Early evidence of batik dating back more than 2000 years has been found across Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, South East Asia, and the Far East. The theory that the art form of batik evolved independently in each of these regions is plausible. However, historians believe it is also likely that batik spread through caravan trade routes. By the 17th century there were established trade routes between China, the Indonesian islands Java and Sumatra, Persia, which is present-day Iran, and Hindustan, which includes the North Indian Gangetic Plain and the Indus River basin in Pakistan. Batik even travelled as far as the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland in the 19th century during the Dutch East Indies colonisation. Many historians dispute the true origins of batik. Some attribute it to Egypt, while others believe it originated from India.
Traditional Indian batik depicting an Indian folk scene
Frescoes, a type of mural painting that make use of lime plaster, discovered in Maharashtra's Ajanta Caves include illustrations of batik, signifying that the craft was present in India before the 7th century CE. For a time, the technique of batik was almost lost due to its meticulous and time consuming repetitive three stage process. However, batik was preserved as the métier of aristocratic women – the delicacy of batik’s hand-made designs with flower and bird motifs were considered a sign of refinement and cultivation. In earlier times, wax as well as rice starch were used as a resist for batik printing, as opposed to today’s preferred use of paraffin wax and beeswax. Traditional Indian batiks often made use of indigo, brown and white colours as a tribute to the three Hindu Gods - Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva.
A section of a fresco in one of the Ajanta Caves with illustrations of batik
Historically, the Khatri community of Gujarat were known to be the original artisans of batik printing. Over time, the technique of batik dispersed to other regions and cultures of India. The 20th century saw the resurgence of batik, as it was introduced as a two year course at the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. In the 1980s, batik printing became a popular industry for small scale Indian female designers and entrepreneurs. In the mid 1960s Tamil Nadu became another centre for batik printing and its artisans, with the establishment of the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam.
Founder of Cholamandal Artists' Village, K.C.S Panicker, showing arts and crafts pieces to the Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and his wife, 1966
Images: Charan Creations, Saigan, The Hindu