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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Aura Of Indonesian Batik

To an Indonesian, Batik is a product of their innate culture and an expression of who they are and where they came from

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Consul General of India to Sumatra, Medan

INDONESIA: Indonesia’s love affair with “batik” began centuries ago, but unlike human love affairs, it has endured the test of time and continues to remain strong and unwavering. When an Indonesian wears batik, he or she literally wears it on his or her heart. This love is not an infatuation but a deep felt identity with one of Indonesia’s cherished cultural heritage. To an Indonesian, Batik is a product of their innate culture and an expression of who they are and where they came from.

Origin of Batik

Evidence of Batik dates back 2000 years or more and by all accounts, it may have independently evolved across different geographic regions of the world like South East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Far East, India, China and parts of Africa. But its spread was greatly facilitated by the ancient caravan trade routes which got further strengthened by the 17th century trade routes between Indonesia, Indian sub-continent, Persia and China. Surely, this cross culture exchanges greatly contributed to the development and spread of this art form. 

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It would be a fallacy to say that it originated in Indonesia. But Indonesia is widely considered as the cradle of batik as no other country has achieved such a high level of sophistication, variety, intricacy and appeal of the Batik art form, which has made it an icon in Indonesia.

This traditional skill was practiced and well developed over hundreds of years in Central Java around the cities of   Yogyakarta and Solo under the patronage of the Sultan and his family. Since the designs were imbued with meaning and powerful symbolism, the initial designs were restricted to certain people only – specifically the Sultan himself, or his wider family, or the court servants and retainers. Making batik was seen as an important skill for a young woman of noble birth. Such was the devotion that it has been said that before conceptualizing the design she would spend a night in meditation and prayer. The designed cloths she made over many months of long and painstaking work, would be revered and preserved as heirlooms for future generations.

Photo Credit: Google

Batik art creation

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The word batik is derived from the Javanese word ‘amba’ which means write and ‘tik’ which means a dot. The art creation essentially involves three basic steps – waxing, dyeing, and scraping (removing). The wax is used for creating designs on certain predefined areas on the fabric. In one style, the cloth is hung over a frame and the design is drawn on with a canting, a small copper cupped spout, with a bamboo or wooden handle. The canting is dipped into a pot of hot wax and then allowed to flow through the spout on to the fabric. To make a strong resist both sides of the cloth are waxed. In the hand stamped batik style, the cloth is placed on a padded table and a copper stamp (cap or tjap) is used to apply the wax. The cap is heated in a pan of hot wax and then pressed on to the fabric. Both sides of the cloth are usually waxed.

The second step involves dyeing. Traditionally the dyes used were deep blues obtained from plant indigo which used to grow in abundance in Java and yellows to deep browns called “soga” obtained from a variety of tree barks, and roots and sometimes combined with a brilliant red from the “mengkudu’ tree roots. In the third step, the wax is removed by either scraping or boiling the cloth till the wax peels off. The end product is a colourful and beautiful piece of cloth which can any combination of designs.

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A fascinating aspect of Indonesian batik is the sheer variety of styles, designs, motifs and colours, each of which indicate status, mystic or ritualistic connection, symbolism, social stratification, geographical location and meaning. Unique variants are used for special occasions such as marriage, pregnancy, childbirths or funerals.

Significance of Batik in Indonesian culture

Indonesia’s emotional attachment with Batik stems from the belief that certain patterns carry special meanings and which are thought to bring the wearer, good luck, wealth, prosperity, health, etc. As a tradition that is deeply enmeshed with the cultural identity of the Indonesian people, batik techniques have been handed over from generation to generation and so many of the designs have survived to this day. 

Another intriguing aspect is that each province has its distinctive style of batik. In Central Java, it usually comes in the form of subdued colours and stylised imagery, whereas in other provinces, batik is is brightly-coloured with naturalistic figures.

Photo Credit: Google

Throughout its history, Indonesian batik has evolved by imbibing different influences or traits from foreign cultures through the trade route or the impact of colonization. These external influences helped Indonesian batik art form to develop a large variety of styles to suit different strata of people, occasions and purposes. For example, Batik Kraton style, regarded as the basic batik of Java, is replete with Hindu motifs of the 5th century such as the sacred bird of Lord Vishnu ‘Garuda’, sacred flower(lotus) and revered animal Naga (snake). However, Indian Islam brought in stylized symbols like floral and geometric patterns. 

Batik Belanda variety which appeared in 1840s, has Dutch influence and is clearly recognized through works of great European designers. Batik Cina is easily recognized by the use of typical Chinese motifs like dragons, phoenix, snakes, lions, traditional Chinese flowers and chinaware designs. Designed specifically to suit the tastes of the Japanese during their occupation of Indonesia (1942-45), Batik cina continues to be popular today.  

The most important and commonest variety is called the Batik Indonesia. This style which emerged in the 1950s after freedom from Dutch rule, is a symbiosis between various styles of batik.

In India, the roots of Batik can be traced to the 1st century AD. Mural paintings in Ajanta caves indicate presence of Batik art form before the 7th century AD. From such frescos, it is clear that traditional Indian batiks often made use of indigo, brown and white colours as a tribute to the three Hindu Gods – Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva.

Photo Credit: Google

The Khatri community of Gujarat were known to be the original artisans of batik printing. Over time, the technique of batik appears to have spread other regions of India. Cholamandalam near Chennai become a major centre for batik as also other places in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. 

Photo Credit: Google

Rabindranath Tagore visited Indonesia in 1927, he was so fascinated by the Javanese Batik that he took back many samples with the hope of reinvigorating the flagging batik tradition in West Bengal. A two year course on Batik was introduced at the Vishwa Bharati University in Shanti Niketan. This led to a brief resurgence in Indian batik for a few years, but it never went on to achieve the glory heights that the Javanese batik has been able to achieve.

In Indonesia, the prints flourished for many years, particularly in Java, primarily due to the robust trade between Indonesia and other countries like India, China, Middle East and parts of Europe. It was at its peak until the late 1800s, after which it declined following the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Textile producers in Netherlands mechanized the production of batik, but when they confronted resistance in the Indonesian market, their products were diverted to West Africa. Imitation batik flooded the markets of European countries in 20th century. 

Also Read: Indian Temples of Sumatra

The onset of mechanization of batik prompted Indonesian batik artists to innovate and adapt to modern techniques like wooden block printing, but could not arrest its decline in Indonesia. 

But Indonesian batik made a strong comeback after the decision of the United Nations to recognize it as one of the world’s significant cultural traditions and the decision of UNESCO to include it in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009. From a traditional piece of adornment to a fashion statement, it has witnessed a fascinating journey. Due to its simplistic designs and delicate art forms, it is sought after worldwide.

This recognition also had a catalytic effect on its brand image, making Batik a significant export item for Indonesia, especially to the Western countries. Modern batik industry has incorporated many modern techniques such as silk screen printing, spray dyeing, block printing and bleach discharging. Today, it is a huge industry employing millions, not just as a specialized craft but also as a powerful link with the past.

Batik Museum of Indonesia. Photo Credit: Google

October 2 is celebrated as ‘Batik Day’ in Indonesia to mark the UN recognition and since then the Government of Indonesia has encouraged all its employees to wear batik on Fridays. It is also featured in the national airline uniforms of the three countries, represented by batik prints worn by flight attendants of Singapore airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Malaysian airlines. The batik uniform of Garuda Indonesia female flight attendants is a modern interpretation of the Kartini style Kebaya with parang gondosuli motifs. With the recognition and success, it can be said that Indonesia has claimed the bragging rights to Batik as its own textile tradition.

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