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Beautiful Batik: Writing in Wax

2020 Aug 31

The word Batik is a Javanese word that translates to ‘writing in wax’. Believed to have originated thousands of years ago from the tribes and villages of what is now known as Indonesia and Malaysia (Asia), and the Middle East.

The Batik industry in Sri Lanka was established within the last century or so, introduced in the 1960s by Soma Udabage who learned the craft in Indonesia, she used the craft to bring out intricate Sri Lankan designs onto fabric. Combined with Sri Lankan methods of fabric dyeing, this art form forged its own identity in the Sri Lankan textile industry with other designers quickly following her footsteps. 

The Process 

Batik is a form of textile art and a technique of wax-resist dyeing. In its most basic form, it is essentially the art of decorating a piece of cloth (usually cotton or silk), by drawing a pattern on it with wax, using a tool called a Canting/Tjanting (pronounced chan-ting). 

The cloth is then dyed with various colours depending on the design and once the dyeing process has been completed the wax is then melted off with boiling water. The drying process happens between each dye, to ensure that the colours are set. In Sri Lanka, many workshops and factories still dry their fabrics in the sun, as sunlight makes the colours more vibrant. The entire process is a labour of love and is painstakingly done by hand by experienced artisans. The more colours there are in a piece, the more time it takes to make. 

The resulting effect is the creation of a mosaic of vibrant coloured patterns and cracks (an indication of the authenticity of the product). The cracks which often fascinate and capture the attention of buyers are created by the cracks in the wax patterns which allow tiny bits of dye to seep through, whilst the area where the wax remains intact is left untouched by the dye.  

Batik in Sri Lanka

Deeply rooted in Sri Lankan local culture and embraced as traditional textile art, Sri Lanka has carved its own niche creating designs and techniques unique to Sri Lankan Batik artists. Popular amongst locals and foreigners alike, the early batik designs showcased the country’s rich culture – wall hangings often depicted key traditions, traditional scenery or images from local history. 

In the modern era, Batik is arguably the most popular of the islands craftworks, available in most tourist dense areas, at markets or souvenir shops, often purchased as aesthetically pleasing reminders of one’s visit to this culturally rich island. Typically more popular in the coastal areas, Galle and Hikkaduwa have seen an uptick in the number of factories manufacturing Batik items. 

Whilst the Batik we see today still incorporates deeply traditional motifs, there has been an increase in highly artistic and contemporary pieces and designs. The materials produced are then used to create everything from table cloths, napkins, bedspreads, to curtains and even clothing items. Apparel such as sarongs, sarees, shirts, resort wear, dresses and other garments agreeable to the warm climate of the island can be seen worn all over the beachside by tourists and locals looking to make a statement. 

Contemporary Batik in Fashion 

With designers and customers often enamoured by the materials used, the deep cultural significance of the technique and artwork, and the delightful cracked effect giving the materials a sense of bespoke authenticity, the art of Batik has taken the Fashion industry by storm and it is now no surprise to see Batik garments gracing runways and storefronts with their colourful and intricate designs. 

Not just popular with designers, many celebrities enjoy sporting Batik items, such as Beyoncé, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba, and The Duchess of Cambridge. 

Locally speaking, Sri Lanka’s Fashion industry has been quite bold and innovative with their love for Batik. Creating mesmerising pieces of work that are both fashion-forward and creative, one can expect to see a fair number of Batik items at any function or outing, ranging from bespoke suits to intricate gowns, to entire wedding retinues decked out in lavish Batik stylings.


The Future of Batik in Sri Lanka

Batik in Sri Lanka now has its own representative ministry, who are taking steps to uplifting and improving the industry. Speaking to Darshi Keerthisena, a front runner in the industry and the woman behind Buddhi Batiks, it was shared that the ministry (headed by Honourable Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara) and many key players in the industry have met with the President recently to discuss improvements that could be made to the industry. 

The main focus being standardising the industry, ensuring designer protection and the movement towards more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices within the industry. 

In this light, the Minister has already allocated funds towards the setting up of water purification centres to be located in areas with high concentrations of factories whereby the Batik manufacturers can send their water to be cleaned and purified before being put out into the environment. On this same strain, requests to standardise, and effect price controls on raw materials such and dyes and wax, have been made to increase accessibility to high quality, more eco-friendly and non-toxic materials.  

Batik though not inherently endemic to Sri Lanka, has planted deep roots in Sri Lanka’s culture and textile industry, creating a style and identity unique to our lovely island. This art form has always been a beautiful expression of our local artist’s creativity, and a wonderful medium for Sri Lanka to share its culture with the world.