Tanjung Bumi, a coastal village some 40 kilometers north of Bangkalan on Madura Island in East Java, has long been known as a center for traditional handmade batik.
Early every morning, women whose homes are just behind the local market, can be seen busily hanging batik fabric, fresh from the dye tub, placing them on clotheslines to dry.
'I have been making batik for the last 20 years. The most common motifs used by batikers here feature patterns of fish, scallops, shrimps, boats, seaweed and the pattern of sea waves,' Ami, a batik maker, said with her hands dripping water with a reddish hue.
Ami said that batik featuring flowers and animals such as ayam bekisar, or the wild Madura cock, were also very common. For decades, the art of drawing motifs on white cotton cloth has been handed down from mother to daughter.
Madura, east of Surabaya, the capital city of East Java, has a harsh, dry climate that discourages farming.
It is not surprising that the island's geographic location and climate have led its men to the sea as fishermen or merchants, while its women have learned from their mothers to draw everything they see, be it birds or butterflies, in simple and natural ways and always with bold and expressive outlines.
This naturalistic and expressive drawing style has led the women away from templates or fixed patterns. Their technique clearly deviates from that of batik makers on Java Island, such as those in Pekalongan, Lasem or Kudus, who favor templates or molds to produce exact replicas for repeated drawings.
Batik makers from Madura, on the other hand, prefer to be guided by their own creativity instead of fixed patterns. As a consequence their patterns always show irregularities or slight deviations. Refusing to commit to fixed pattern also results in a tendency to simplify some motifs and to occasionally enlarge others. This tendency toward self-styled drawings may give the impression that the batik products from Madura reflect the harsh climate on the island.
However, those who call it batik kasar ( coarse batik ) do the hard working and creative women of Madura a great injustice. The final product shows detailed and refined touches that make Madura batik a true piece of art. It is not only valued for its expressive motifs and bold use of reds, blacks, blues and greens, but also for its intricate patterns, called isen-isen, featuring dots, fine lines, curves, fish scales that are added to the patterns of leaves or birds. The blank spaces between the motifs are also filled with drawings of vines or plants, all arranged in a particular pattern. Making these refined and complex images is arduous and time consuming work.
While waiting for their husbands and fathers to return from trips to sea that can last for months, the women occupy themselves by making batik for wedding days. To have an heirloom batik, intended only to be worn on special occasions, is a point of pride for a family. Meanwhile, young mothers dream of carrying their babies in a gindungan, or baby sling, adorned with beautiful batik motifs.
'I usually can finish a gindungan in one week's time. This sulur motif, a plant motif with flowing lines is very popular here,' Rochma, a young batik maker, said while working on a gindungan in a hamlet in Tanjung Bumi.
However, as local incomes decline along with dwindling catches of fish, the woman of Tanjung Bumi have looked to sell their batik to supplement meager household budgets. This has given rise to cooperatives that allow the women to pool their finished batik for sale in bigger towns such as Surabaya, Malang, Denpasar, Semarang, Bandung ' or at the local market in Bangkalan.
'Batikers who join a cooperative can work from home. Only the dyeing process is done collectively on an agreed date. Some of them opt to work for a daily wage,' Sholeh, who manages one such a cooperative, said.
Semi-industrial batik making no longer relies on natural dyes, but uses synthetic dyes that are brought from Surabaya or Sidoarjo to speed the process.
Rochma, who works in a shed with three other batik makers, said that it usually takes one month to finish a long cloth, about four square meters, for which she receives Rp 140,000 ( US$14.42 ). At the nearest local market, such a piece can sell for Rp 220,000 to Rp 250,000.
Though batik is available for purchase, people in Madura still prefer to make their own batik for daily wear. For this purpose they use a traditional canting batik tool with a bigger spout to yield a coarser drawing. Some of the Madurese women, hard working and practical minded, may find it superfluous to spend too much time making
intricate isen-isen, leaving the spaces between the motifs blank or uncolored.
Through the decades, batik has been widely used in Madura. Women pair the long cloth with a blouse, while the men wear batik shirts. Batik makers from Madura, as well as those from other regions, have made their contributions to preserve an old art that reflect its people's ingenuity in creating artistic and beautiful design on fabric.
' Photos by JP/Retno K. Djojo