Sari to Sarong
500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange
2 April – 4 July 2004
Is it possible for an Indian textile, with an archaic figurative design in the style of 14th-century west-Indian manuscript illuminations, to have survived for 600 years in a village treasury in the mountains of central Sulawesi, Indonesia? The answer, amazingly, is yes. Not only has the medium-weight cotton textile survived, but it is remarkably intact. Its more than 5 metres of iron- and potassium-oxide mordant-printed patterns, overlaid with bold although rather crude batik resist indigo highlights, are almost as vibrantly bright as when the cloth was made. Recent AMS Carbon 14 dating tests — made financially possible by a supporter of the National Gallery of Australia’s ‘Treasure a Textile’ scheme — confirmed my hunch: not only is the textile stylistically close to medieval west-Indian painting conventions, but, with a confirmed 1369–1469 date span, it is contemporary with the surviving Jain manuscripts of that lively and creative period in South Asian art.
That the textile was traded to the Indonesian archipelago at such an early date was until recently considered very unlikely, since scholarship has focused on the maritime activities of the great European trading companies — the East India Company of England and the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the United East India Company of Holland. Certainly, the English and the Dutch were very active in securing control over trade for the Indonesian archipelago’s rich source of aromatics — cloves, pepper and nutmeg, along with woods and resins — which earned the region the romantic title of the ‘Spice Islands’. The Dutch and English companies not only wrested an existing active trade from local and international Asian competitors, but they bartered with the same time-tested commodity — Indian textiles — which they eventually controlled at the points of production in Gujarat in the west and along the Coromandel coast in the east. Numerous textiles from the height of this mercantile era have survived in Indonesia, often with the telltale VOC stamp demonstrating the Dutch company’s methods of controlling Indian cloth.
'Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom' early 18th century handspun cotton, natural dyes, mordants Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Conserved with the assistance of Brian O'Keeffe AO and Bridget O'Keeffe AM; Gift of Michael and Mary Abbott 1988 click to enlarge
Yet it was the unlikelihood of such a seemingly fragile object surviving the hot tropical conditions of equatorial Asia, the attacks of insects and rodents, periods of war and social unrest and the displacement of populations in Sulawesi in the immediate post-independence period of the mid 20th century, that cautioned such an optimistic early dating. How, then, can we explain the survival of this and other early Indian textiles in rural Indonesia — for this is only one of a number of textiles in the Gallery’s collection that appear to be centuries old?
One of the finest known examples, also in Gujarati painting style, shows heads in full profile with the second distended eye visible. This textile has been very convincingly dated by John Guy, Deputy Keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in his book Woven Cargoes: Indian Textiles in the East (1998). His argument is based on large maker’s seals on one end of the 5.34-metre-long textile, which features a series of twelve female court attendants, each with a different costume and accoutrements. The seals indicate that the cloth was made in AD 1500, during the rule of Muhamad Shah (r. 1459–1511), making it, as Guy points out, the earliest inscribed, dated Indian textile recorded in Indonesia and a critical document in the dating of textiles of this type. Like these two works, many of the Indian trade textiles in the exhibition were gifts to the Gallery from the family of Adelaide-based QC Michael Abbott.
The reason for the surprising durability of these cloths can be found in the admiration for, and, in many cases, the veneration of, fine textiles in most Indonesian cultures. Fine textiles, both local and imported, are items of wealth in Indonesia. Their ownership and control adds to the prestige and power of clan leaders, aristocratic families and royal households. In fact, the loss of control or deterioration of sacred regalia and treasured heirlooms is often taken as a sign of a failed leader or an impending disaster. In the case of the Toraja peoples of Sulawesi, in whose care these cloths have rested over the centuries, the Indian cloths, along with local counterparts made in emulation of the highly regarded imports, constitute sacred heirlooms, believed to have been created in a distant past by important, sometimes mythological ancestors who possessed skills now lost to even the most experienced makers of textiles in living memory. (This is perhaps not surprising since mordant painting and printing have never been practised in Indonesia where other techniques produce the finest local cloth. Toraja weavers, for example, are best known for their huge warp ikat cottons in bold geometric patterns.)
Textiles are essential for the successful playing out of Toraja ritual and, like the rites themselves, the cloths are divided into two types: those associated with the activities of life and those required for the ceremonies of death. In such a fundamental division it is local textiles, especially the great warp ikats, that serve as shrouds for the deceased and enclose and protect the thousands of guests who pour into villages to participate in the elaborate funeral ceremonies for which the Toraja are widely famous. Scores (sometimes even hundreds) of buffalo are slaughtered in celebration of the passage of a local leader from this world to the next, where he or she will join the formidable array of ancestors who can still manipulate the world of the living. In parts of the Toraja region where graves, not cliff-face tombs, are the place where bodies are interred, local warp ikat textiles enwrap the grave architecture, warding off evil.
In contrast, the rites of life — associated with agriculture and prosperity, planting and harvest festivals, and marriage and fertility — are quarantined from the ceremonies of death. The expensive funerals are planned for months, sometimes years in advance, and are never scheduled at times devoted to crucial agricultural activities. The textiles associated with these rites of life are the sacred mawa (or ma’a), the heirloom treasures stored in the roofs of the great clan houses, the most holy section of the construction. Most of the mawa are centuries-old imported Indian cloth. In one of the most spectacular displays of the role of these textiles and their masculine counterparts, swords and knives, the Toraja build a huge stairway, the bate — a bamboo ladder to which hundreds of rolls of Indian textiles are attached, interspersed with ancient swords and machetes. This structure towers above the proceedings, a symbolic invitation to the ancestors to descend and join the participants in celebrations of the rites of life.
It is this veneration of textiles, especially the mysterious heirloom treasures which cannot be replaced, that explains the enormous care taken and the great skills of textile preservation developed by many peoples of Indonesia who still follow the ways of their ancestors. While in some regions textiles may be stored in chests made of aromatic woods (eastern Indonesia is the home of sandalwood, an ancient trade commodity to China and India), many are folded away, interlaced with fragrant insect-repelling substances, such as jasmine petals or even tobacco, in woven baskets. The baskets are hung from the rafters by thin twine encircled with rodent-repelling discs. Regular rites to honour, air and renew the textiles are part of the ceremonial cycle in many cultures. And while a textile treasure in tatty condition is taken as a worrying sign of crop failure or other such disaster, there is a widespread belief in the capacity of the sacred textiles to renew themselves, so that when opened the following year their fine condition will be a portent of good times ahead. On the other hand, the desire to preserve important designs against the ravages of nature and emulate the finest Indian heirlooms has long been a strong motivation for the creation of Indonesian textiles in the image of the sacred treasures.
The Toraja peoples of the past were clearly careful custodians of fine textiles, since most of the Indian textiles collected in that region are in surprisingly good condition. Or is it to the magical power of these splendid Indian trade cloths to regenerate themselves that we owe their amazing survival for over 500 years in such seemingly dangerous conditions?
Attraction of Indonesian Textiles Robert J Holmgren, Art
Collector and Historian, New York
ABC Radio National - 21 June 2002
Institute Grant to Provide Access to Indonesia's Most Important
Living Artistic Tradition
DFAT Media Release - 9 July 2002
textiles are rewriting history
666 ABC Canberra - 10 July 2003
Asian Civilisations Museum