parada.

Javanese batik motifs may relate to cosmology and the heavens such as garuda or the sawat (a pair or a single wing). Things in the immediate environment, or in the kitchen can also appear as a motif — even the coffee bean inspires the kopi pecah (broken coffee bean) motif.

It is a creative process to be used, as experienced by anthropologist Ann Dunham, the mother of former US president Barack Obama when she moved to Indonesia in 1967. Dunham experienced the highly developed batik art form. Her collection of batik inspired the exhibition and publication of Ann Dunham’s Legacy: A Collection of Indonesian Batik (2012) in Kuala Lumpur. To her, batik is not simply a piece of cloth but the transcendence of humanity.

We can learn much of the wax resist technique that defines the product from our neighbour. President Sukarno saw batik as an instrument for national integration. A former batik seller, he encouraged the development of batik Indonesia in the 1950s. For Malaysia, batik should bring rich and welcoming history, and presence. And an indigenous yet a cosmopolitan outlook.

The writer is a professor at ISTAC-IIUM and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times