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the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer.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!

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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.