The “Cultural Treasures: Textiles of the Malay World” exhibition is an reciprocity of the exhibition of “Islamic Art of India” organized by the National Museum, New Delhi in Malaysia held in the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur from, 30.03.2002 to 30.06.2002. The exhibition in Kuala Lumpur was organized by Government of India to fulfil the commitment of Sri Atal Bihari Bajpai, the Prime Minister of India during his last visit to Malaysia. The present exhibition is being held in the National Museum, New Delhi under Cultural Exchange Programme. That exhibition gave a picture of the Islamic rule in India and works of art of very high order executed in that period in India to the people of the beautiful country of Malaysia. The present exhibition will give information as to how along before the advent of Islam to Malaysia, Indian Hindu Culture and religion heavily influenced the Malay world. It is a known fact that Indian culture heavily influenced the Culture of the entire South-East Asia. Malaysia too experienced such cultural influence in the past. This happened through the trade relation between India and Malay world which spanned over nine centuries or so. Islam was introduced in Malay world from India in the late mediaeval period through trade. Muslim merehants and missionaries adopted many aspects of Hindu customs into Islam paving the way to wide spread acceptance of this religion in that country. Since then the stamp of Indian culture on Malaysian life and their art and crafts became prominent and it continued for several centuries.
The present Catalogue of the exhibition not only will tell about the rich decoration and beautiful design on the Malaysian textiles, but also draw a correct picture of the vital role of the Indian influence in nourishing the Malaysian art, craft and cultural heritage. It will also showcase the assisnilation of the two cultures.
I express my deep sense of gratitude to Malaysian Government for strengthening India’s relation with this friendly country. The Director of Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia Dr. Syed Mohamad Albukhary and Dr. Mandana Barkeshli, Head of the Curatorial Affairs, Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia deserve special thanks for their untiring efforts to set up this exhibition in India. My Sincer thanks are also due to Mrs. Veena Sikri, High Commissioner of India in Malaysia for her keen interest to cement the relations of both the countries through such exhibitions.
The Malay world encompasses a vast area, from the Malay Peninsula (what is today Peninsula Malaysia) and portions of adjacent islands of South-East Asia, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coat of Borneo, and smaller islands that lie between these areas. Populated by groups of people with unique cultural diversity and embedded between the two great civilizations of India and China, the Malay world has gained rich cultural traditions. Hindu-Buddhist culture played a vital role in the history of the Malay world and the development of the arts and culture in this region. These cultural developments took place along Hindu-Buddhist lines, but blended harmoniously with local elements where it could fit comfortably into the existing culture and philosophy without affecting the core of Malay tradition. These influences can still be recognized in some of the social traditions of Malay world, and also in certain artistic expressions, including textile. This can be seen in the clothing worn by the people in these lands; the different types of garments, the styles, techniques and the materials used. A variety of natural raw materials, bast fibers, silk and cotton yarns, innumerable pigments and dyes, wood and bamboo for loom equipment has been provided to this land due to it’s tropical environment.
Historically textiles have played a significant role in the social, economic and religious life of the people of the Malay world. Opulent fabrics and dress are used to display the authority, prosperity and to gauge a person’s social grade, profession and religious affiliation through their costumes. Clothing is especially significant as a mark of identity in where it could be indicative of person’s age, gender, marital status, place of origin, or even occupation. Textiles regarded as “female” goods, are especially important in wedding gift exchanges. As a token of affection between a young weaver and her suitor, a colourful and intricately patterned weaving in the form of bags, belts or scarves are offered. Newly weds are regards as king and queen on their wedding day, and so they may dress in designs once reserved for royalty. Garments, fabrics and other items of practical use often have significant value, expressed by the colors and ornamentation used for their design. Motif may have religious or ceremonial functions or indicate the power or the social status of the owner. For religious ceremonies, sacred cloths were woven according to a set of strict taboos. Certain types of weavings were specially made for warriors during the war and battles as talismans where others served as protection against misfortune and illness. At the time of death, a type of textile called the kafan is used to cover the bier of the deceased and was considered essential accounterments to a fitting send-off. Textiles also commonly serve as banners and shrouds in mortuary rites and as baby-carriers for young children. The symbolic meaning of a design or motif is as important as its ornamental value or sometimes even more so, since it carries an extra dimension for those who believe on its special significant. A property attributed to certain magical motifs is, for instance, protection against the misfortune, evil and illness. Apart from the designs and motifs materials used has played an important element as well. The use of silk cloth with gold threads or gold leafs are an obvious sign of wealth are highly regarded comparing to plain cotton. Traditionally, weaving skills and designs were passed from generation to generation from mother to daughter. In some communities, a young maiden must accomplish the art of weaving before entering womanhood and is considered ready for marriage, in doing this; she will earn the respect of her people and the admiration of her suitor.
