"A very fine, early silk pelangi shouldercloth from Palembang in south Sumatra, showing the classic format and motifs of these sumptuous tie-dye textiles. This piece has a rare and distinctive green centerfield that makes a stunning contrast with the rich cherry red borders, and enhances the remarkably glowing colors of its 4-petalled flowers and stars of violet, mauve, orange and cream. The figures are held within a grid made up of pale yellow, white, and orange lozenges containing internal spots and crosses that echo the filler colors of the main motifs—this simple decorative method creates an overall vibrant, sparkling design. The mauve and violet portions were hand-painted with a brush after the dyeing had been completed. The lively colors and irregularity of the simple motifs within this regular formation creates a very charming child-like effect.
In contrast, the multiple borders are very sophisticated: double rows of emphatic yellow square crosses; spiky blue and white zigzag lines created by very fine stitch-resist, their sharpness underlining the softer effect of the tie-dye figures, and vice versa; and lastly, a tiny line of glimmering stitch-resist lozenges edged with gold lace. The tour de force of the piece is the beautiful set of 7 palmetto motifs at each end, outlined in orange and filled with the same spiky lines, against a panel of yellow diamonds. The elaborate composite borders are wonderfully designed to maximize the richness of contrastive motifs, that in turn animate the depth of the red ground. The typical “lace” trimming made of gold-wrapped wire has been sewn onto the edges to add a glittering decorative effect, as well as weight.
The workmanship is of very high quality, shown in the rich array and depth of the colors and the tiny white edging lines made by stitch-resist (tritik); of particular note are the double lines of yellow stars framing the centerfield, which are unusual and add a brilliant note to the design. A sumptuous, festive example of this well-known type of luxury textile, with an impressive brilliance brought out by its fine condition.
Palembang has an ancient history of political power, wealth and multi-cultural influences arising from its prime location on the south-east coast of Sumatra for trade through the Straits of Malacca. It is the site of the 7th – 8th C kingdom of Srivijaya, and was later a major center along the spice route, where Arab, Chinese and European traders exchanged pepper, silk, gold, and spices. Its culture was distinguished by elaborate, richly decorated jewelry and textiles, which displayed the wealth and prestige of the wearer. This shoulder-cloth encapsulates the vivid color and style of its silk culture that was a vital part of its social customs and ceremonies.
The word pelangi means “rainbow” or “many-colored” and refers to a type of (usually silk) textile decorated by the tie-dye technique of the same name, whereby the pattern is built up by binding small pockets of cloth so that they resist the dye. As in this piece, the pelangi method of creating discrete, usually rectangular or circular spots is often combined with tritik (meaning “splattered”), where resist lines are formed by very fine stitches and the thread is tightly gathered so that the sewn sections of the cloth sit closely against each other and prevent the dye from penetrating (the close-ups show the needle-holes from the stitching). The rainbow (pelangi) is closely associated with the naga (a mythical serpent), whose colors and form resemble a multicolored rainbow, and vice versa. Naga and pelangi are often interchangeable concepts and propitious symbols, hence pelangi textiles are always brightly-colored (Maxwell, Textiles of Southeast Asia, OUP, 1990, 321-24).
Pelangi shouldercloths of this kind follow closely the Indian silk patola trade textiles' format and motifs—the 8-pointed starflower, here simplified to 4 points, the palmetto motif dating back to Mughal ornamentation, and the framing borders and end panels—but show the interesting changes and effects of a different technique. Pieces with a centerfield in a contrastive color are more unusual, and are classified as pelangi bapat. Like the plain red-and-green tie-dye silk shouldercloths (lawon), this color combination was appropriate for wear by widows who wished to indicate their willingness to re-marry.
The piece is in excellent condition for this type of textile (which due to the fragility of the silk is often damaged). Apart from a few minor repairs, the most visible of which are noted in image 6, there are no holes, stains or tears. The colors are all rich and vivid, the green in particular has a rare glowing hue, and the red is exceptionally deep and rich. The silk is heavy and still very strong, with a texture like raw silk and a lively sheen. The gold-wrapped thread has darkened with age, but retains a quiet glitter. 66" x 33"