The Splendors of Batik-Tulis

Ms. Neneng Iskandar and batik. [Image: Farid Solana]

Batik-tulis has been widely recognized as Indonesian cultural heritage. The unique cum exotic motifs lures art lovers, either Indonesians or foreigners. As one of the products of civilization, it is imperative to fully understand what it is and or how it is made in order to be able to give proper attitude upon batik-tulis.

As a cultural heritage, batik-tulis began to develop in Java in about XVI century, precisely during the era of Kingdom of Mataram. It was casual craft at first, in the sense that there was no centralized coordination in the making. The population of Java Island, which the majority were farmers, did batik during their spare time, especially after farming in the morning. That’s why, it is not a surprising if we encounter agrarian touches in batik.

If we observe carefully, Javanese batik-tulis in general has agriculture-based motifs. The name of the motifs feels so familiar, such as semen (the pronunciation is similar to cement, the meaning is blooming plants) or gabah sinawur (the rice seed scattered on an area of land in order to grow crops). On the other hand, there are so many messages and mysteries hidden in batik-tulis that sometimes a particular motif is used to depict an historic event.

Batik in Java has many shades. Each region has a unique characteristic, either in terms of the style, the fabric or the manufacturing process. Those from coastal areas of Java such as Cirebon or Indramayu, for example possess a much more vibrant colors and patterns that make them look more cheerful and lively compared to those from central regions like Solo or Yogyakarta. Those from Indramayu, let’s say, are characterized by bulges on the cloth because it involves piercing in the making.

Thus, the differences lie not only on the motifs and colors, but also on the creation and preparation techniques. Batik Pekalongan, for example, has a specific form of bright colors. Meanwhile those of Cirebon have been arranged in padasan (rocks) pattern or the color is not as bright as Pekalongan’s. This is supported by the facts that Cirebon region is dominated by rocks. Batik Lasem is also known for its distinctive red color. This is caused by its soil water conditions that could bring the batik with very distinctive red color; which certainly could not be found in any other area of batik-tulis producers.

Coastal batik. [Image: Farid Solana]

The difference between coastal-batik and central-region-batik of Java is quite significant. However, the contrast doesn’t wipe out the similarity between the two. The first resemblance is in terms of motifs. All batik motifs certainly has the certain meaning or decent philosophy and always contains agricultural tone. The semen motif, for example, has the meaning of the blooming plants. Semen rama motif, for instance, is not only found in Yogyakarta or Solo, but also in Cirebon.

Kawung motif. A King is surrounded by his ministers. [Image: Farid Solana]

Parang and Kawung motif. Look at the white dots! Beautiful, aren’t they? A collection of Paku Buwono XII, one of Javanese Kings. [Image: Farid Solana]

Another look. [Image: Farid Solana]

Parang and Kawung motif. A collection of Paku Buwono XII, one of Javanese Kings. [Image: Farid Solana]

In addition to the beauty of artistic works, those motifs can also be used in caste grouping. There are certain motifs that should only be wore by the King or the member of royal family such as parang (machete) or kawung motif. What makes these two motifs are ‘forbidden’ to be wore by common people is the message contained in the motif itself. Parang, as the original word in Indonesia, is a weapon, a tool used to protect from danger. Well, King is the patron of community, and therefore it is King that deserves to wear batik-tulis embellished by parang motif. The same rule applies to kawung motif. The motif itself implies a King who is surrounded by his ministers. Again, this pattern is also feasible only wore by the King.

Parang motif. A collection of Soekarno, former President of Indonesia. [Image: Farid Solana]

Parang motif. Another Soekarno’s collection. [Image: Farid Solana]

Another look of parang motif. [Image: Farid Solana]

However, the cultural change has allowed ordinary people to wear both motifs. You may wear them elsewhere, but just don’t put them on in an event organized by Javanese royal family if you happen to be common people. Otherwise you will be judged as a person who doesn’t know manners.

The second similarity lies upon the technique, which is always run through the malam (a substance derived from oil) process. It can be said that all batik processing is conducted through malam process, in which the motifs created covered by wax. There may be differences, but those lie only in the treatment of the cloth. In Madura, for example, we may find batik gentongan. This is partly because the making involves special treatment where the ready-made batik fabrics, covered in malam and submerged in a earthenware barrel contains nyamplong oil then put in the ground for certain period of time. The result is a batik with very distinct color, smell and cloth when wore.

Compared to other clothing materials, the making of batik requires quite a long time; complicated and may need 8 months to finish. Moreover, if King is the user, then the manufacturer will certainly perform meditation in advance.

Garuda motif. [Image: Farid Solana]

For common use, the making of batik is started by washing the cloth then put kanji (a powder made in starchy plants) so that malam sticks on the fabric. Kanji is also useful in removing fibers in the fabric. The cloth is then experience kemplong (being hit repeatedly in order to make the cloth more compact). The kemplong process is responsible in making the batik fabric more comfortable to wear, much cooler. Then the cloth is decorated which the pattern is covered by malam afterward. The fabric is then washed, and ready to be dressed in.

The making of batik. [Image: Farid Solana]

The making of batik. [Image: Farid Solana]

It is impossible to imitate due to the hassle of the making and the meaning lies upon its motifs. However, the complexity also contributes in making batik as one of the less-attractive professions among Indonesian young generation. [FS]