Lady Jezeema sets down a tray of cardamom tea with curd and treacle and settles herself into her chair in the back room of her house that serves as her Batik art shop, just off the main road in Matara, Sri Lanka. A lifetime’s work fills every inch of the walls, the rich colours of the saris and dresses draped over old mannequins, kaleidoscopes of wall cloths and pictures burst from the antique teak shelves.
In the courtyard an old Singer sewing machines lies idle, a reminder of a more difficult time when her father became seriously ill and the family spent all their money including selling their house and land for treatments. Jezeema and her mother had to work and being Muslim meant she could only work indoors, so she tried her hand at sewing and tailoring before realising that her love of drawing and painting could be turned into work and she turned to Batik art. “Thanks to God we got everything back and now I have five children all married, life is good again.”
Batik art, a wax-resisting dying process uses cotton or silk cloth to build up layers of colours through waxing, painting, boiling, repeating this process to create intricate drawings and patterns using natural colours such as yellow from the Jack tree which Buddhists use to dye their robes. “I love to do something I can design, I draw straight onto the cloth. Every piece is a piece of art. I don’t want to make 500 of the same pieces, each one should be unique.”
Many of the temple cloths and flags from ancient times are Batik art. When the Malaysian Royal Army came to Sri Lanka they used to wear Batik sarongs known as Lungi’s, bringing Batik with them. Jezeema learnt the art from Indian books and has been practising for over 40 years, one of the oldest businesses in Matara, exhibiting all over the world at the request of the many friends she has made as people have visited her over the years, from Switzerland in 1979 to Italy where she decorated the Diva Luna hotel in Ponza, and the most memorable in Las Vegas which was something of an eye-opener for a woman of simple values, “It’s like I was thrown into another planet, people were so busy and there was so much noise and lights.”
Helping myself to curd, a local delicacy made from buffalo milk, my eyes pause on a framed letter displaying the crest of Buckingham Palace. “My mother, she used to collect pictures of the Royal Family and hang them in her room, make scrapbooks. In 1948 when I was 8 years old, the Prince of Wales came to Sri Lanka to grant independence as a dominion of the British Empire, my school made a Kandyan dance for him.”
“At the time of the Silver Jubilee in 1977, I had two English volunteer teachers with me, Barry and David, in fact between 1797-83 there was not one day I didn’t have a foreigner in the house. Barry had brought pictures of Queen Elizabeth from the High Commission in Colombo so I made a Batik painting on cloth of her portrait decorating the crown with small jewels and he helped me send it to her. My mother died shortly before the Golden Jubilee and I was of course very sad. So I poured all my energy into creating a special piece in her memory for Queen Elizabeth and together with my workers, we spent four months creating a 20m long Batik print depicting 50 dancers and 50 elephants, the first one wearing a crown, one for each year, arranged in a procession known as a perahara which means welcome in Sri Lankan and they sent me letter to say thank-you.” Jezeema wanted to send something for Prince William’s wedding but was in Mecca, her fourth pilgrimage or Hajj to the holy lands.
“I always try to help everyone so I think Allah has blessed me, this is how I have got everything in my life.” Her modest house, alive with family and friends who come to stay, her outdoor studio where women deftly apply layers of paint and hot wax to Batik’s large and small, hanging them off the coconut trees to dry in the sun, expresses the simple richness of a long life. “I will work until I can because it is very good to work with art, through this I enjoy my time.”