Batik is one of the many age-old resist techniques for patterning fabric in India. Wax is applied to the cloth using a carved wooden block, a kalam (pen), a Javanese copper tjanting tool or brush to create the design that will resist the dye.
Batik from Indonesia
Batik is a technique that most people might associate with Indonesia, a country famed for its precise and detailed wax resist prints. When the Dutch had control of Indonesia in the 19th century (then known as the Dutch East-Indies) they began to mass manufacture imitations of these prints in the Netherlands for the African market, and what are now commonly known as ‘Dutch wax prints’ are most synonymous with the dress worn by women in Ghana, Nigeria and other West African countries where the cloth has become an important part of West African culture and identity. The cloth is also popular in fashion, art and interiors world-wide.
Batik is the most important textile craft for Sri Lanka, produced for temple hangings, and more recently for the tourist market. Designs incorporate religious motifs including Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian iconography combined with floral and geometric patterns, or country scenes and seascapes. Batik workshops are situated all over the island, the largest cluster along the coastal south-west. It is thought the industry originated alongside the chintz industry on the Coromandel Coast in south-eastern India. The kalam (pen) was used in the painting of chintzs to apply wax as well as dye until the Javan tjanting tool was introduced, possibly when Sri Lankan and Java were both governed by the Dutch. The tjanting allows for much more precision in design, it is comprised of a wooden handle, a small copper reservoir to hold the molten wax with a spout to pour and guide a fine line of the wax over the cloth (see John Gillow Indian Textiles and John Guy).
Woman painting wax with brush in Sri Lanka
Today batik is produced in several areas of India. A few years ago I visited the Batik Art Research and Training Institute (BARTI) in Udaipur, Rajasthan, founded and run by Dr Abdul Majeed, who teaches under-privileged women the craft of batik as a way to support themselves economically. Dr Majeed is a member of the World Batik Council, has had good press coverage and is active in the promotion and continuation of Batik. The pieces produced by BARTI are mainly one-off art works for wall hangings or to be framed, exquisitely produced using a high level of skill and several colours.
Batik art work produced by BARTI. Photograph: Ruth Clifford
Artist painting wax at BARTI. Photograph: Ruth Clifford
Kachchh in Gujarat has a vibrant batik industry, particularly in the towns of Mandvi and Mundra on the coast – where artisans produce for markets in Ahmedabad and Mumbai through merchants in Bhuj. Batik is traditionally produced by the Khatri communities, the name Khatri meaning ‘one who applies colour to cloth’. However, today there are more communities practising the craft. VGS Batik in the bustling coastal town of Mandvi was set up to encourage the continuation of this traditional craft and provide employment for locals. They produce fabrics for bed linens and co-ordinating suits (salwar, kamiz and dupatta). Designs are bold floral and geometric and colours rich and exotic produced using both natural and chemical dyes.
Printing wax with a woodblock at VGS in Mandvi, Kachchh. Photograph: Ruth Clifford
Wax printed cloth being dyed at VGS Batik, Kachchh. Photograph: Ruth Clifford
The most common tools for applying the wax here are carved wooden blocks or blocks with fine strips of copper for the more detailed designs. Today synthetic dyes and paraffin wax are used, but in the past natural dyes would have been used and as Eiluned Edwards in her book 'Textiles and Dress of Gujarat' tells, us a form of wax known as kanka which was a product derived from the seeds of the pilu (jojoba) tree and min, the term for beeswax.
Two artisans from near Mundra, Shakil Ahmed Khatri and Anwar Hussain Khatri graduated from Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya – a design school for artisans in Kachchh, in 2009 and 2010 respectively , and are producing innovative new designs in batik for a contemporary urban and international market. They are among the many artisans in Kachchh and indeed elsewhere in India who are working hard to sustain their traditional craft while successfully situating it in contemporary markets.
Author: Ruth Clifford,www.travelsintextiles.com