The ties that bind: ikat textiles of the world meet for a symposium in Indonesia

The Permaisuri Agong Tunku Hajah Azizah of Malaysia photographing various ikats at the world ikat exhibition at the Jakarta Textile Museum. To her left are the head of the Jakarta Textile Museum Esti Utami and Mariah Waworuntu of Wastra Indonesia and to her right stands Bhimantyo Suwastoyo of Wastra Indonesia. (Photo: Museum Textil Jakarta)
Modelling a Melinda Omar ikat creation from Malaysia. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO –  “Tunku Azizah is a very warm-hearted person who often vis­its Bali. When she was still a princess of Pahang, she initiated weaving for inmates in prison and there are some very good weavers among them now. The Symposium will be showcasing some of their work,” remarked Mariah Waworuntu who is from Wastra Indo­nesia and has known her for nearly 8 years.

The Permaisuri Agong Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah Binti Almarhum Al-Mu­tawakkil Alallah Sultan Iskander Al- Haj is the formal name of the wife of Malaysia’s current monarch. Tunku Azizah as she is konwn established a weaving school in her home state of Pahang and her brand is Tenun diRa­ja Pahang. At the ikat exhibition held at the Jakarta Textile Museum the Permaisuri Agung of Malaysia took photographs of many of the pieces on display to use as sources of inspira­tion for her weavers. “I feel very much at home at the Jakarta Textile Muse­um which I visited a few years ago. This was also when I made my first batik square. It is so important for us all to continue preserving our materi­al culture,” remarked Tunku Azizah. The Malaysian queen who has been described as a “textile enthusiast loved by all” indicated that she would like to attend as many textile exhibi­tions as possible and hopes to attend the Uzbek ikat exhibition next year.

Modelling Toraja Mello ikat designs from Sulawesi. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The World Ikat Textile Symposium 2019 was held from the 23rd till the 25th of August 2019 with a gala din­ner and fashion show. An ikat exhi­bition was also opened at the Textile Museum and it will last until the 20th of September 2019.

A magnificent elephant patola from Gujarat. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Ikats are woven textiles which begin with a process where bunches of yarn are tightly wrapped together and then dyed as many times as needed to create cer­tain patterns and designs. Only then does the weaving process begin. In ikats it is either the warp or the weft threads that are resist dyed. In the double ikat both the warp and weft threads are resist-dyed prior to weav­ing and here the dying and weaving becomes a dizzyingly complex and time-consuming mathematical pro­cess involving intensive manual work. The most famous double ikats are the patolas that are said to have already been produced in Gujarat in the 12th century. Nevertheless, there are earlier religious texts from South India such as the Narasimha Pura­na which already talk about patolas worn during ceremonies and religious events.

A very fine 18th century Chine a la branche ribbon. In French Chine means Chinese and the first examples of ikats may have come to France from China but by 1760 France was producing its own ikats. Although now however, the making of ikats has died out in France. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Edric Ong, is President of the ASE­AN Handicraft Promotion and Devel­opment Association (AHPADA) which administers the UNESCO-AHPADA Craft Seal of Excellence and a Malay­sian designer of natural dye textiles, fashion and crafts who worked to re­vive Iban textiles from their tradition­al styles to modern innovations for new markets. “Manjari Nirula (Vice President of the Crafts Council of In­dia) and I conceived the idea of doing exhibitions of textile techniques prac­ticed all over the world and we found that ikat was such a technique. So, we began with ikats. The most ikat is produced in the Asia Pacific region and we looked at both traditional practices as in India and Indonesia as well as contemporary expression of ikat by artists in Canada and Ameri­ca. In the exhibition are examples of 18th century French ikats that are no longer practiced. There is also a reviv­al now of natural dyes which is good because it is environmentally friend­ly. Innovation of designs and colors provides more livelihood to the ikat weavers through fashion and use in interiors,” he explained.

A man in traditonal Sumba ikats standing beside Indian designer Gunjan Jain who works with Orissa ikats. (Photo: IO/ Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Mexico sent its best ikat artist, Ar­turo Estrada Hernandez to speak at the ikat symposium in Jakarta. He said that in his town they work with the best silk in the world to produce ikats or reboso with 4400 threads 25 cm wide that can be pulled through a ring which he promptly proceeded to do to the delight of the audience. “In Mexico there is an ancient 400 year old ikat tradition in Santa Maria del Rio in San Luis Potosi. I myself do not come from a textile weaving family but was sent to a special government school for textiles and at the age of nine, I won a special scholarship for reboso and that was my luck,” said Hernandez with a happy twinkle in his eyes.

