In India, Batik prints were the attire of the nomadic tribes who moved around the belt of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This craft has now been honed by skilled craftsmen to make various varieties of dress materials, garments and home furnishings for the contemporary market.
Batik is a craft versatile in its expression, fabric being its canvas. It is a craft form that is encouraging, even for amateurs, to take it up, have fun with it and gradually develop their skill on the way. The level of experience required is not much and some of the best effects in Batik are achieved through serendipity. The facility for carrying about Batik printing has also been improved over the years. This aspect has helped in conserving the number of craftsmen practicing Batik. There is no dearth or difficulty in recruiting and teaching either.
In this method, the color holds on to the fabric more strongly than printed fabrics. The fabric absorbs the color during the dyeing process so well that it does not easily fade. Due to the easy availability of raw materials and its adaptability, Batik has been introduced in many areas as a source of income generation to bring about a sustainable livelihood. The craft form has been revamped with the usage of brighter colors and new patterns, which has lead to an increase in its market over the last decade. There is also an upcoming demand for the traditional intricate designs.
Myths & Legends
The exact place where Batik originated is still a hazy picture, but there exists a folk tale in China about how this method of printing may have been discovered.
A very long time ago, there was a girl living in a stone village called Anshun, now a city in Guizhou Province. She was very fond of dyeing cloth in her favored colors of blue and purple. One day while she was dyeing, a bee buzzed around and sat on the cloth. When she spotted the bee, the girl shooed it away. After dyeing, she noticed that there was a small white dot where the bee had once sat. The girl found this very pretty and discovered the reason for this was the residue of the bee's wax. This serendipitous discovery of hers led to the usage of wax in dyeing.
The history of the Batik method of printing can be traced back to almost two thousand years. Its exact point of origin is not known, but is said to have been an offshoot of mordant resist dyeing which was discovered and extensively practiced in India on cotton fabrics almost five thousand years ago.
The method of mordant resist printing spread to Indonesia through the Indian traders. Indonesia took to the craft quickly and flavored it with the local myths and rituals. Many influences of Hindu mythology can also be seen in the Indonesian Batik patterns. For example, 'Sawat' is the decorative form of 'Garuda', the eagle vehicle of Lord Vishnu and 'Sidomukti' is a pattern derived from the Hindu principles of prosperity and sufficiency. It then caught on like fire to Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries in the west when the Dutch travelers took the fabric along on their journeys for trade. Batik entered Malaysia only in 1913. While in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are known for their block printing (tjab/stamping) method also to create batik on a large scale, in Sri Lanka, Batik is still made by hand. Sri Lankan Batik is less intricate and more suited to modern times. The Indonesian Batiks are highly evolved and the artists have excelled in very complicated patterns. Many artisans from India are sent to Indonesia for training in this craft form.
Batik production had dimmed in India gradually. It saw an uplifting revival in the 20th century when introduced as a subject in the famed Shantiniketan University of West Bengal. In the southern region of India, the Cholamandalam artists' village in Chennai has been a pioneer in encouraging and sustaining this craft. Though Batik is a widely practiced craft, the designs and methods vary from region to region.
According to one of the Batik craftsmen in Behrugarh, Murshiji, the Chippas were under the patronage of Raja Jaisingh of Rajasthan. Later, the Hindu Chippas converted to Islam and spread out to wherever there were sources of running water were available to aid their craft. They thus landed up in Behrugarh. Research says that Raja Sawai Jai Singh had invited many craftsmen to settle in his land in Jaipur. This was done to meet the clothing needs of the subjects and the royal court. Also to bring about a new aesthetic sense by combining the art of different traditions. The outcome was a cluster of craftsmen practicing various crafts like zari, block printing etc. They came from Gujarat and Malwa regions.
Batik production mainly catered to the tribal population of the north western regions of India. Large open markets are set up from where the tribals or adivasis buy the materials from. Earlier the resist dyeing was done using sand. This method was called 'Dabu'. It later developed into the Batik method when sand was replaced with wax. The prominent color of Alizarine which is a characteristic of tribal drapery became a mandatory in the resist dyed fabrics since they were the primary customers. Alizarin was made from the roots of the Madder plant. Before the Alizarine dyes, prints by the name of 'Jodhpuriya' were made for the Adivasis of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh.
The wax resist dyeing gives a broken and marble-like appearance to the pattern. The traditional designs were intricate abstracts of flowers, birds and animals. The common names of the designs are Bhairavgari Buta, Haathi Baga, Naadna Buta, Kerala Keri, Morsali, Jodhpuriya, Lehariya etc.
Over time, Batik patterns have embraced many innovations due to its flexibility. Inspirations are derived from tribal art too. The motifs used can be broadly divided into two categories: geometrical and elaborate. The elaborate motifs are generally natural, such as flowers and buds, leaves, birds, fish, butterflies, vines, small animals and insects. The geometric patterns include lines, squares and various tessellations.
Like the challenges faced by most crafts where time plays an important factor in quality, Batik also is needing to succumb to synthetic raw materials and facilities to mass produce the fabric. The shift to using industrial wax is making the recycling of leftover wax difficult, thus increasing wastage.
Large quantities of water are required for washing the fabric during the processes. Block printing is dependent upon clean, mineral fresh water to create colors from natural dyes. The lowering water tables in the regions pose an upcoming threat for the craftsmen, who now have to dig bore wells deeper than usual.
The pricing of the fabric is also becoming a challenge. With the amount of efforts involved, the value is more, but increasing the price would also decrease the demand of the fabric. The government taxes have also increased over the years.
When it comes to the hand-drawn designs of Batik printing, a certain level of expertise is required in knowing how to spontaneously work with wax. It can sometimes prove to be a difficult material to work with if the artist lacks speed and dexterity.