Batik at the Millennial Turn
From sarongs to a multitude of products
A few decades back the sarong length was the quintessence of batik, put to multiple use and charged with meaning. Today there is instead a larger multitude of products at the same time as the symbolic importance of batik has taken on new dimensions.
Inventing new products
Anything that can be made of woven textile can be made of fabrics with a batik pattern. Products that are usually made from other materials, and may even be more functional in other materials, can also be made from batik – like postcards, kites, wallets, letter-cases, and photo frames. This mixture of products is primarily found in the souvenir shops.
The sarong piece is still produced in great quantities, and there is still a rich choice in textile shops and market booths. The classical sarong has, however, been partly ‘relegated’ to the private sphere and is no longer a dominant element of women’s dress in public space.
A batik product that is gaining a firmer position is a hand-painted length of fabric (about four meters long), enough to sew a woman’s dress with skirt and blouse or tunic. A skirt in which the folds are sewn on to a waistband has then replaced the draped and tied sarong. The kebaya blouse has partly lost out to the long and loose baju kurung. The kebaya blouses still in use have also become longer and of a looser fit. This development must undoubtedly be seen in connection with an increasingly strict dress code in many Islamic milieus.
While the classical sarong has lost some terrain as an obligatory dress element, other garments have gained space as formal attire. A long-sleeved batik shirt – either block printed or hand-painted – is correct attire for men at formal occasions. The newspapers can bring many pictures of prominent politicians in colourful batik shirts at social functions and meetings. Batik is also frequently used for work uniforms in occupations where the incumbent’s visibility and appearance are important – like waiters and receptionists in hotels, and airline personnel.
Around 1980 the political authorities voiced a strong wish – perhaps rather an order – that all public employees should wear batik at work at least one day every week. This attempt flopped, however. One amusing example of dress code is in force at the holiday resort Genting Highlands. This resort has a casino, and would-be visitors have to change from leisure wear to something more formal. So, outside the entrance is a large selection of batik shirts either for sale or for hire.
The sign value of batik is the main issue in all these examples – it is a national symbol. Malaysia is multi-ethnic to start with, and batik has been most strongly connected to the Malay part of the population. This is an efficient reminder that the Malay element is the main stock of the nation state.
Exclusive and commonplace
Several criteria can be used to distinguish between the exclusive and the commonplace. It can be the quality of the textile, the craftsmanship, or the artistic appeal of the motif: Is the artistic expression original, or just a copy of something already familiar? A batik piece can be made of an exquisite silk, the decoration can be meticulously finished, but the motif may be conventional. The hand-painted Malaysian batik was a novelty when it was first launched, but some of the floral patterns that gained rapid popularity may now easily be seen as ordinary. Many batik artists on the search for new paths liberate themselves entirely from the traditional repertoire of motifs, while others seek to renew themselves within the tradition.
Two successful representatives of the latter category are Yuzairi, a team of two who work in Kota Bharu, and Atma Alam at Langkawi. Yuzairi work within the young Malaysian hand-painting tradition with motifs from flora and fauna, but they are on the search for new approaches for instance in the choice of colours, or by letting one single flower or leaf fill an entire large textile. This trend also has adherents among less renowned artists. Atma Alam is an arts and crafts centre run by a couple of young artists. The batik sold there is produced locally, handdrawn as well as block printed. It varies from quite experimental pieces to pieces well within tradition, but then often with some surprises, for instance in the choice of colours.
The great pioneer in creating pictures in batik technique was Chuah Thean Teng. He became famous for his motifs from Malay village life, and created a popular trend. Batik paintings have recently developed in new and exciting ways.