In the course of time, the Malay world has been exposed to a wide variety of foreign influences, many of which have left their trace in the design and techniques employed in textile tradition of this region. Widespread trading contacts and cultural bonds with India as early as the first century AD introduced key motifs such as the tree of life (pohon budi), the lotus (bunga teratai), the mythological holy bird garuda and depictions of Hindu Epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabarata into local design repertoires. The influences of Indian culture and civilization may also be seen in some of the techniques used in Malay world, the well-known double-ikat patola from Gujarat for instance, was once widely traded throughout South-East Asia and were highly prized by local inhabitants for their magnificent geometric and floral motif arrangement with bright and glowing colors. The cloths were also ideal as wraparound clothing widely worn by various Malay ethnic groups such as shawls and sarongs for their clear demarcated design areas. Besides patola, Indian textiles such as chintzes, created with Malay taste in mind, were also traded throughout the archipelago, and their design motifs have influenced local fabrics as Javanese batik. The batik sarong and kain panjang, skirt like garments in cotton and sometimes in silk worn by both women and men, are the most prominent dress in the Malay wardrobe.
Another great Asian civilization existed in China, with which South-East Asia established relations in the early fifth century. The Chinese came to South-East Asia and Malay Peninsula at first as traders and later as settlers. It is believed that a penchant for aromatic woods and esoteric jungle produce drew the Chinese to these areas. In return for these items they traded their textiles as well as their pottery and metal wares. As a result of these trade businesses, motifs such as the dragon, phoenix, cloud and rock formation, the Buddhist eight precious objects, swastikas and other symbolic forms entered the Malay design repertoire. The migration of Chinese embroidery techniques may also be seen in local embroidery traditions such as satin stitch, couching and pekin knots.
Although Islam was introduced to the Malay world during the early Islamic era by traders and missionaries; it was only during the 15th century that Malay rulers began converting to Islam and began propagating the religion to their subjects.
The arrival of Muslim faith led to the introduction of the weft-ikat technique and the use of metallic threads, mirror glass and sequins into local weaving traditions. Although Islam does not dominate the form and function of the cloths worn by Muslims, the shariah, Islamic divine law, which theoretically guides almost all aspects of a Muslim’s life, does include advice relating to dress, fabric, and color, with one of the most significant being the emphasis on physical modesty. Newly converted Muslims started to wear a loose tunic, a garment probably inspired by the Middle-Eastern people such as galabiah, over the traditional sarong. A prominent quality of Islamic art, which also can be seen in Malay textiles after Islamization is its intentional distance from representations. The Muslim proscription against the realistic representation of living things led to the development of a wide range of intricate, beautifully integrated floral, vegetal and geometric scroll motifs. The motifs were not the reproduction of the nature any more but natural forms were used to develop them into other forms that represent a world beyond the natural appearance of the nature. Another contribution, which has been attributed to Muslim traders, is popularizing the wearing of plaids throughout Malay Peninsula and through South-East Asia.
The Muslim coastal peoples of Malay Peninsula, being exposed to foreign contacts, have developed their own distinctive textile traditions. Weft-ikat and a form of supplementary-weft patterning called kain songket, using imported metallic wrapped thread, are the most popular methods of embellishing cloth which is made into distinctive sarongs, shawls and head cloths. Weft-ikat is woven in south-east Sumatra while kain songket is woven in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu in northeast Malaysia. Motifs on weft-ikat and kain songket are basically geometric and floral design. Wax resist batik, which was traditionally woven on cotton cloth, is the most significant medium of textile expression in Java. Batik technique is used to pattern material for sarongs, shawls (selendang) and male headgears. Distinctive borders and a visual center called kepala bounded by a series of triangular tumpul motifs are significant characteristic of these cloths. Batik in Java can be divided in two distinctive traditions, central region and that of the north coast. Central Java is considered as “classic batik” which three colors: blue, brown and white are used. Patterns are traditional and designs originally had meaning where the weaver was expected to select one appropriate to the occasion. The north coast batik by contrast due to wide-open trade is more entrepreneurial in spirit. New techniques such as the use of metal stamp, the cap, for applying wax, which is faster but not as fine as hand drown tulis batik, are practiced. European, Chinese and Arab motifs also have been replaced by traditional and classical motifs. Sometimes they were used in combination with central Javanese designs. Batiks are extremely popular and were widely exported throughout South-East Asia. Batik has become one of the principals means of expression of the spiritual and cultural values of South-East Asia during the past two or three centuries, and one of the most sophistication and manifestations of the region’s culture. Today batik is also considered to be one of the national cloths of Malaysia.
The textiles presented in this exhibition offers the viewer, through the cloths and costumes, a glimpse into the lives of the Malay people during the 19th to 20th centuries in many parts of the Malay world.
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