With a ministry of its own now, Sri Lanka’s batik industry is poised for growth

Tuesday, 22 September 2020 00:40 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The State Minister for Batik, Handloom, and Local Apparel Products Dayasiri Jayasekara is envisaging the introduction of mandatory wearing of batik or handloom apparels by Government employees once a week, as a step to promote local apparels.

  • Integration of dispersed cottage industry will enable it to grow both stylistically and economically

By B.A.Hussainmiya 

newsin.asia: In the latest round of ministerial appointments made by the new Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka, the batik industry has been given an elevated status. For the first time, it has been bought under a separate State Ministry. 

This is meant to encourage improvements in the batik industry. Accordingly, several plans are afoot and programs are underway to make it a national level industry to appeal to all sections of the community. 

The State Minister for Batik, Handloom, and Local Apparel Products Dayasiri Jayasekara is envisaging the introduction of mandatory wearing of batik or handloom apparels by Government employees once a week, as a step to promote local apparels.

In order to achieve this, the prices of batik and handloom apparels are expected to be reduced to make them affordable for all employees. By the same token, the Ministry proposes to take steps to stop the import of fabrics, garments, textiles, batik, and handloom products.

The Ministry considers it important to develop the batik industry on par with that of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to make it one of the major money spinners.  

Brought by the Dutch from Indonesia 

Batik originated in Indonesia and was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch. But the batik industry in Sri Lanka has developed into a unique form of textile art exclusive to the country.

It is a small-scale industry bringing economic benefits primarily from foreign customers. It is now the most visible of the island›s crafts with galleries and factories, large and small, in many tourist areas. Rows of small stalls selling batiks can be found all along Hikkaduwa on the Galle Road. Mahaweva is famous for its batik factories.

Batik was originally a fashion statement among the Kandyan elite at the time of the Kings.  Aristocratic ladies of the central Lankan kingdom were skilled practitioners of batik. Soon batik was introduced to the artisan classes, who developed tapestry, regional flags and traditional clothes for the aristocrats. But batik was limited to being a cottage industry until the late 1970s.

Batik clothes remain a fashion dress among certain classes in Sri Lanka who can afford them. The designs and patterns employed in Sri Lankan batik are unique and exclusive to Sinhala culture. But batik has to come out of this elitist cocoon to be an industry in the proper sense of the term.  It has to become a national industry.  As in Indonesia, which is the mother of batik, Sri Lanka has to exploit all her special natural resources from raw material to skills to create a niche. 

What is batik?

The word batik means «wax painting.» It is both an art and a craft, which is becoming popular in the West as a wonderfully creative medium. Batik is a process known as “resist dyeing”, in which the surface design on cloth is applied with a semifluid substance (wax, in the case of batik) that resists dye. When the substance is removed the resulting «negative space» or motif contrasts with the dye. Repeated applications of resist and dye create a complex design. 

Resist dyeing has a broad geographic distribution, historically found in all continents except on the Pacific Islands and Australia. The resist substances include mud, pastes (rice, peanut, cassava, or bean), starch, hot resin, paraffin, and beeswax. 

Monochromatic palettes of white (cloth colour) and dark brown such as the bogolan mud cloths of Mali, or white and indigo as in the batiks of the Blue Hmong are common, and motifs tend to be geo-metric such as those found in West Africa, Turkistan, the Middle East, mainland Southeast Asia, and south China. In Indonesia, particularly in Java, batik has developed intricate styles not found elsewhere, and its sophistication is mirrored in the use of batik cloths in Indonesian dresses. Batik is historically the most expressive and subtle of the resist methods. The ever-widening range of techniques available offers the artist the opportunity to explore a unique process in a flexible and exciting way. 

Contemporary batik, while owing much to the past, is markedly different from the more traditional and formal styles. For example, the artist may use etching, discharge dyeing, stencils, and other tools for waxing and dyeing; wax recipes with different resist values; and work with silk, cotton, wool, leather, paper or even wood and ceramics.

The rise of fine batik in Indonesia hinged on the availability of imported high thread count cotton fabric from Europe after the industrial revolution. Women create resist patterns on this cloth by gliding molten hot wax from a copper stylus called a canting, which barely touches the cloth; coarse cloth would cause snags and wax drips. Both the surface and the underside of the cloth are waxed, so that the pattern is complete on both sides of the cloth. After each waxing, the cloth is dyed, and then boiled to remove the wax. Then another element of the design is waxed and the process is repeated. 

The use of a stylus to create a hand-drawn batik pattern is called tulis («writing»); the creation of tulis batik takes as much as two weeks for the waxing and a little over a month by the time the final dye bath is completed. Care must be taken to keep it from cracking the wax, as this indicates poor craftsmanship.

Although Indonesia has emerged as one of the important homes of the batik trade followed by Malaysia and Thailand, batik making has a long history elsewhere. No evidence of very old cotton batiks have been found in India but frescoes in the Ajanta caves depict head wraps and garments which could well have been batiks. In Java and Bali, temple ruins contain figures whose garments are patterned in a manner suggestive of batik.

By 1677 there is evidence of a considerable export trade, mostly of silk from China to Java, Sumatra, Persia and Hindustan. In Egypt, linen and occasionally woollen fabrics, have been excavated bearing white patterns on a blue background. These are the oldest known dating from 5th century A.D. They were made in Egypt or Syria. In central Africa resist dyeing using cassava and rice paste has existed for centuries in the Yoruba tribe of Southern Nigeria and Senegal.

Indonesia, particularly the island of Java, is where batik has reached the highest peak of excellence. The Dutch brought Indonesian craftsmen to teach the craft to Dutch warders in several factories in Holland from 1835. The Swiss produced imitation batik. A wax block form of printing was developed in Java using a cap. By the early 1900s the Germans had developed mass production of batiks. There are many examples of this form of batik as well as hand-produced work in many parts of the world today. Computerisation of batik techniques is a very recent development.

Suggestions for Sri Lanka 

Finally I have some suggestions to make for Sri Lanka: Today, batik textile manufacturing in Sri Lanka is deeply-rooted in the local culture and many a local artist has embraced it as his own, developing unique wax resist and dying techniques to create batik designs that are unique to Sri Lanka.  

Currently, the Eastern Province is famous for producing good quality handloom clothes with vibrant colours. The sarongs woven there are increasingly in demand among the higher echelons of society. However, based as it is mostly in areas dominated by Muslim culture, the clothes woven do not have human or animal motifs. 

But the batiks produced in Sinhalese areas have no such restrictions. They carry paintings of humans and fauna as design motifs. For example, Kandy Perahera scenes depicting Kandyan dancers and elephants are a popular motif in the Kandyan batik clothes. 

I suggest that the Government broad bases the production of batik clothes. Indeed the Eastern Province Muslim weavers can also get engaged in the batik industry by creating their own motifs avoiding depictions of human figures. For example, they can employ geometrical motifs as it is done in Indonesia or floral motifs that can appeal to many consumers. 

It is ideal if the Eastern handloom industry can absorb batik making techniques to produce a hybrid textile culture. This I believe can add to the value of this industry both economically and stylistically.