What would it take to make Malaysians wear (our own) batik again?

Azril Annuar
Batik from Java, Indonesia on sale at TRG Batik Gallery in Masjid India. ― Pictures by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 ― While local batik industry players have called for it to be showcased and promoted during Visit Malaysia Year 2020 (VMY20), there seems to be a resurgence of the print’s popularity among the youths.

The only problem is this new wave of like is not for Malaysia batik.

They seem to prefer the Indonesia-style Batik Jawa to our East Coast Batik! There are a few reasons for this; ironically, the chief among them is affordability.

Celebrity fashion designer Datuk Radzuan Radzwill said locally produced batik should be mass produced and industry players should stop treating machine-printed batik with hostility.

He took this a step further and said that instead of making batik the official attire of government officials and VIPs, the government should promote local batik as “common” attire.

Radzuan observed that Indonesians swaddle their infants with batik fabric and kindergarten children wear batik shirts and carry batik-printed school bags as part of their uniform.

“Whenever the top officials speak about batik, it's always like a public conference... it's always the top designers, high level people like royalty and VIPs wearing batik. They also say they want batik to be an international attire and be of the same standard as Valentino of Milan.

“How are they going to bring it to that standard when our people are not even wearing it? Don't look far they should make batik common. Make it cheap. Make it streetwear. There's no need to take it to an international market when Malaysians are not wearing it,” said Radzuan.

On the left is batik from Terengganu and on the right is batik from Bali, Indonesia.

Hybrid of machine and hand printed is the way forward

Batik Boutique founder Amy Blair explained that price point is still a matter of concern for Malaysia's youth and Indonesia’s mass printed batik is far more affordable when compared to the East Coast's hand-printed version.

“In Indonesia, there is a lot of machine-printed batik. Here lies the argument on what is batik (whether it must be traditionally hand printed or machine printed). Any time you produce machine printed, it is cheaper while hand printed will cost more.

“Here is where it influence the youths to buy (Batik Jawa). The younger you are, the more the price point matters because you don't have as much disposable income,” said Blair who started her business to help single mothers facing economic difficulties support themselves.

The price of Batik Jawa in Malaysia can go below RM50 for a cotton, machine-printed shirt while the most affordable locally-produced batik shirt hovers around RM70 to RM100 depending on the material and design.

Meanwhile, the price of hand-printed Batik Jawa shirts can go as low as RM150 but it can also soar as high as RM1,500 to RM2,500.

Malaysian hand-printed batik, on the other hand, seldom demands such high prices, even with silk batik shirts going below RM1,000.

For Blair, even though she does not want to get into the argument of whether or not machine- printed batik should be called batik, the traditional method of hand printing or using blocks to stamp the print on the fabric is her preference.

She gave the example of one of the batik pouches sold in her boutique: 17 people are involved in the process and what her customers are buying is not just the batik product  but instead the story of how 17 people worked on it.

At the same time, she admits that mass-printed batik does have its charms; lower cost, efficiency and most importantly it can have more complicated designs which the youths prefer.

“In Indonesia, they print batik motifs on a shirt. That's why it's cheaper but it's not for me to decide (on its authenticity).

“Their designs can also be more intricate because using machines... it's easier to print instead of Malaysia's traditional method of using blocks and candle wax. You can do a lot more with a machine,” she said.

She advocates for the best of both worlds for Malaysia where it should take the industry up a notch and enter the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

Blair believes that the Malaysian industry should cater to all instead of only the elite who can afford the more expensive hand-printed batik.

“We should do both (produce machine-printed and hand-printed) batik because we can cater to all demographics. For us, we do hand-printed batik for our customers but if we are doing for corporates and hand printing is not in everyone’s budget then we send it to be mass produced.

“If our artisans can't fulfill the order, we take the master piece, digitalise it and have it mass printed. Our industry should be a hybrid. We shouldn't move all to machine print because we will be missing the traditionally-printed batik.

“But we must modernise and scale up to keep up with our neighbours,” Blair pointed out.

You can find hand-printed batik as well as machine-printed batik shirts in most shops nowadays.

Encourage, don’t discourage artistic freedom for Batik

Academic Mohd Faizal Musa, more popularly known by his pen name Faisal Tehrani, echoed both Blair and Radzuan that a cheaper price tag is a consideration for the youths but also observed a weakness in the East Coast batik designs when compared to their Indonesian rivals.

“Yes, Indonesian batik is more clever, daring and creative. I blame Islamisation. Our batik designers are very conscious in their motifs and designs.

“For example due to Islam, certain motifs that appear with figures (animals etc) are not printed/painted. The motifs are the same unfortunately.

“Free the motifs and designs from religion. With freedom comes creativity,” said the UKM Institute of the Malay World and Civilization (ATMA) research fellow.

Faizal said he has observed the trend of East Coast batik manufacturers for some time already and it has been heavily influenced by local ulamas issuing Islamic fashion statements.

He shared a post on the Federal Territories Mufti's office website dated February 3, 2019 which discourages Muslims from wearing animal prints during prayers as it has the potential to distract other Muslims performing the jemaah prayers.

“Compare this with Indonesian religious clerics from Muhamadiyyah, for example. They are more open. There's also sharp criticism (from local ulama) that women should not wear too much colour, or flowery batik that can attract men,” Faizal pointed out.

He said this would lead many East Coast batik printers to avoid certain patterns or motifs in their artwork as they do not want to do something that is unIslamic.

The Malay culture expert then theorised that this stifling of creativity has led the Malay youths to opt for Batik Jawa, which is bolder in its designs as a form of quiet rebellion against the religious authorities.

“The youths, not all, prefer to show their disobedience this way. Thus, colourful batik, daring motifs, kebaya etc are being resurrected. As a sociologist, I see that. Colour can be symbolic interactionism,” said Faizal.

A quiet “protest” using batik who knew.

At TRG Batik Gallery in Masjid India you can find batik fabric as well as clothes in a wide price range.

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