Batik in Santiniketan
13 May 2022
Batik originates from the Javanese word Ambatik (Amba which means to write, and Titik, which means dots). An ancient wax-resist dyeing tradition with highly sophisticated artistic skills, which involves creating patterns and designs on fabric using molten wax and different dyes, Batik developed in Indonesia and the island of Java. Although the place of origin of Batik is still debated, the evidence of some wax-resist dyed fabric has been widely found at various times over the last two millenniums in Indonesia, Japan, Egypt, Malaysia and India. In India, Santiniketan in West Bengal, Mundra in Gujrat, Indore in Madhya Pradesh and Injambakkam in Tamil Nadu are the significant places where Batik is still being practised.
Batik was introduced to Santiniketan by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Having been deeply impressed by the Batik designs which he saw during his trip to Java in 1927, he encouraged the practice of Batik in Santiniketan. Surendranath Kar, the well-known artist and architect of Santiniketan, who accompanied Tagore on this trip, learned the technique of Batik there. Rabindranath received a piece of Batik from his host, the King of Java and became aware of the exclusiveness of the Javanese Batik. In a letter written to his daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi, he mentioned the Batik fabrics in the costume of Javanese dance, dance dramas, stage decoration and home decor. So, to introduce the tradition of this wax-resist dye textile to India, he brought a few pieces of fabric from Java to Santiniketan. While Javanese Batik is mainly done by a spouted tool called "canting," Surendranath and Pratima Devi in Santiniketan used a brush (Tuli) to simplify its making process. It is the reason why Santiniketan Batik is known as Tuli Batik.
Batik Saree (left) designed by Nandalal Bose and executed by Gauri Bhanja, from CSMVs, Mumbai collection (Right) Gauri Bhanja, Batik, 1960 © Pradyot Bhanja and Sumita Mukherjee
Batik gradually became a part of the academic course curriculum in Kala Bhavana and the skill development study of Shilpa-Bhavana. Done mainly on leather and fabric, the revival of this resist dyeing technique slowly spread from Santiniketan to Calcutta and other parts of India. Rathindranath Tagore, Rabindranath's son, learned leatherwork in Europe and introduced leather Batik in Santiniketan. One of the pioneers who explored Batik design in Santiniketan was Gauri Bhanja, the elder daughter of Nandalal Bose, the renowned artist and principal of Kala Bhavana. Her vision, understanding of art and craftsmanship took the practice of Batik to the pinnacle. Throughout her teaching career in Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, she worked extensively on it. The other prominent, primarily female artists of Santiniketan who enriched the Batik design were Jamuna Sen, Kshoma Ghosh, Ila Ghosh, Arundhuti Thakur, Haimanti Chakravarty, Rani Chanda, Indusudha Ghosh, and Bani Bose, to name a few. In the book, Sharing the Dream- The Remarkable Women Artists of Santiniketan, the author, Tapati Mukherjee, mentions the significance of the women's presence in the academic space of Santiniketan and their creative interventions in the field of design. Here, in the book, she acknowledges the contribution of Gauri Bhanja and other women artists in exploring the vocabulary of Batik design. Haimanti Chakravarty, a Santiniketan artist, on the other hand, detailed the history and techniques of Batik design in her pioneering book, Batik: Decoration of Fabric as Practised in Java and South Asia, published in 1943.
Batik works by Haimanti Chakravarty (left) and Bani Bose (right) © reproduced from Textile A collection from Kala Bhavana Museum
Much earlier, in 1922, Bichitra, a handicraft sector, was established by Pratima Devi and French artist Andre Karples to promote indigenous craft practices of India. In Santiniketan Patra (Chaitra, 1329/ March-April, 1922), Andree Karpeles wrote about the practical aim of Bichitra: "To establish permanent co-operation between the artisans and craftsmen. To prevent as far as possible that harmful separation between art and crafts is quite contrary to the Indian spirit and deprives art of all decorative qualities. To keep the love of beauty in the simplest objects of daily use which was so characteristic of Indian life and which provided the artists and craftsmen with such a wide field of creative expression." This organization was primarily concerned with the revival and promotion of local art and craft. Women from different age groups who wanted to learn these without interfering with their domestic duties joined Bichitra to learn various craft techniques. Bichitra did not last long, but the spirit continued to inspire. In Sriniketan (Visva Bharati Institute of Rural Reconstruction), a special attention was given to the craft education. Batik was tought in the Industrial Department of the Institute in the 1930s (along with a wide varitiey of other handicrafts, such as weaving, Durry and carpet making, laquer work, dyeing and printing, leather work, goldsmithy and carpentry. In the Catalogue of Sriniketan Handicrafts (1933-43), a short note was published on Batik: "Batik printing is a beautiful and yet inexpensive method of decorating cotton and silk febric and is carried on here after the Javanese style as far as possible. The tools required for this craft are very simple and inexpensive, thus making it possible to introduce it as a cottage industry. A short course in dyeing is necessary for those who wish to learn this craft."
