Life

Batik days

High fashion: Annisa Pohan models designer batik at “The Allure of Modern Batik”. Since appearing on catwalks and in high fashion spreads, batik, once viewed by some as staid and stuffy, has enjoyed a popular revival. JP/Ricky Yudhistira
High fashion: Annisa Pohan models designer batik at “The Allure of Modern Batik”. Since appearing on catwalks and in high fashion spreads, batik, once viewed by some as staid and stuffy, has enjoyed a popular revival. JP/Ricky Yudhistira

From the cradle to the grave, batik is part of Indonesian life. Today the nation celebrates as batik is officially added to the Unesco list of the world's intangible cultural heritage.

It is something of a human failing - not appreciating what we have until it has almost slipped through our fingers, especially those things that are intangible by nature.

For centuries, Indonesians have been blessed with a rich ethnic diversity and a wealth of cultural heritage, but in the drive for modernization, it has often been overlooked.

Not until this century have real efforts been made to protect and promote aspects of traditional culture.

For all those who dedicate their time and effort to safeguarding intangible cultural heritage - and for all those who take pride, if belatedly, in what is theirs - having something characteristically Indonesian included on the Unesco world list is a major milestone.

Today, Indonesia receives what could be considered a gift to celebrate its 64th anniversary of independence, with batik - a traditional wax-resist dyeing technique used on textiles - being officially added to the Representative List of Unesco's World Intangible Cultural Heritage.

"Our nomination proposal ranked first among some 111 others submitted last year," said Gaura Mancacaritadipura, who helped draft the batik proposal.

The official announcement is part of Unesco's fourth session in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2.

So does this mean that Indonesia is indeed the rightful owner of the textile-making technique that a neighbor has recently laid claim to?

Not necessarily. And perhaps that's not the most important aspect of the ongoing effort to protect and promote batik.

"This is not about a patent war," said Tjetjep Suparman, the Cultural Affairs Ministry's director general for cultural value, art and films.

For the future: The Surakarta administration, in Central Java, is planning to include batik making on school curriculums. JP/Ken Mahesa

For the future: The Surakarta administration, in Central Java, is planning to include batik making on school curriculums. JP/Ken Mahesa

"It [batik] has been in the public domain for so long, but efforts to put it on the Unesco list could have a great impact on its development."

The inclusion of batik on the Unesco heritage list is a baby step in the nation's ongoing task of striving to keep the tradition alive.

Indeed, it is only the latest step in the revival batik has experienced just this century, with many crediting designer Edward "Edo" Hutabarat with popularizing batik. His 2006 collection kicked off the trend of expanding batik into more than just the de rigeur - and often staid - formal wear, making it a must-have fashion item.

As noted by Adiati Arifin Siregar, chairwoman of traditional textile enthusiasts group Himpunan Wastaprema, the addition to the list is an official acknowledgement that hand-drawn batik is integral to Indonesian culture.

Integral it may be, but the art of batik making - by whatever name it is known - does not have its earliest origins here. Yet over time the Indonesian variety has endured, developing its own distinctive features.

"The technique of using the canting [a pen-like device to draw the batik pattern in wax] and malam [beeswax] only exists in Indonesia," Gaura pointed out, adding that the motifs that developed in Java were another strong individual point for Indonesian batik.

The use of the canting evolved from the need for a brush-like device to produce finer lines on the finer cotton fabric brought by the Dutch during the colonial era. Later, in the 19th century, the canting technique developed into a larger printing device made of brass or copper.

Those with only a cursory understanding of the technique might believe it to be mostly about the painting process. Rather, it is a long, detailed process involving soaking and boiling the cotton mori, lightly drawing the pattern, retracing the pattern with melted wax and then dyeing the cloth several times to achieve the desired shades.

All natural: Traditional batik uses natural fabrics, beeswax and natural materials for dyes. JP/Anissa S. Febrina

All natural: Traditional batik uses natural fabrics, beeswax and natural materials for dyes. JP/Anissa S. Febrina

The traditional practice of batik making has long been quite natural as it uses either beeswax or wood sap from certain kinds of plants for the dye-resistant ink and natural materials for dyes such as indigo.

But quite apart from the technical details, batik has been recognized as an aspect of intangible cultural heritage, which is a recognition of the part the textile plays in Indonesian cultural life.

As Adiati notes, batik has long been part of the Indonesian people's life cycle, with motifs, particularly Javanese ones, embracing "deep philosophical meanings of life".

"From before one's birth until death, batik is used in various rituals," she said. "From the seventh-month ritual when the mother-to-be is wrapped in seven layers of different batik cloths, each denoting a particular meaning, during the delivery of a newborn, the tedak siten ceremony when a child touches the earth for the first time, [to] batik at weddings, batik as part of the labuhan ceremony when people throw their problems away at sea, [and finally] to batik as a shroud."

And, she added, although Yogyakarta and Central Java are considered the heartland of the traditional art form, it is characteristic of the entire nation.

"Research has shown that hand-drawn batik is found in 19 provinces [in Indonesia], each with the region's own motifs and meanings," she said.

In Javanese culture, noted Dipo Alam, one of the founders of the Indonesian Batik Foundation, traditional batik "has special meanings rooted in the Javanese conceptualization of the universe".

As he pointed out, no other country had requested anything like batik to be added to the Unesco list.

The importance of batik in people's everyday lives was a significant factor in the proposal for its inclusion on the list.

"One of the requirements to be listed as world heritage is not only support from batik researchers and practitioners, but also from various batik associations and communities around the country," Adiati said.

Most important was the grassroots support, she added, "a strong fundamental source of ordinary people".

And "ordinary people" are among those celebrating the news.

Batik fever has swept many parts of the country this week, particularly Yogyakarta and Central Java. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged Indonesians "wherever they are" to wear batik on Friday, and many started early, with employees at companies across Jakarta - from restaurants to gyms - wearing batik instead of uniforms.

Civil servants of the Yogyakarta Provincial Office are wearing batik for three days, starting Thursday.

"Batik is literally part of our life," said Winarti Agustin, a provincial employee. "From our birth we were carried using batik cloth, and when we die, our body is covered by a piece of batik on top of us."

Technique: Indonesian batik developed its own distinctive features. JP/Anissa S. Febrina

Technique: Indonesian batik developed its own distinctive features. JP/Anissa S. Febrina

The Yogyakarta administration has also called on residents and schoolchildren to wear batik for a whole week starting Friday. Buildings in the city are also being decorated in batik.

Separately East Java Governor Soekarwo is issuing a decree that all provincial employees wear batik on certain days of the week.

"It will create a certain sense of pride to wear something that is internationally recognized," he said as quoted by Antara from Surabaya.

He noted that East Java has its own styles: "Madura, Sidoarjo, Jombang all have unique potential."

In Surakarta, Central Java, the local administration plans to include batik in the school curriculum.

"From elementary school to high school, starting in 2010," said Rakhmat Sutomo, the head of the Surakarta Education, Youth and Sports Office, as quoted by Antara.

At elementary school, children will be taught basic patterns of batik; high school students will learn about the production process.

All this could be what Iman Sucipto Umar from the Kadin Foundation described as "something we do out of pure concern for the preservation of culture."

Working with several batik observers, Iman initiated and helped complete the 18-month-long effort to compile all the necessary information for Unesco.

"It's only a way of making people more concerned," he added. "What's more important is to build a community that will keep on preserving the culture."

Or in the words of designer Edward Hutabarat, as quoted in The Jakarta Post WEEKENDER in January: "Let the batik talk."

"This is its era now. It's our hope," he said. "It's something that can help make Indonesia rise up."

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