The Batik Block Artisan

 

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We often hear of batiks in Malaysia and imagine them to be hand drawn through the canting technique. In Malaysia, hand made batik designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax by using a metal object called “canting” – it is like a small receptacle that pours out hot wax in small lines instead of paint.

When the wax outlines are done, artists use brushes to paint the dyes within the outlines. The use of brush allows for the creation of shaded and multi-hued designs.

Batik block printing however requires a different skill even though it is still hand made batik. The rhythmic patterns of a batik block can create outstanding batiks – and the art of making a batik block is a skill on its own. Batik block makers are artisans themselves, and often specialize in making batik blocks and not the same artisans who design and make batik textiles.

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A batik block maker, Abdul Ghani Mat was awarded a title of Master Artisan by Kraftangan Malaysia for his creative and highly skilful work in hand tooling copper batik blocks. In our previous blog, we had mentioned that the owner of Ayu Batik in Kelantan has a collection of over 5000 batik blocks dating over several decades, which form an important archive of the creative history of Malaysian batik patterns.

In a block print batik, the canting tool is replaced by a hand tooled copper block that is designed with the patterns or motifs that will be repeated on the cloth to create a piece of batik. Sometimes a wooden stamp is used that has a carved patterned bottom.

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The block is dipped into the wax and printed onto the fabric, which is then dip-dyed. Then the wax will be removed and batik with single color is produced. To create multi-colors and complex batik, waxing with different blocks, dying and de-waxing have to be done many times.

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In Kelantan, the heart of the Malaysian batik industry, we visited a batik block workshop. We were pleasantly surprised to see three industrious young men including the owner, creating intricate copper batik blocks for batik artists and designers in Malaysia. The owner started his own batik block making business after being trained as a block batik artisan himself. The workshop was strategically located in an area with clusters of batik workshops and ateliers including Ruzz Gahara.

According to the enterprising young man, he noticed a constant demand for batik blocks from batik artisans and designers. He decided to open a small workshop of his own and started training batik block makers amongst the youths in the village who were interested. His workshop is a simple hut shaded under a few trees, next to a narrow dirt lane that was a bit too small for a car to go through. The hut was nestled in a small village, tucked away from the main road, the idyllic silence around them only broken once in a while with the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood or stray chickens looking for food.

 

The making of batik blocks requires as much concentration as making the batiks themselves. Using blow torches and a myriad of hand tools, the batik block “boys” painstakingly cut, bend and meld small parts of copper that gradually expand to resemble the full picture of patterns and motifs provided by artists for customized block prints.PHOTO-2020-07-16-16-25-25

Depending on the intricacy of the motifs, one batik block can take up a few days to a few weeks to make and the cost will also depend on the motifs. The batik block young artisans looked up briefly from their work when we went in before focusing once again on bits of copper on their tables. They looked like any teenagers on the streets, wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts – we would not have guessed that they were traditional artisans if we had bumped into them outside the workshop. We asked one of them when he had started making batik blocks, he told us he was 16 when he started. For them, continuing the tradition was a way of life in the village.

 

Suryani Senja

Born with a Silver Spoon – The Story of the Silver Collection of Senijari

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I had always wanted to create a Senijari collection of luxury crafts from my home state, Kelantan, in the north of Malaysia. Kelantan silver is renowned for its intricacy of design and superior workmanship. Silversmiths use two kinds of techniques – filigree and repousse. Kelantan silversmithing is getting more rare as its use of machinery is limited – the craft is still done mainly by hand.

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Remember our earlier encounter with a silver artisan, “Pok Wi” who has been a silversmith for 40 years? When we finally met Pok Wi ( link to our earlier post) earlier this year, it was to create Senijari’s first prototype for a collection of bespoke silver jewellery.

I first thought up of jewellery in the shape of a spoon and other implements because of a necklace I have. The necklace was from the legendary Collette. Colette was a lifestyle, design store of curated fashion and accessories in Paris. It was a fashion favourite that unfortunately has closed down recently. They had a wonderful section that featured jewellery designers. I was particularly taken by two necklaces I saw there – one had a spoon as a pendant and the other a fork. Both had large stones stuck on them that were made to look like each had scooped up a large diamond. They were witty, fun and cool. I had thought to myself, these pendants would look great done in Malaysian silver, with a local twist.

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Pok Wi turned an idea that crossed my mind several years ago into reality today. The initial Senijari collection has two pendants, Born With a Silver Spoon and Ukir Bulan (Crafted Moon) – Both are beautifully hand carved with traditional motifs from Kelantan by Pok Wi and his artisans. In addition, the collection has a series of small silver charms for pendants or bracelets that reflect Kelantan iconic culture – the Keris, the Wau Bulan and the Wayang Kulit.

