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Affordable-SareeOriginating in India, the art of batik has come a long way from a mere handicraft. Today it is in the forefront t of the Indo-west fusion in the fashions of the world.The word batik actually means ‘wax writing’ and that is basically what batik is all about. It is a way of decorating cloth by covering a part of it with a coat of wax and then dyeing the cloth. The waxed areas keeps its original colour and when the wax is removed the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas makes the pattern. Batik was considered in the past as a fitting occupation for aristocratic ladies whose delicately painted designs based on bird and flower motifs were a sign of cultivation and refinement just as fine needlework was for European ladies of similar position.

“The beauty of batik lies in its simplicity and the fact that you don’t have to be an artist to achieve results. Some of the best effects in batik are often achieved by chance” informs fashion designer Dinesh Singhal.

Batik is very often considered a craft like ceramic, pottery or even needle work. Although it is a household word all over the world, batik is still often overlooked by art critics who do not consider it an art form. There are several countries known for their batik creations starting with India where it originated after which it moved to Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the west. The history of Indian batik can be traced as far back as 2000 years. Indians were conversant with the resist method for printing designs on cotton fabrics long before any other national had even tried it. Rice starch, mordants and wax was initially used for printing on fabrics. In fact, it is believed that the Indians were familiar with the resist method of printing as early as first century A.D. As a country India has always been noted for its cotton an dyes. The indigo blue which is the basic colour for batik is one of the earliest dyes. It is believed that after its initial popularity in the past, the tedious process of dyeing and waxing caused the decline of batik in India till recently.

Indonesia apparently took over from India and encouraged the art of batik and with its popularity and success in the western markets, batik became a part of Indonesia. The revival of batik began in the 20th century century in India when it was introduced as a subject at the famous university of Santiniketan in Calcutta. In the South near Madras, the well-known artist’s village of Chola-mandal is where batik gets an artistic touch. Batik that is produced in Madras is known for its original and vibrant designs.

Indonesia however is considered the cradle of batik with its many designs which are restricted for different wearers and occasions. Indonesian batik has characters of mystic and ritualistic connection. Objects like flowers, trees, birds have a significant meaning. The Sawat in Javanese batik has its origins in Hindu mythology as it is the decorative form of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s bird. ‘Sidomukti’ is another Hindu influence in batik. ‘Mukti’ means happiness and prosperity in the hindu language. While Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are known for their block printing (tjab) method 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.

Batik in Malaysia is a recent entrant is as late as 1913. It has now become a prime economic earner for the country. Kelantan in western Malaysia is the home of Malaysian batik. Since it is a recently acquired art it has no tradition to fall back on.

In the western countries batik was introduced by the Dutch travelers from Indonesia which was a former Dutch colony from where it also spread to the USA and Europe. In the West, the vegetable dyes are replaced by chemicals. Batik is also practiced by some of the African countries like Nigeria.

As mentioned earlier, batik is a method of creating patterns or designs on cloth by the wax resist technique. It is a three stage process of waxing dyeing and dewaxing (removing the wax) but there are several sub-processes like preparing the cloth, tracing the designs, stretching the cloth on the frame, waxing the area of the cloth that does not need dyeing, preparing the dye, dipping the cloth in dye, boiling the cloth to remove wax and washing the cloth in soap. The characteristic effects of the batik are the fine cracks that appear in the wax which allow small amounts of the dye to seep in. It is a feature not possible in any other form of printing. It is very important to achieve the right type of cracks or hairline detail for which the cloth must be crumpled correctly. This requires a lot of practice and patience.

Knowing how to use the wax is of prime importance. The ideal mixture for batik wax is 30 per cent beeswax to 70 per cent paraffin wax. For first timers even the melted wax of a candle is adequate. It is the skillful cracking that is important. While applying, the wax should not be overheated or it will catch fire. Correct knowledge of colours is also important. Practicing on small pieces of cloth help in the beginning. Patience is of course a very important factor too.

The cloth used should be strong enough to bear the heat and wax. Cambric, poplin and voiles are used besides pure silk. Synthetic fabrics should be avoided. Since early days of Indian history dating back to nearly 2000 – 1500 B.C. Indians have been known to wear vibrant colours and dyes which were made from barks of trees, leaves, flowers and minerals. Blue was obtained from indigo, while orange and red were from henna. Yellow was from turmeric and lilac and mauve from log-wood. Black was created by burning iron in molasses and cochineal from insects.

Since handmade batik is unable to meet with the consumer demands very often the answer is tjaping with a copper block. A tjap is a metal block made of copper strips into the required design after which is stamped quickly and with great force.

Batik is created in several ways. The splash method means that the wax is splashed or poured onto the cloth. The screen printing method involves a stencil. The hand painting one is by a kalamkari pen. The scratch and starch resist are the other methods. From a handicraft, batik has acquired the status of an art. Batik is a versatile medium, that becomes an ideal hobby for an amateur or a medium of expression for an artist. Batik as an art form is quite spontaneous and one can open up new vistas of creative form. Until recently batik was made for dresses and tailored garments only. “In the world of fashion batik has few equals as it has acquired world wide prominence in the present as never before” observes designer Dinesh Singhal who has been creating collections in batik over the years and has realized how perennial the acceptance of the fabric is.

“One of the positive sides of batik as a fabric for garments is concerned, is the vibrant colours and very often the unusual combinations that emerge after the process has been undertaken” Singhal adds. “Since the results are best on natural fabrics like cotton and silk, the designing possibilities are quite limitless.”

“From salwar/kameezes to western wear to combinations in fabric tones as well as forms like the Indo-west look a batik outfit can never go out of vogue,” confirms Singhal. Batik is not only restricted to dress materials but modern batik is livelier and brighter in the form of murals, wall hangings, paintings, household linen, scarves etc.

“Let’s say batik has come a long, long way from a mere handicraft of days gone by to a place on the fashion charts in India and all over the world.”

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