East Coast of Malaysia : The Cultural and Craft Hub

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Malaysians are fortunate that we still live close to our culture, traditions and craft. Our culture has provided us beautiful and useful objects as well as a sense of community and belonging to a distinct and rich culture. The East coast of Malaysia namely the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang are particularly known for their textile culture. Batik, songket, tenun and telepuk are some of the known textiles that are still made and designed by hand either on the loom or in the case of batik, with the wax resist and dye along with brushing technique.  Other major crafts in the East Coast of Malaysia include wood-carving, silver-smithing, copper and the art of weaving mats from rattan or pandan leaves.

On a trip to the Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur (East Coast Craft Festival) recently, Senijari’s founder and creative director discovered that our artisans remain committed to their craft and that craft culture is alive and well. However, the outside world seems unaware of our heritage, or at least knows little about them. We need to find creative ways to tell our craft and artisan stories better and broadcast them to the wider world so that more know about our wonderful heritage of handicrafts.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting two artisans who were given the award of “Adiguru 2018”. The Adiguru is an award by Kraftangan Malaysia that recognizes the mastery of craft by master artisans who can also teach their craft. The master artisan who is awarded the Adiguru title receives a cash prize and a monthly stipend for a fixed period of time.

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Pak Non, the Master Wau maker was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for creating the unique 5-layer carved motifs for traditional kites based on the Wau Kelantan – most kites are made with only 3 layers of carved motifs on coloured paper. Pak Non, who is passionate about his Wau craft, cites nature, especially the surrounding paddy fields as his inspiration.

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Even though he makes the Wau Kelantan, he actually resides in Kedah and goes for kite flying competitions with his kite creations. He says that the competition for the best traditional kites is based on how the kite looks on the ground and how high the kite can fly – so the Wau is assessed both on its physical beauty on earth as well as its technical prowess in the sky.

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Cik Kalsom, a petite and diminutive mat weaver from Terengganu is passionate about and proud of her masterful skills. She was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for her mastery of weaving mats and other products using the intricate and complex “kelerai” technique, with soft pandan leaves.

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This technique according to her is backbreaking and not easy to learn. She laments that the younger generation is not as patient when learning, and usually end up adopting easier techniques of weaving that are not as intricate as the “kelerai” technique.

She continues to weave despite her back aches, as she says that it is reward enough when she sees a piece of mat of complex patterns completed, the sense of accomplishment and pride at her skill motivates to once again continue.

The Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur in Kelantan and Terengganu displayed some of the best artisans and their work in batik, songket, wood carving, silver and copper.

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We visited batik workshops in Kelantan that were highlighted for their authentic and traditional batik block print and wax resist techniques. One workshop, Ayu Batik, was remarkable for their environmentally friendly approach by recycling water used to wash the dye off the batik textiles as well as recycling the wax used for the batik dyeing and colouring process.

 

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Ayu Batik has an incredible collection over 5000 batik block prints dated from the 60’s, some of which are meticulously restored and showcased. Its legacy continues with the owner and his son who continues designing with the authentic block print technique for batik.

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In Terengganu, the wood carving association at Desa Ukiran Kayu in Besut presented their impressive skills in traditional wood carving in a beautiful gallery at the Desa Ukiran Kayu.

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It was eye opening to meet the Master Malay Wood Carver Norhaiza Noordin (norhaizanoordin.wordpress.com). He has used his talents not only for wood carving, but he has created a stunning private art space and a residency for wood carving students that has to be experienced called Bakawali in Kg. Raja, Besut,Terengganu.

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After the visit to the East Coast, we have no doubt that craft and the mastery of craft in Malaysia are alive and well. Now we just need to tell the world about them.  

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Galeri Tenun Johor – The Launch and Revival of Weaving Gallery in Johor

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In January this year, we dedicated a blog to Johor’s Kain Tenun Muar and the setting up of a weaving gallery in Johor. 10 months later, in 18 November 2018, Galeri Tenun Johor opened its doors. It is situated within the “Kompleks Warisan Sultan Abu Bakar” (The Heritage Complex of Sultan Abu Bakar) and was launched yesterday by the the  Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.

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The gallery has revived the historical Rumah Tenun Johor, the first weaving centre that was initiated by Tengku Ampuan Mariam, the eldest daughter of Sultan Abu Bakar in 1946, and administered by Tok Ambak, a prominent figure of the Johor’s women’s association.  The Heritage Complex includes the Johor weaving gallery, an art gallery, a documentation center and a number of cafes serving Johor food.

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The famous “goreng pisang Mawar” or Johor style crispy banana fritters is also situated within this complex. Right across, the historical craft center of JARO, which promotes crafts made by the disabled, is undergoing renovations, and will also be re-opened soon.

Galeri Tenun Johor has been set up not only to display the heritage of Malay textiles and Johor’s history of textiles. More importantly, it aims to revive the weaving heritage in Johor by installing and training new weavers at the center, and it actively promotes innovation in Songket.

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The gallery showcases not only old textiles from the region, but newly woven cloths in the style of Kain Tenun Muar as well as 10 new songket motifs that were designed specifically for Johor.Among them are Songket designed for the royal family of Johor such as Songket Johor Jauhar and Songket Johor Medini Songket Johor Maharani, two types of Songket Tunku Mahkota Johor and Songket Johor Tanjung Puteri.  Other designs were created specially for the people of Johor, using Johor-inspired motifs of flowers, herbs and spices. They are Songket Tenun Johor, Songket Johor Tanjung Piai,  Songket Johor Mayang Selida and Tenun Johor Berbunga Renek.

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The textiles are displayed with interesting information on the motifs. There are also informative panels in the gallery on the history of Malay textiles, the process of producing hand woven textiles using the traditional techniques and the design combinations and inspiration that made up the motifs of Songket Johor.

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The handlooms for different types of textiles as well as accessories, which are usually worn with Malay costumes, are displayed in the upper gallery. A video of Johor Malay dance like zapin with dancers in traditional costumes livened up the gallery, showing how the Malay community wears the traditional textiles in their everyday lives and during special occasions.

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Senijari’s founder, who is also a board member of Think City attended the launch in her capacity as Think City’s director. Think City played a role in assisting with designing and creating a selection of the text and photo displays for the content and descriptions of the exhibitions in the gallery through photography, write ups, informative signage and labeling. Galeri Tenun in collaboration with Think City are expected to create interesting cultural programs at the gallery from next year.

With the revival of this cultural hub, along with the burgeoning heritage area of vintage shops, hipster cafes, art galleries and independent boutiques along the historical Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru is shaping up to be a creative and cultural city.

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.