Gahara, beyond fashion, beyond a social enterprise

Gahara means “pure descent” from the phrase anak Gahara taken from the context of family constitution in the old Malay language where both parents of the offspring are of nobility. For the people behind Gahara, it speaks volume about the community, artistry and heritage that belongs to all hence the need for its preservation. And that begins our story. 

Gahara was established with the intention to promote the art of batik and its entire value chain that supports a community. 

Batik, as described from The History of Batik, is a form of resist art, and has been the tour de force in the southeast asian archipelago for over 2000 years. Using a clear medium such as wax to cover the surface with a layer to shape invisible designs or patterns, it is fascinating to note how this form of art, centered in places such as Pekalongan, is predominant in the basin of Java with intricate fabric and patterns worn by commoners to royalties, and has proliferated across the world against the knowledge of European Renaissance art. Needless to say, a portion of Gahara’s clients and supporters are art collectors, history researchers and textile makers and enthusiasts from all over the world. They don’t merely want to purchase a piece of vibrant fabric, they want to bring home with them a slice of history, a story they can share with their friends and family.  

For the Gahara buyers, they sought us not just for the originality of our block prints that narrate tales of local folklore and regional legends from Langkasuka fused with contemporary compositions through the Myth to Motifs campaign since 2015 inspired by creative director and founder Nik Faiz (such as European ballet, Greek myths and the Mediterannean sea, seascapes and music from Cuba). Nik has also introduced unique coloring techniques such as shibori and tie-dye (the rest are trade secrets, I’m afraid), and its eclectic palettes that positions Gahara as an outlier for Malaysian batik. In fact, Gahara considers itself as Malaysian batik primarily in terms of national representation, but places high respect for the fraternity among the other local batik purveyors. To quote Datuk Jimmy Choo during one of Gahara’s events where he attended and shared a virtuous advice:  “There is enough space for everyone at the dining table if we all bring something useful and unique to the table that can enrich the lives of others.” 

Historically batik has travelled and influenced the far corners of the world from Turkey, the Netherlands, Japan to South Africa with its own motifs and narratives since the 1830s with credit to colonialism. Rather than seeing it as taking ownership as purely Malaysian batik, Gahara’s own culmination of signature designs is just one more extension to this world art citizenship. Batik in Malaysia has its plethora from Peninsular to Borneo and it would be unjust to position one without acknowledging its cultural relativity to the others. As Datuk Azanin, Malaysia’s primadona of classical and traditional performative arts elegantly describes, “We are not just connected through aesthetics, but through spirituality, energy and passion.” 

A study into batik would teach you the importance of it as a communication tapestry. Batik has always been a fabric that spoke about its people, region, social classes, and way of life through its colours, fabric, patterning, and arrangement of motifs. A piece is a personification of time, zeitgeist and geography, a composite that carries a symbolic moment and pragmatic purpose from circumcision, marriage, confinement to funeral, and can be worn from head to feet. 

Gahara is by Malaysians for Malaysia. But batik Malaysia is for the world because it is about art.” Nik Faiz 

Art movement aside, the more critical story Gahara would like to highlight is its social impact for the local community namely of Kampung Penambang, Kelantan. A sleepy, quiet village roughly the size of 14,922 km², 10 minutes from the Cahaya Bulan beach (facing the South China Sea), Kampung Penambang is not only a center for batik production for over three two centuries like Pekalongan, it remains unaffected by development which helps to preserve a traditional ecosystem for arts and crafts such as songket, kite-making (wau), and keris making, to name a few. However, the call for urbanisation has shifted the people’s attention away, leaving the cottage-industry in dire need of scale in order to survive. As a result, the stories of batik remain a charming anecdote but the specialised vocational spirit is dwindling among the younger generation. 

The master craftsmen, known as Adigurus (sanskrit term for primordial masters: Adi means first and guru means teacher), are now in short supply, in recluse or blended among the ordinary. Craftsmen are not necessarily artisans, and artisans today are more business people than educators of arts. Gahara seeks and trains artists and craftsmen from the community so the baton of tradition continues.                       

After twelve years, founder of Gahara Nik Faiz decided to kick-start the Artists’ Residence programme based at Rumah Gahara, Kota Bharu. It has been a dream of his since 2012 to hold workshops, training sessions and to place emphasis on educating potential artists and designers and house them under Gahara’s atelier. Each artist will be taught the fundamentals of batik from philosophy, composition to production. From theory to practice Nik Faiz puts them through the complex rigmarole of understanding the cultural significance of batik not just as a creative commodity but as cultural knowledge to pay forward to the community while exposing them to other adigurus and experts in the field. 

“Proceeds from Gahara is not about profit, it is about sustaining the community through continuous job opportunities, increasing its value through education, and about developing Kelantan as a whole so its legacy of arts and crafts remain something to be proud of for the generations to come.” 

At Gahara the priority is sustaining their income with a consistent flow of demand for batik production. The role of its directors is to find the projects, strategise the timeline for delivery while providing continuous upscaling opportunities for the artisans. Each artisan is paid 25-30% from the sales proceeds of each piece they produce. The more they produce, the higher their income. The percentage varies on their skill level. While 20% of the production goes to bespoke, the challenge is in the area of research for original designs which often takes up the longest portion of the production schedule. And while fashion is a popular choice for batik makers and traders, textile production remains Gahara’s focal proposition. 

The next chapter sees Gahara venture into interior and upholstery. We believe that Gahara can not only carve a new market opportunity for its artisans and increase employment, but the beauty of its artisanal batik can be seen as beyond fashion apparels and into homes, hotels and resorts, and corporate offices.          

Natasha MH is a speaker, trainer and educator in performative arts and creative communications. Currently the CEO of Gahara she can be contacted at [email protected]


2 thoughts on “Gahara, beyond fashion, beyond a social enterprise”

  1. good reading! i love how Gahara implements the social enterprise elements within the business. Hopefully i can visit Gahara someday!!

    1. Thank you so much Alex! We appreciate the feedback. We too hope you can visit the fascinating city of Kota Bharu and our Rumah Gahara. If you’re in KL drop by our Boutique Cafe at the National Textile Museum. Let us know what led you to our website and get a complimentary coffee and dessert. Even better if you have an idea to collaborate, let’s explore opportunities and we’ll also treat you to a house special. Stay safe!

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