There was an outpouring of national pride when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Indonesian batik as intangible cultural heritage in 2009. The renewed interest in batik inspired countless fashion designers to experiment with vibrant and modern interpretations of the traditional cloth
While it has certainly been exciting to see younger generations embracing the traditional cloth and incorporating it into a modern lifestyle, some scholars are concerned that the traditional meanings behind the fabric’s motifs have been lost.
To counter this trend, Sri Soedewi Samsi, former chairwoman of the research and development division of the Batik and Handicrafts Association, last month launched a coffee-table book titled “Teknik dan Ragam Hias Batik Yogya & Solo” (“Techniques and Ornamentation of Yogya & Solo Batik”).
“I hope that the book will help people learn about and appreciate batik more,” she said. “Batik should be seen not only as a fashionable product, but also valued for its cultural roots.”
Yogyakarta and Solo have traditionally been considered the main centers of batik-making. Most batik production techniques, color palates and motifs were developed in the royal courts of Yogyakarta and the palaces of Solo.
The 600-page book introduces the history of the wax-resistant dyeing technique used on the fabric and how batik motifs have evolved over the years in the two cities. Yogyakarta batik usually employs larger motifs and more vibrant colors. Solo batik, on the other hand, is characterized by softer colors and more intricate motifs.
The word batik is derived from the Javanese words amba , meaning to write, and titik , meaning dot. Batik motifs are created by drawing lines and patterns between dots on a piece of cloth using a canting, a pen containing hot liquefied wax. After the design is completed, the cloth is dyed in tubs of coloring agents. The wax on the cloth prevents the dye from seeping into certain ares of the textile, creating the detailed patterns typical of the art form.
In her book, Sri explains that in Yogyakarta and Solo, batik was initially used to mark the important occasions in a person’s life. There were specific batik motifs for swathing a newborn, protecting pregnant women against unseen evil forces and shrouding a corpse.
The book features illustrations of 370 traditional batik motifs from the two cities, some of which come from the 81-year-old author’s private collection.
“An old woman, a batik artisan, came to my house one day in 1970,” Sri said. “She said she really needed money to take her sick daughter to the doctor. She didn’t have anything but hand-drawn patterns of batik motifs.”
Touched by the artisan’s plight, Sri bought the book of designs.
“There were hundreds of them,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to write a book on batik. I thought the drawings would be very useful for my book. I just never got around to doing it until now.”
Sri forgot about the drawings until 2008, when a friend discovered the folder among Sri’s old books. “My friend encouraged me to write a book on batik and use the old drawings,” Sri said. “She said I should spread this valuable knowledge to as many people as possible.”
Following her friend’s advice, Sri poured her expertise into the book, enhancing it with the motifs she stumbled across nearly 40 years before.
“Most of us are familiar with the common batik motifs of parang [knives], kawung [geometrical shapes] and lereng [slopes],’’ she said. ‘’Yet, few of us know the philosophical meaning behind each motif and its derivatives.’’
The parang motif, Sri explains in the book, used to be a status symbol for kings and noblemen.
“It’s also one of the oldest motifs,” she said. “I’ve seen a relief in a temple in East Java in which Raden Wijaya [the first king of the Majapahit empire] wore a batik shawl with a parang motif.”
Today, the parang motif is usually used for clothes worn by pregnant women because it is believed to guard the unborn baby and its mother against evil forces.
The coffee-table book retails for Rp 490,000 ($55) and for every book purchased, Sri will donate another to a school, museum or fashion institution. So far, she said, Sri has donated 600 books.
The English version of the book will be available next month, at the same price.
Written by Sylviana Hamdani