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A Hundre Years of Batik in Malaysia

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This picture was taken in a market booth in 2003. Similar pictures could be taken several decades earlier. For women have always been prominent in batik trade.

A short history and great creativity

A short history and great creativity can serve as catchwords for the commercial production of batik in Malaysia. Covering scarcely 100 years, this history has been full of life and movement. We know that Malays on the East Coast of the peninsula experimented with textile prints without wax in the early 1900s.

In the 1920s people in the same area started using a technique with screen prints for fast and cheap production of decorated textiles. Around 1930 the 'real' batik production started, stamping with wax directly on the fabric. (Source: Arney 1987).

Long before this production got started batik, especially from Java, was known and used in the area that is now Malaysia. The Malays learned the techniques and adopted the patterns from the Javanese. Still today elements of patterns from the Javanese textiles are continued and developed in many of the textiles that are produced by block printing as well as screen printing.

Copying and creativity

Copying and creativity is another pair of catchwords fit to describe the production of batik in Malaysia. Even though the Javanese heritage is still visible, Malaysian producers have partly liberated themselves from it and developed their craft in new directions. This can be seen in technique and design as well as in the development of new types of products.

In particular, the hand-painted batik from the late twentieth century represents an innovation, not least because it differs technically from the Javanese tradition of handdrawing. First, it is a simplification of the production process. Second, it opens up for more individual freedom and creativity; an entirely new design tradition has sprung up, one that is dominated by large motifs drawn freely on a plain-coloured background. A few textile artists emerge as remarkable innovators, and these are soon followed and copied by many others. To take one example, a type of silk scarf with floral motifs has lost its exclusivity, and although the scarves are attractive, they are easily perceived as stereotyped.

The dominant North-East

Two circumstances are vitally important in order to understand many aspects of the batik business in Malaysia. First, there is the dominance of the northeast, and second, the simple technology.

In the Northeastern States Kelantan and Terengganu industrial alternatives have been weakly developed; production and sale of batik have thus meant valuable opportunities for employment. The batik factories are particularly numerous around the major cities Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu.

The Malays make up more than 90 % of the population in these States, and production as well as trade in batik have been a Malay niche in the multiethnic Malaysian society. We see here a unique outlet for Malay enterprise in a society where other groups have tended to dominate trade and industry.

As far as Kelantan is concerned, the proximity to Thailand has been important economically as well as culturally. There has always been a brisk border trade. And in folklore as well as in handicraft traditions there are easily discernible connections. Batik has been exported from the East Coast States to the rest of Malaysia, although a considerable production has also sprung up on the West Coast. It remains to be said that the Malay dominance of batik is now about to dwindle in the West Coast States.

The strength of low technology

Another feature to be noted is the relatively simple and inexpensive production outfit as well as the organisation of the production process. Flexibility is the underlying strength of low technology. It is relatively easy to get started and easy to decrease the activity in slack periods without having to close down completely.

The factories, or workshops, are usually small family establishments, and part of the batik processing is often farmed out to women in the neighbourhood. In this way both loss and gain are spread. Moreover, a reservoir of skills is developed: a great number of people in the factory's vicinity have a basic knowledge of batik production. The workshops can draw on this reservoir, and many skilled individuals can also make small amounts of handdrawn batik independently as a part time occupation.

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The State-initiated sales organisation KARYANEKA plays an important part in the development of the Malaysian batik industry.

State and market

By and large, the batik business has been driven forward by free enterprise and a free market. After Independence the authorities were eager to strengthen economic development, particularly in the Malay population, and these efforts were boosted when the New Economic Policy was launched in 1971. This has also effected the batik sector in several ways. The huge development programme MARA grants support to Malay entrepreneurship, and runs training institutions on nearly every conceivable occupational area.

Many batik artists have been educated at the MARA Institute of Technology. Kraftangan, another important Federal agency, co-ordinates and supports activities within arts and crafts. Kraftangan's sales organisation is KARYANEKA, with departments and shops in most States. KARYANEKA partly seeks products actively from crafts producers, and partly accepts offers from producers if these pass certain criteria of quality.

But many batik producers and traders operate outside these State institutions, and there are also a number of private schools that train batik artists. Furthermore, a great deal of training still takes place through direct, practical participation in batik production, particularly within the smaller family concerns.

Published Mar. 27, 2020 10:01 AM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 11:30 AM