Arturo Estrada Hernandez with his three ikats and Manjari Nirula seated beside him. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

At the school he learnt the pro­cess of creating reboso although not its traditions and history in Mexico and at the end of his time at school he was expected to experiment and create his own reboso styles. So, in fact what the Mexican government produced was a reboso artist and this is very clear from his creations which he produces with all the emotion and feelings of a true artist. At the sym­posium three of his designs were on display. The first design whose most prominent colour is yellow he called the Corn Reboso because of the im­portance of the corn harvest in Mex­ico which inspired this creation. The second reboso is called Reboso del Dolor or the Reboso of Sorrow. In this the prevailing colour is purple and in it Hernandez has expressed his own sorrows and frustrations experiment­ing with his creation.

A very fine rebozo ikat shawl. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The final rebo­so has perhaps the most meaning for Hernandez. “When I was 5 years old I had a vision of many bright colors. People told me that it sounded as though I had seen the Aurora Bore­alis and after that the Aurora Borea­lis terrified me because in my vision I thought that the sky was burning up. It has always haunted me and it is only now nearly 40 years later that through my weaving of this Aurora Borealis reboso I was able to process and lay that fear to rest. The trip to Indonesia has inspired me and I am working on an Indonesia reboso,” he declared enthusiastically.

A Burmese ikat depicting the gods churning the milk sea searching for the amerta or elixir of life – a story that appears in many Southeast Asian traditions. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

India is perhaps the most inter­esting textile country in the world and it has one of the oldest ikat traditions with an extraordinary variety of styles and sophisti­cation and the greatest of these is the double ikat patola. Gunjan Jain is a Delhi textile designer and re­searcher who has worked in the prov­ince of Odisha for 12 years. She says that there are several areas in India that produce double ikat weaves which can take from six months to a year to create. “Andhra Pradesh ikats are cheap and popular so there is a lot known about them. The technique of double ikats were introduced into Andhra Pradesh last and so they are not the finest ikats.

A fish motif is a popular Orissa design used on the borders of ikats. Many communities are located along the seashore and Odisha sailors are famous for their distant journeys including to Indonesia. They still celebrate the Bali Jatra ceremony commemorating those voyages of centuries ago. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Gujarat of course produces the famous patolas and a lot is known about them but the Orrisa ikats of Odisha which has one of the largest number of ikat weavers in India have never been exposed outside the state. “Odisha is a goldmine of textiles and crafts that was not much explored 12 years ago which is why I chose to move here and focus on Orissa weaves. The beautiful Orissa weaves have a strong market here be­cause of the cultural significance that motivates people to still wear them. In the past there was no need to look for alternative markets but now those traditional markets are starting to dwindle and they need exposure – so, that is when I stepped in,” com­mented Gunjan Jain.

Hamza the goose appears on this beautiful Gujarat patola. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

When Gunjan stepped in she found that there were weavers but no de­signers because the weavers did not need them for the local market. In order to popularize the Orissa ikats to outside markets she attempted to in­troduce contempo­rary aesthetics. In the course of her work she came face to face with a problem encountered by many design­ers working to further devel­op local textiles for non-traditional markets. She was working with a traditional textile weave which still possessed important cultural and re­ligious significance to its weavers but the new markets that they needed had different tastes. So, whose creativ­ity is to be expressed: the weavers, the designers or the consumers?

Orissa ikat fabrics are created on cotton, silk or tussar and may be warp ikats, weft ikats or double ikats. In Odisha amongst its ikat traditions there is calligraphy ikat which is associated with the Lord Jagannath (a manifestation of the god Vishnu) temple in Puri. The great 12th century poet Jayadeva apparently offered ikat textiles with lyrics from his Gita Govinda or Song of Govinda on them to the gods of the temple by wrapping the textiles around their statues. The calligraphy ikats describe the relationship between Krishna and Radha. So, traditional calligraphy ikat designs are texts from the Gita Govinda.

