Keeping batik art alive


M. Sheelarani, 52, hand painting batik designs at the batik factory. — CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

AS National Day passes and Malaysia Day draws near, a batik factory in Teluk Bahang, Penang, is keeping the faith and waiting for tourism activities to be allowed again to bring this Malaysian heritage back to life.

On top of producing this beautiful fabric, the factory has spent years showing the younger generation – especially those with a flair for art – how to express themselves through batik.

Factory director Quah Chin Choon said batik is considered a dying art these days.

“We do hope the younger generation will pick it up as a serious art,” he said.

Workers painting traditional batik at the batik factory.Workers painting traditional batik at the batik factory.

When tourism activities were allowed in Penang, the factory regularly conducted do-it-yourself workshops and tours for visitors.

It is waiting for such activities to be allowed again so it can continue fostering delight for this Malaysian heritage.

Batik is an ancient fabric art, dyed with elaborate patterns. Though it is said to have originated in Java, Indonesia, it was quickly embraced by ancient Malays, who refined the production method using wax and copper stamping blocks.

“It used to be everyone’s go-to attire decades ago.

Marina Ab Hadi, 45, showing the canting tool used for batik wax design.Marina Ab Hadi, 45, showing the canting tool used for batik wax design.

“We encourage people to use Malaysian-made batik,” he said.

Quah’s factory in Teluk Bahang offers an insight into how batik is made and showcases local talents.

“The soft cotton dyed in a rainbow of colours with traditional native motifs have been a hit for decades, from official attire to nightwear,” he said.

Using the traditional methods of stamping blocks, canting (a pen-like tool used to apply liquid hot wax) and tie-dyeing, the cloth – almost always cotton and sometimes silk and rayon – go through an intricate cycle before it is ready to be made into garments.

He explained that to know if the batik is genuine, the patterns have to be on both sides of the cloth.

Quah: We do hope the younger generation will pick it up as a serious artQuah: We do hope the younger generation will pick it up as a serious art

“If the print has not seeped through to the other side, then it is a machine-printed garment, not a genuinely painted piece. It is imitation batik.

“If the piece is polyester, it is not original batik. It is usually cotton or silk.

“Batik artists have to know the correct temperature of the wax to apply it on the fabric.

“The wax is placed on the cloth then dyed to a chosen colour, followed by another layer of wax and another colour.

A. Thomas Fatima Mary, 69, (right) and Karen Wong, 50, holding up colourful painted fabrics at the batik factory in Teluk Bahang, Penang.A. Thomas Fatima Mary, 69, (right) and Karen Wong, 50, holding up colourful painted fabrics at the batik factory in Teluk Bahang, Penang.

“It usually starts with a lighter colour before progressing to darker colours.

“To create a piece, it can take about three to four days.

“You have to wait for it to dry before adding more colours and it can take half a day or more, depending on the weather,” he said.

The process starts with applying the wax, which will resist the dye.

Mydin Kasim, 64, choosing from among the various batik printing blocks for block printing at the batik factory.Mydin Kasim, 64, choosing from among the various batik printing blocks for block printing at the batik factory.

“The exposed parts will absorb the dye. It is a labour intensive process,” he said, adding that one needs to control the flow of wax on to the cloth.

Sometimes the factory gets commissioned to custom-make batik pieces with unique designs and motifs.

“To make a batik piece, one needs to have a sturdy hand and good eye for detail.

“Once a piece is completed, they check it and touch up the piece before it is boiled to remove the wax and then dried in the sun.

“One needs to be passionate about it,” he stressed.

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