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Batik, the Dyeing Tradition

Bengal Handlooms

What is Batik?

Batik is an ancient form of art that involves creating fascinating patterns on fabric by the alternating use of molten wax and colour dyes. The wax is used to block out selected areas of the fabric. When the fabric is dyed, the portions covered in wax resist the dye and retain their original colour. This process of waxing followed by dyeing can be repeated on the same fabric with different colours to create elaborate and vibrant designs. Batik-painted fabrics are widely used to make sarees, garments, furnishings as well as decorative pieces of art.

Rabindranath Tagore on Batik canvas

A Brief History of Batik

The term batik is said to be derived from the Indonesian words ‘amba’ (to write) and ‘titik’ (dots). This refers to the dots that were used to etch the patterns on the fabric with molten wax, before it was dyed. While the place of origin of batik is still under debate, some form of wax resist dyeing of fabric is known to have existed in Egypt, China, India, Japan and Indonesia at various times over the last 2500 years. Today, the Indonesian variety of batik painting is the most famous, and is considered to be the most developed in terms of pattern, technique and quality of workmanship. In India, batik art is produced in various centres in Gujarat (Mundra and Mandvi), West Bengal (Shantiniketan), Tamil Nadu (Injambakkam) and Madhya Pradesh (Indore), among others.

Batik craftswomen in Java

The Batik Procedure

The process of batik art consists of 3 key steps: applying the wax, dyeing and removing the wax. The traditional method of applying molten wax to the fabric is done using a pen, fitted with a bowl for holding the wax. The artisan draws patterns on the fabric with the pen, which applies the molten wax along the designs. This is the most intricate method of applying wax and can create the most exotic of designs. It also allows the artist complete freedom in creating the designs. Other methods of applying wax include the use of wooden blocks (where the designs are etched on the blocks) and screen printing (where the design is mounted on a screen and waxed onto the fabric all at once using the screen). These methods are relatively easier and create more standardized designs.

The waxed fabric is then dipped in coloured dye. The patterns covered in wax resist the dye and retain their original colour, while the remaining fabric gets dyed. The longer it is soaked in the dye-bath, the darker the colour. Fine cracks develop on the surface of the wax which allows small amounts of the dye to seep in. These result in the characteristic cracked-look associated with batik patterns. The fabric is then dried, and the next set of patterns is waxed on to it. It is again dipped in the next colour and the process is repeated multiple times to create elaborate motifs with a variety of colours.

The fabric is de-waxed in the final stage, by boiling it in water to melt and remove the wax. It is then washed in soap and water to remove the final traces of wax.

Batik tools

Batik Art in Bengal

While batik art is known to have existed in ancient India, its practice declined over time, possibly due to the tedious methods involved in the waxing and dyeing. It was revived less than a hundred years ago, when Rabindranath Tagore travelled to Java (Indonesia) in 1927 and was fascinated with this exquisite dyeing technique. He brought back several pieces of the fabric with the hope of reviving this traditional technique in India. The study of batik was thus introduced at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shantiniketan. The technique evolved in the hands of the artists and craftsmen at the university, and from there it gradually spread across India. Further experimentation continues today, with the use of vegetable colours as natural dyes to reduce costs and create environment-friendly methods of production. In addition to cotton and silk fabrics, batik work is also done on leather goods in Shantiniketan. The leather bags, clutches, file-covers and wallets embossed with colourful batik patterns are among the famous exports of the region.

Shantiniketan leather bags with batik art



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