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Friday December 23, 2011

Malaysian Batik: A tradition comes of age

Can Malaysian batik acquire a ‘national identity’? Rather than in any particular style or design, perhaps such an identity lies in its popularity as the fabric of choice in national attire, with Malaysians from all walks of life turning out in batik on informal and formal occasions, at home and abroad.

THIS book offers a comprehensive narration of the growth of the Malaysian batik industry from its early beginnings as a scattered group of small personal holdings in the East Coast states of Malaya in the 1930s to the well-supported national hub that it is today.

Under the auspices of Yayasan Budi Penyayang, the writer, Noor Azlina Yunus, has produced a well-illustrated account of the journey of Malaysian batik and the myriad phases and faces it represents – from its initial borrowings of the sober hues and repetitive patterns of the Indonesian batik Lasem, Pekalongan and Cirebon prototypes to the brilliant metamorphosis of colours and designs now crafted for high fashion.

In every chapter the writer’s batik story is accompanied by an impressive collection of photographs and sketches to illustrate each design, pattern, colour and technique described. The expert layout of the text and illustrations enhances the coffee table appeal of the book and facilitates the reading and comprehension of what are some rather complex descriptions of design and batik-making techniques.

In Chapters 1 and 2, the writer points to an outstanding difference in the development of batik in Malaysia and Indonesia, where batik making is a centuries-old tradition. It was the customary use of the sarong in Javanese court wear and among men and women of the upper class that helped to preserve the identity of Indonesian batik. The skilled batik artisans consistently used the stiffer designs, schematic patterns and more staid colour schemes established in traditional Javanese batik. In Malaysia, batik sarongs were worn by the common folk, many of whom were farmers and fishermen. The self-taught batik makers of Kelantan and Terengganu were thus more free to develop bolder new designs and colour combinations reflecting the fauna and flora in the natural environment.

The less restrictive cultural environment in Malaysia also allowed for innovations in the techniques and mechanics of batik production. Quite significantly, the transition from the use of the canting (a traditional hand-held tool) in Indonesia for the precise but slow release of the wax in batik tulis, to the use in Malaysia of metal-block wax stamping over broader areas of fabric to produce yardage batik cap, followed by the more versatile use of the canting technique to produce stylus batik has resulted in a more varied choice of batik fabrics and designs in Malaysia.

In Chapter 3 Noor Azlina discusses in some depth the emergence of the Malaysian identity in stylus batik from the 1970s right through to the 1980s and 1990s, led by the younger graduates of art and design trained in foreign institutions as well as local ones such as the Mara Institute of Technology. The reader is led to conclude that what can be considered a pioneering venture in Malaysian batik is not so much the creation of a unique Malaysian design identity but rather, the innovations and experimentations in batik production.

Interestingly, the tradition of designing individually styled yardage batik pieces for different designs in women’s dress, scarves and stoles, men’s shirts and even lifestyle products was born and nurtured during this phase of the batik story. The riot of patterns and colour combinations in traditional Malay women’s dress, such as the baju kurung, baju kebaya and baju Kedah, and men’ shirts typically reflected the Malay preference for stronger designs in their attire.

The writer also identifies the individual batik designers and producers who were outstanding during this era and contributed their artistic skills as well as marketing talents to popularise Malaysian batik. Through their combined endeavours, the country saw a proliferation of batik silk produced by a combination of waxing and hand-drawn design using the canting and brushes. To this day, batik silk remains the most popular fabric choice for batik, taking over from the cottons and lawns of the early period and the voiles, rayons and viscose later.

While individual designers in Kuala Lumpur were able to sustain their businesses, it was the organised efforts of government agencies like Rida (Rural Industrial Development Authority) and Mara (Majlis Amanah Rakyat) in the 1960s and 1970s that provided financial and technical assistance to the small-scale batik industry which started in the East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu and spread to the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The growth of local and international tourism, the government-encouraged use of batik for formal use, and individual initiatives developed a more stable market for Malaysian batik and the industry was to gain a stronger foothold in the nation’s economy.