Another organization in Santiniketan devoted to functional art, Karu Sangha, was established in 1930 under the supervision of Nandalal Bose and with the support of his student, Prabhatmohon Bandyopadhyay, to improve the economic life of the artists and artisans. Batik was one of the crafts most extensively practised at Karu Sangha. Nandalal's daughters Gauri Bhanja and Jamuna Sen, supervised the Batik work. Members of Karu Sangha, mostly the ex-students of Kala Bhavana, mainly did commission works and produced sarees, scarves, dupattas, wall hanging, and other sustainable stuff, mainly Batik, tie-dye, and Kantha embroidery. Women from different age groups work for this organization and group discussions, design making, dyeing and processing – all were done in Karu Sangha which had a unique collective work environment. Batik created by them were in high demand in different parts of India and even abroad for their quality, unique motifs and exclusive colour schemes.
Batik in Santiniketan is mainly associated with ornamental designs and motifs. However, by exploring the traditional Alpana, the popular floor design used by the women of Birbhum, the Batik artists and artisans of Santiniketan developed a unique collective style known as the 'Santiniketan Batik'. Design motifs like lotus, hibiscus, marigold, conch, peacock, fish and geometric tassels are widely used in Santiniketan Batik. Two or three colours are used primarily in Batik design. Earlier natural dyes were only used, but now both the natural and synthetic dyes are used according to the desired colour scheme of the artist.
Woman wearing a Batik Saree designed by Nani Gopal Ghosh (left) and making of a Batik Uttariyo by Kala Bhavana students, Santiniketan © Swati Ghosh and author
Eminent guests at Visva Bharati Convocation wearing Batik Uttariyo, Santiniketan, 2009 © Wikimedia
Batik has always been an integral part of the cultural life of Santiniketan. The designs done with Tuli Batik are used in the dancers' costumes in Rabindranath's dance dramas. Apart from that, 'Uttariyo', a piece of cotton or silk fabric folded in a specific manner and hung from the shoulder like a long stole, holds a high cultural value as it is given while welcoming the eminent guests to the university and several events and festivals at the Ashram. Nani Gopal Ghosh, an artist and student of Kala Bhavana, said he used to make Uttariyo along with others for the university convocation programme under the guidance of Gauri Bhanja until 1995. On Gauri Bhanja Birth Centenary in 2008, Kala Bhavana organized an exhibition to display her most significant Batik designs with other works. In 2018, the present and ex-students of Kala Bhavana made fifteen Batik Uttariyo for the eminent personalities invited to the Kala Bhavana Centenary. All these were Tuli Batik done in natural dye under the guidance of Krishnendu Bag. Krishnendu Bag and Sakshi Gopal Das, teachers of Kala Bhavana, are refined Batik artists, teaching traditional and experimental Batik techniques. Batik, holding immense attraction to the visitors to the art and craft fairs in and around Santiniketan, has become an integral part of the artistic heritage and identity of the place.
(left) Batik section at Amar Kutir, Bolpur ; (right) Maya Patra at work in the Batik Section, Amar Kutir © Author
The women of tribal villages near Santiniketan practise Batik. Some of them work for local cottage industries also. 'Amar Kutir Society of Rural Development, a non-government organization, produces a large variety of saree, stole, kurtas, and leather goods in Batik. Bonya Gayen, Rina Mukherjee, Sharoma Mondal, Maya Patra, and a few more women artisans come from nearby villages to work here. Bhaktopada Dolui, an elderly employee of Amar Kutir, has shared his experience of how many women from different age groups and communities have worked together and developed the designs of Batik in the last few decades. They earn a living to support their families.
As we have discussed above, Batik has become very significant in the discourse of art and craft of India. Along with the traditional motifs used in functional textiles, it has also become a medium of Individual creative expression. While artisans and craftsmen continue to develop Alpona motifs, the fine arts students in Santiniketan use Batik as a powerful technique and explore it differently. They rethink the design making, colour application and composition according to their artistic understanding and contemporary demands of the art world. I feel, Batik somehow managed to blur the line between the conventional idea of 'art' and 'craft' and became itself a powerful medium for expression
On the other hand, Batik can be seen as an essential female craft in Santiniketan, maintained and sustained by women. Where Textile only meant sewing and mending, Batik made a revolution and gave them the scope and platform to paint and explore their inner strength. Also, the famous Alpona designs, which women used for domestic purposes in rural Bengal, became famous because of Batik. It encouraged the women practitioners from different social backgrounds to come forward and express their visions. It has also made them economically independent. Their involvement made a mark in the whole textile and design scenario. Even women who were not privileged to attend art school got the courage to practice this craft, showed interest in it, and used their creative knowledge to make designs with minimum affordable materials. Traditional floor designs and other folk decorations in Batik endows it with a rare feminine quality. It has connected with the heritage of female labour and community, bridging the gap between the elite and subalterns as both the educated urban women artists and village women work together, exchanging their creative knowledge and expressions. It has, therefore, become more of a communitarian practice. Connecting culture to region and gender, the craft of Batik has travelled a long way.
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Esha Mukherjee is an artist and a scholar doing her doctoral research at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. She works on the institutional history of Textile in India, mainly natural dyes. In addition, she is interested in the relevance of traditional crafts in the globalized world.
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