January 2015


“Waxing Lyrical” about Sri Lankan Batik
January 2015




Batik sarongs on display

Sri Lanka is a country bursting with brilliant colour and ancient culture, and nothing conveys these qualities more graphically than this serendipitous island's village based batik industry.


Words And Photography Kurt Rolfes


Batik's origins have been traced to India in records dating back 2,000 years and the method of batik is believed to have been introduced to Indonesia by traders. Batik is a Javanese word that translates as "writing in wax." The hot wax process used for making batik was probably brought to Sri Lanka during the Dutch colonial period from Indonesia, which at that time was also a Dutch colony.


It was originally practised in Sri Lanka as a pastime and hobby but only by the Kandyan Royal Court Nobles. However, once the British period began and the British imported mass produced cotton cloth and linen from Great Britain, the batik process spread throughout Sri Lanka.


Certain villages and towns became known for their expertise in the art of batik design and production. Production eventually spread from Kandy to Matale in the cultural triangle to the southern beach and tourist towns of Hikkaduwa and Galle and north of Negombo to Mahawewa, where many batik factories are still located.


Batik today remains the most visible of all Sri Lankan crafts and employs indigenous motifs and brilliant colours which incorporate designs unique to Sri Lanka. The materials produced by local batik makers include distinctive sarongs, dresses, shirts, and men's bathing trunks and ladies' bikinis, which are ideally suited for our tropical climate. It's not uncommon to see tourists wearing locally produced batik during their vacation in Sri Lanka.


Even today in many villages, batik is a cottage industry. An individual village artisan will produce an entire batik piece from start to finish. And even a skilled batik artist will average only two sarongs or casual shirts a day. Once I realised how much effort goes into producing batik clothing, I rarely bargain when in a small village shop buying a shirt or sarong. If the asking price is reasonably close to what I think it should be, the deal is done.


So, what goes into making batik?
Each step in the process is done by hand. First you must draw, usually by lead pencil on stretched cotton cloth, the intended design. Once the final design is drawn in, then comes the decision on what colour dyes and how many you will use before the next step.


This is the application of hot wax. The wax is melted in a heavy metal pot over a traditional wood fire or gas flame. Wax is applied using special small funnel shaped applicators equipped with fine to broad nibs. These nibs determine the thickness of the lines or patterns on the cloth. Brushes are also used to apply wax to broader areas and even a coarse brush of coir rope is sometimes used to achieve a splatter effect on the cloth. If you want veins or streaks of colour on the final product, you can first coat it with wax and then crumple the cloth before dying. Once the required areas are waxed in, the next step is mixing the selected dye colour.


When the right colour is mixed, the dyeing begins. It usually starts with the lightest colour first and the darker colour last and consists of a three step process. The first step is a chemical one used to help the cloth absorb the colour. Next is a salt bath to make sure the colour is permanently retained and finally it is placed in the vat containing the dye for approximately thirty minutes. After removal from the dye, the fabric is hung up to dry, usually in the tropical sun, much like laundry on a clothesline.

The designs found on batik in this tropical island are closely tied to nature, culture and mythology
Once the cloth has dried, the wax is removed by either boiling the fabric in hot water or ironing small patches of the wax out. The application of wax and the dyeing is repeated until the final colours in the design are all filled in and the batik is finished.


The designs found on batik in this tropical island are closely tied to nature, culture and mythology. The most popular motifs are scenes of daily life: a village scene, elephants bathing in a river and stilt fisherman. Motifs from temples, religious ceremonies, ancient legends and palaces are also common.


Consisting of a few colours to dozens, these batik creations run the gamut from many styles of clothing, wall hangings and banners to cushion covers and bedspreads.


Although the traditional batik designs and technology are still widespread, new generations of younger batik artists are introducing more modern design concepts into the country's batik industry. They are using more contemporary colours and stylised designs and introducing new types of cloth to rethink traditional concepts that will be more acceptable to the younger generation of both
Sri Lankans and tourists.


The batik industry in Sri Lanka employs thousands of people in villages scattered around the Island. Now that more and more tourists are visiting the Island, I suspect we shall see many of them roaming around proudly wearing local batik.


That also means that the Island's batik makers will have plenty of reason to "wax lyrical" about their art and craft.

 

  • image01
    image01

    A batik wall hanging depicting the Perahera

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Drawing a pattern on the cloth before waxing and dying

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Melting the wax used in batik production

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Applying hot wax to a drawn pattern using a funnel shaped applicator with a nib

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Measuring the cut cloth against a set shape

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Applying wax on a prepared pattern

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Coating cotton cloth with wax then crumpling the cloth to produce fine lines once dyed

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The various colours and patterns of batik hanging in a shop

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Preparing a long piece of cloth for a second waxing

    Prev Next