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The idea of a silver spoon is historically interesting in Kelantan royal history – royal Malay families and at times, non-royal ones have a tradition of spooning with a silver spoon a bit of salt and then honey to a new born after 40 days – to initiate the baby into the world – and perhaps its first taste of its ups and downs symbolized by the salty and the sweet taste of life!

 

 

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This collection will be the beginning of unearthing designs and motifs based on the unique Kelantanese culture and history, and the start of collaboration with talented Kelantanese artisans. We hope to tell many more Kelantan stories through our crafts. This is only the first chapter of the Kelantan story.

China, Langkasuka and the textile world in Kelantan

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In researching motifs for textiles and jewellery, I discovered fascinating historical links between the Chinese, the ancient Langkasuka kingdom in Pattani and Kelantan.

Chinese sea trade with the Malay World began as early as the fifth century, stimulated by demand for luxury goods by the Chinese royal courts. It has been reported that spices, turtle eggs, perfumed woods, ivory and tortoise shell are some of the coveted items by the Chinese nobility. The Chinese apparently influenced textiles in the Malay World including Kelantan as Chinese envoys brought silk, which influenced the use of silk by royals in Malay palaces. One prominent Malay kingdom mentioned in Chinese history is “Chi Tu” or the Red Earth Land (Tanah Merah), believed to be interior of Kelantan. Chi Tu guo ji, an account written by Sui Dynasty envoys after a visit to Chi tu in 606-10 CE describes highly organized and wealthy royal court, where the Chinese envoy was offered a gold “hibiscus” crown and camphor. Nearby, the coastal kingdom of Langkasuka, located near Patani (south of Thailand) was a centre for Malay culture due to its proximity to the states of Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, where songket weaving is predominant. The culture of weaving was prevalent in the Langkasuka courts. (Note: this paragraph is extracted from “Songket Revolution”, written by Noor Azlina Yunus, published by Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, 2008).

On a recent trip to Kelantan, a visit to Rumah Gahara, the batik workshop for Ruzz Gahara brand brought these historical links to the fore once again. In the midst of designing batik motifs that would be distinctive to Ruzz Gahara’s Kelantanese roots, they unearthed ancient motifs that came from or influenced by the Langkasuka kingdom and applied these intricate, historical motifs on batik.

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Ruzz Gahara’s batik blocks were very different and unique in their intricacy. When I spoke to a researcher and culture specialist from the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer. The motifs did not have a story. By linking and reminding people about their history to ancient Langkasuka and Kelantan’s history, the Ruzz Gahara motifs have come to life with a colourful, vibrant history.

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The silk, organza silk, cotton silk used by Ruzz Gahara for its collection link it further to the history of silk in this region – China. Innovation does come from history after all, and I thank Ruzz Gahara for being one of the champions of history in preserving our heritage, culture and craft.

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We shall continue unearthing Malaysia’s fascinating historical links through its textile and material culture. Stay with us!

The Marriage of Crafts – Behind the scenes of Senijari’s Rattan & Songket Clutch Collection

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When Senijari started out, it was with the firm belief that crafts can be enhanced by design innovation. One of the ways we innovate or refresh our crafts is by combining different materials together.Our first bag collection combined Italian leather and Songket, inspired by the fine Italian craftsmanship and our intricate Songket textiles from Kelantan and Terengganu.

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Senijari’s Rattan and Songket Clutch Collection is inspired by what Malaysian artisans in Sarawak could do, coupled with thoughtful research and design. When Senijari was working with Tanoti weavers in Kuching Sarawak, we came across a university project that Tanoti was involved in with UNIMAS in Sarawak. The project explored working with the “souls of the tropical rainforest”, namely the Penan people who weave and dye rattan vines by hand.

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How are the bags made from rattan vines? The process is very time-consuming and requires patience and dedication. The rattan would first be hand harvested and naturally dyed. The black dye is from boiling the splits in the leaves of “Kemawah” (Daun Kemawah) and then buried in mud overnight. The clutch will then be completely plaited by hand.  The artisans are mostly from two villages in Long Kawah and Long Meraan in Ulu Sg.Tutoh situated in the highlands of Sarawak. Once the clutches are ready, they are transported by hand to Kuching.

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In Kuching, the Songket weavers at Tanoti would have prepared the silk and metallic threads to weave the five motifs for the Senijari Rattan & Songket Collection – Lotus, Lawi Ayam, Angel Wings, Blossom and Humming Bird. These motifs were beforehand sketched and designed by Senijari, and the positioning of the motif on the clutches as well as their measurements and colour combinations were determined by Senijari to achieve the distinctive look and style that Senijari’s brand is known for.

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These motifs are woven as Songket on the handloom with a silk background before stitching them on the handmade rattan clutches.

 

The result will be a marriage of two distinctive crafts that are made purely by hand, traditional but infused with a contemporary style and design through the design re-imagination of motifs, colour, measurements and composition as well as finishing. The Rattan & Songket is a true labour of love and a marriage of crafts inspired by our artisans.