However, as Noor Azlina rightly points out, while batik manufacturing was on its way to becoming a viable local industry in the 1990s, product development, if there was any, was less impressive. The new government agency Kraftangan needed to coordinate the batik industry players better and inspire them to develop newer and better designs to meet the demands of a more discerning twenty-first century consumer market.

The highlights of Malaysian Batik: Reinventing A Tradition in terms of both its exposition and illustration are Chapters 4 and 5 where the writer describes in great detail the role played by the late Tun Endon Mahmood (wife of former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) and the organisation she spearheaded, the Yayasan Budi Penyayang (Penyayang), to inject new life into the Malaysian batik industry.

From the inception of Penyayang in 2000, Endon was to consider it her personal mission to revitalise the industry with a new creativity, promotional scheme and business strategy to take it to loftier levels, locally and internationally. Under the untiring efforts of the foundation’s CEO, Datuk Leela Mohd Ali, and its subsidiary Batik Guild Sdn Bhd, Penyayang embarked on the “Malaysia Batik – Crafted for the World” movement launched in 2003.

Through the well-chronicled text and assortment of photographs in Chapter 4, the writer takes us through the colourful series of events – batik extravaganzas and fashion shows, street carnivals and fun walks, batik and craft exhibitions, batik demonstrations and workshops, seminars and conferences – organised by the movement that connected the Malaysian public with the best players in the batik industry. The batik industry players have been, in turn, given an organised platform and opportunity to showcase their talents and products and reach out to a much larger public.

The concerted and sustained efforts to promote the Malaysian batik industry and encourage the creation of Malaysian batik with a clear national identity has brought together the batik makers, designers, production houses, fashion moguls, fashionistas, retailers and distributors, writers and media communicators and academicians, all poised to witness the modern rejuvenation and reinvention of Malaysian batik.

The culmination of each year’s activities lie in the Piala Seri Endon, a batik design competition held annually to showcase the best in batik design, highlighting the knowledge and experience of the designers but more importantly their “creativity, originality and professional execution of the batik in the designs as well as their commercial viability” (page 78).

Admittedly, while the annual competition has injected new inspiration and artistic insight into the nation’s many talented batik fashion designers, there has been no discernable design identity that Malaysian batik can boast of. Apart from highlighting the tropical flora and fauna and the many ethnic symbols and patterns, and translating them into the most outstanding or subtle hues, one cannot say that the designers have created a truly Malaysian identity in their batik designs.

What we see in the wonderful display of contemporary Malaysian batik designs on the pages in Chapter 5 is a new confidence and boldness in combining the strokes of canting and brush through a heightened colour sense. The works of the most outstanding designers are represented in the collection of Galeri Seri Endon, set up in 2008 for the purpose of serving as an incubator to breed the best.

As Noor Azlina subtly suggests, the national identity of Malaysian batik lies perhaps in its popularity as the fabric of choice in national attire. Malaysians from all walks of life and background gladly wear Malaysian batik on informal and formal occasions at home and abroad. As the final chapters in her story show, Malaysian batik has indeed come of age.

Penyayang’s efforts under the stewardship of its chairman, Nori Abdullah (Endon’s daughter), will see Malaysian batik making further inroads and reaching greater heights to ensure Endon’s dream of crafting Malaysian batik for the world will be perpetuated for posterity.

Malaysian Batik: Reinventing A Tradition is available at major bookstores nationwide.

Datin Halimah Mohd Said is a writer, citizen journalist, and long-serving educationist and academician specialising in English and linguistics; among the books she has written are Language And Empowerment (2003), Images Of The Jawi Peranakan Of Penang (2004) and the revised edition of Dr Mohamed Said: My Early Life (2011). She blogs at ninitalk.wordpress.com.

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