Gunjan Jain’s Hanuman Chalisa calligraphy ikat. Unlike previous calligraphy ikats it depicts all 40 verses of the Hanuman Chalisa. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

As a modern woman from Delhi with no strong religious faith in these Odisha beliefs Gunjan Jain wanted to design a new calligraphy ikat with texts from her favorite contemporary musician Pink Floyd but when she spoke to her weaver who is a devout Hindu who believes in the Ramayana, he demurred. As an artist he want­ed to express his devotional zeal. So, they reached a compromise: the weaver was prepared to create a cal­ligraphy ikat with a different but still religious text namely the Hanuman Chalisa which is a Hindu devotional hymn addressed to Lord Hanuman who is a devotee of Lord Ram, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Hanuman himself is a central character of the Ramayana who is believed to be an incarnation of the god Shiva. The hymn is traditionally believed to have been authored by 16th-century poet Tulsidas in the Awadhi language and consists of over 40 verses that mil­lions of Hindus recite every day for it is believed that whoever chants it with full devotion to Hanuman, will have Hanuman’s divine intervention and protection.

Rosvita is wearing traditional ikats from Maumere, Flores. She says that when a married woman carries a woven bag such as hers, it is for betel nut but an unmarried woman uses it for her handphone. (Photo: IO/ Tamalia Alisjahbana)

As part of the compromise and new development of the calligraphy ikat the weaver would include all 40 verses of the Hanuman Chalisa in­stead of repetitions of only some of the verses as with the Gita Govinda. This made the task far harder and it took nearly two years to produce the piece as they had to spend much time researching the correct texts and layouts of the original language. They also returned to the use of nat­ural dyes. So here Gunjan Jain put into practice Manjari Nirula’s motto: Dampen your own light to light the fire of the weaver.

A hinggi kombu Sumba ikat with kakatuas or cockatoos which symbolize a gathering together to discuss an issue or in other words: democracy. At one of the regional parliaments in Sumba there are similar cockatoo images decorating an outer wall also symbolizing democracy. The master weaver Kornelis Ndapakamang says that the tree (pohon wangga kuli) represents forest conservation. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

One of the saddest and most mov­ing speakers was Rosalia Madeira Soares from Timor Aid, a non-gov­ernmental organization which works with Timor Leste communities to pro­vide relief, reconstruction and devel­opment aid which includes programs for preserving and promoting culture. Rosalia Soares is involved with their program to preserve, promote and develop the textile traditions of Timor Leste. She said that during the long struggle with Indonesia Timor Leste lost many of its traditional ikat de­signs and patterns. “There was a lot of displacement and destruction. Adat houses where many ikats were kept were abandoned during the war and then looted or destroyed. Many weavers were displaced from their vil­lages and died or were too distracted with the situation around them to be able to pass on all of the tradition­al motifs and patterns to younger weavers. We have lost many of those motifs and patterns. This is why I am collecting and inventorizing old Timor Leste ikats. Later we digitalize and make public the motifs and I dissem­inate the information amongst weav­ers. In Timor Leste there are nearly no old ikats left. Many left the country however and I am looking for them. If I can look at them and copy the old designs I can pass on the information to the weavers to be revived.”

A grinsing double ikat from Tenganan, Karangasam, Bali. This sacred cloth takes 5 to 10 years to make and is still used in religious ceremonies. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Rosalia Soares explained that during the Indonesian occupation the Indonesian government established a museum in Dili which housed many Timor Leste ikats but after the refer­endum before the UN troops arrived the contents of the museum were brought to the Museum in Kupang, West Timor where they are kept in storage. “I have tried very hard to see them but have not succeeded so far,” sighed Rosalia Soares sadly.

A sub-theme of this symposium is: the ties that bind. When one looks at the many ikat weaving traditions across the world one realizes that in­deed they are an invisible thread that helps to bind our many cultures into a single humanity. Keeping the ikat traditions, motifs and designs alive in any one culture or nation enriches all of us. So, I say, “My fellow Indone­sians, now is not the time to hesitate. Let us open wide our museums and collections to help Rosalia Soares in her search for the old motifs and pat­terns of Timor Leste ikats. Enriching Timor Leste ikat traditions means en­riching our whole region.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The stall from Sarawak sold not only ikats but also charming Sarawak woven hats. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)