Sari to Sarong
500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange
2 April – 4 July 2004

introduction | essay | selected works | Indonesian textiles

Toraja people Sulawesi, Indonesia 'Sacred heirloom textile [ma’a or mawa; mbesa]' early 20th century cotton, natural dyes; painting, block printingToraja people Sulawesi, Indonesia  'Sacred heirloom textile [ma’a or mawa; mbesa]'  early 20th century  cotton, natural dyes; painting, block printing Collection of the National Gallery of Australia   click to enlarge

Sari to Sarong: 500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange is one of the largest and most ambitious textile exhibitions ever curated by the National Gallery of Australia. ACM is proud to be the first Asian Museum to present Sari to Sarong on its international tour. 122 Asian works are on display, providing an opportunity for visitors to see many spectacular Indian and Indonesian textiles never before publicly exhibited in Singapore. The exhibition links textiles from many cultures across the Indonesian archipelago with a large selection of Indian textiles traded to the Indonesian islands over many centuries.

Dating from as early as the 14th century, the Indian textiles display a great range of designs, reflecting the capacity of Indian artisans to adapt age-old techniques to meet new market demands. Large mordant-painted and dyed cottons display Hindu and Jain images — Ramayana battles and scenes of elegant court women — which would have found instant acceptance in Indian domestic markets. Others incorporate Persian, European and, of course, Indonesian imagery. Islamic niches, floral chintz and even Chinese mythical beasts appear on the Indian cloth and on Indonesian textiles influenced by their exotic motifs and striking designs. Silk textiles, patterned with intricate tie-dying techniques, have also survived as treasured heirlooms in the majestic courts and remote villages of Indonesia. One Indian design might inspire myriad motifs across the Indonesian islands — in cotton, silk or gold thread, ikat, embroidery or batik. This inspiration is especially vivid in the many manifestations of the patola pattern.

Masulipatam, Andhra Pradesh, India Traded to Indonesia 'Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom' late 19th century handspun cotton, natural dyes, mordants; mordant block printing, pigment painting Gift of Michael and Mary Abbott 1988 Conserved with the assistance of Esther Raworth Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaMasulipatam, Andhra Pradesh, India  Traded to Indonesia  'Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom'  late 19th century  handspun cotton, natural dyes, mordants; mordant block printing, pigment painting  Gift of Michael and Mary Abbott 1988  Conserved with the assistance of Esther Raworth Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

The historical impact of Indian religious ideas and imagery — first introduced to Indonesia with Hinduism and Buddhism in the first millennium of the present era — continues to be evident in Indonesian textiles, especially in Bali and Java. However, the depictions and meaning of the legendary Garuda bird from Hindu mythology is today very different in Hindu Bali from its depection in Islamic Java. In Bali the Garuda is readily recognised in all forms of art, including textiles, as the vehicle or mount of the great Hindu deity Vishnu. While in Java — as in many southeast Asian courts whatever their religious orientation — the Garuda long ago became a popular generic symbol of royalty, and continues to be displayed as stylised wings on the sombre batik and dazzling gold-leaf voluminous wraps of both male and female courtiers in the palaces of Solo and Jogjakarta. In other cases, the symbolic meaning of particular Indian imagery may have been lost. For example, while the mandala-like arrangement of designs on many headcloths and coverings across the Malay coastal cultures may relate to Indian-inspired architectural plans and visualised mantra, many patterns continue to be created today simply for their beauty and boldness.

Sari to Sarong: 500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange explores these interactions in a series of related thematic displays beginning with an important symbol of trade, the popular, although often enigmatic, ship motif. Indonesian textiles featuring Hindu legends and Indian architectural forms, such as the mandala, together with the sumptuous gold cloth and costumes of the royal palaces that adopted many Indian forms of hierarchy and statecraft, reveal the enduring legacy of Indian cultural influences, especially in Sumatra, Java and Bali. A central gallery space is devoted entirely to historical Indian textiles collected in Indonesia, which demonstrate the diversity of sources that has inspired Indonesian textile craftswomen over the centuries. Of course, questions still remain about the directions of some of these creative exchanges. The extensive final displays in the exhibition, however, explore this interplay, with Indian and Indonesian textiles grouped together around particular designs and forms to illuminate the inventiveness and exchanges that have occurred.