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The Jakarta Post
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DKI Jakarta, Indonesia
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Iwan Tirta, a man of many talents

  • Bruce Emond


JAKARTA | Sun, August 1 2010 | 03:39 pm

Batik designer Iwan Tirta, who died Saturday at the age of 75, believed strongly in the need to reinvent oneself. He kept true to his word during an eventful life, moving from a law background to become the nation's foremost batik authority and designer, and later a food consultant and cultural advocate.

He died at 8:35 a.m. at Abdi Waluyo Hospital in Menteng, Central Jakarta, not far from his longtime home at Jl. Panarukan 25. He had been hospitalized for 10 days due to complications affecting his major organs, his assistant, Tisna, said. He was buried at Karet Bivak Cemetery.

His death was greeted with messages celebrating his leading role in batik design in the 1970s and 1980s, long before the resurgence of interest in the art in the past four years. One tweet called for the wearing of batik for a week in Iwan's honor.

Born Nusjirwan Tirtaamidjaja in Blora, Central Java, on April 18, 1935, he was the youngest son of a well-to-do Javanese judge and a West Sumatran mother (he had three older sisters). He developed a love of reading and a lifelong hunger for knowledge.

"I learned to read by the age of four," he told The Jakarta Post WEEKENDER in 2008. "I was always kind of a loner . *reading* was my window onto the world. People are always amazed at what I know about the world."

He seemed destined for a career in law after studying at the University of Indonesia, and then on an Adlai Stevenson Fellowship at Yale University in the mid-1960s. He also spent several years working at the UN in New York City.

But Iwan returned home to embark on his first reinvention as a batik designer. He immersed himself in the subject, studying up on the different and distinct motifs of the Javanese fabric. He wrote several critically well-received books on batik.

There was worldwide recognition of his talent and knowledge. Apart from his reputation at home, Iwan also dressed visiting dignitaries, including US president Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy in the mid-1980s, and world leaders during the 1994 APEC conference.

But he did not fit the rigid image of the elder statesman of a traditional art. He was given to speaking his mind and, in more intimate settings, wickedly cutting down to size some of the country's leading figures. He also was a confirmed foodie, remembering fondly his childhood where both Dutch and Indonesian food was served.

"My parents trained their children to analyze dishes," he told the Post. "You put a dish in front of me, and I can analyze the spices in it, so I can reproduce it exactly. When you cook, you have to concentrate on what you are doing and empty your thoughts; you cannot gossip or think evil thoughts if you want it to turn out right."

In later years there were difficult times as well - financial wrangles and illness, including several strokes - but he always soldiered on. He branched out to put batik motifs on ceramics and silverware, and still got around with his cane. He traveled, including a trip to India, a place he was fascinated by.

At home, Iwan was surrounded by his books, his loyal assistants who were with him most of his career and his yapping pugs that remained his companions in his old age.

Even when he was ailing, his mind remained alert, and he could comment on diverse subjects, from Rafael Nadal's shorts-tugging habit to the rise of fundamentalism. "It doesn't matter what you read, just read," he said. "It will give you a vision."

He was not impressed by the recent embracing of batik, saying more needed to be done.

"The problem is that the establishment still doesn't know the difference between printed batik and the handmade one. It's our own mistake. They say *creative economy', and that's a contradiction. When the word economy comes into it ... you reduce everything to money. What we need now are good and knowledgeable patrons."

Perhaps his lasting message to his compatriots is to appreciate their culture before it is lost.

"I sound like a needle stuck in the groove of a record, but it's so important to do this. People won't realize until it's too late, when they ask, *Oh did we have those things?' We cannot move forward without preserving our past."


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