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Senijari Signature Collection: Organza Silk Songket Shawls

 

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Senijari presents as its Signature Collection – Senijari Organza Silk Songket.

An exquisite and beautiful way to present songket, Senijari Organza Silk Songket is handwoven in organza silk and metallic threads with intricate, yet contemporary motifs. The minimalist colours of either black or white are chosen to highlight the intricate Songket motifs in silver, gold, antique silver or antique gold metallic threads. Continue reading

The Life of Silk – A visit to Hoi An Silk Village

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The opportunity to visit Hoi An again came again recently with a pleasant surprise. Hoi An, a small, ancient town with UNESCO heritage status in central Vietnam has successfully displayed its various cultural heritage. In my previous blogpost, I mentioned watching artisans making silk lanterns, silver jewellery and porcelain tea sets in Hoi An.

Continue reading

India and Varanasi – a spiritual heritage in technicolour

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There is nothing quite like India.

The official tourism tagline IncredibleIndia! is not far from the truth. One can experience this huge and incredibly diverse country many times and it will still have surprising wonders to offer.

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For me, going to India is like entering a textile fantasy world – sarees, kurtas, lenghas, salwar kameez and dupattas in mind-boggling colours, textures and arrays of intricate embroidery.

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When I had the opportunity to attend a friend’s wedding in Delhi, I jumped at the chance. India is the home of some artisanal brands I admire like Fab India , Good Earth and Anokhi .

On this trip, I also discovered one of the local favourite brands, Biba, which has great designs for everyday Indian wear. Khan Market is in a Delhi neighbourhood that offers all of these brands along with other quirky shops selling local Indian fashion and accessories. The Kinari bazaar in old Delhi is the mecca of  accessories for clothes as it is contains a bewildering array of embroidery, lace, beads, sequins, mirrors and other embellishments for clothes in whatever colours and textures you can imagine.

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Peacocks, flowers, fruits are some themes spotted on the embroidered borders for skirts and sarees. The way Indian designers use colour, embroidery and embellishments on their textiles I think are unique and unparalleled in creativity, sophistication and beauty. Some of these beautifully designed saree textiles and silk shawls feature in Senijari’s Instagram shots leading up to the Hindu Festival of Lights, Deepavali which will be celebrated in Malaysia on the 18th and 19th of October.

Apart from a rich textile heritage, India has a strong spiritual heritage. It is the home of many religions including Hinduism and Buddhism. During the wedding, I discovered that the bride’s family profess the Jain religion, which I did not know much about. The Jains are strict vegetarians, and they don’t even eat eggs as they still consider eggs as containing living things. After the wedding, we headed to the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi (also known as Benares).

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In Varanasi, the Ganges river is considered sacred. People come from all over India and the world as pilgrims to Varanasi. Some Indians also go to die in Varanasi, their bodies cremated and ashes scattered in the Ganges as it is believed that to you would go straight to heaven if you die this way. As a spiritual haven, Varanasi was to be experienced through the sacred river. Along the Ganges, there are many temples with steps leading down to the river, called ghats. At each ghat there are multiple scenes and activities: There would be people bathing or cleaning their clothes, Indian priests offering cleansing rituals, chanting or practicing early morning yoga and buffaloes immersed in the water to keep cool. Then there were also cremation sites all along the river with bundles of logs for the constantly burning funeral pyres, yellow and gold cloths for covering the dead, butter and sandalwood for treating the dead bodies before they are cremated. The ghats are indeed the spiritual pulse of Varanasi.

 

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Every evening, a massive crowd will gather at the main ghats and temples to witness and participate in the Aarti, a prayer session and worshipping ritual overlooking the Ganges. The air will be thick with smoke, incense and chanting. The best view is from the boats. The atmosphere is magnificent as an expectant air is created with live Indian classical music preceding the slow and steady chanting which signals the beginning of the prayers. Priests will slowly hold up in unison and in circling motions offerings with lanterns lit with fire and incense to the Ganges River whilst the chanting grows hypnotically stronger. We just sat in our boats, watching, inhaling and listening to Aarti being performed, totally immersed along with thousands of others who came on boats.

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Although Varanasi is known for its spiritual heritage, it is also home to the best sarees called Banarasi sarees. The Banarasi sarees are distinctive for its colourful and fine hand woven silks and highly intricate “Zari” embroidery workmanship on the borders with silver or gold threads. I was brought to a workshop with genuine Banarasi sarees and was so impressed with the fine quality. Months of work go into each saree, which usually measures 6 meters in length and 45 inches in width. It is heartening to see that silk weaving on the handloom is still very much alive in India even though factories producing mass fashion also exist.

And after my fifth trip, India remains incredible.