In an archipelago known for its diversity, it is the vibrant array of colours that remains constant. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Indonesia’s small batik factories, where Indonesians turn wax and cloth into magically surreal amalgamations of tradition, creativity and colour. Welcome to the land of batik.
The smoke from the wax burners is thick in a room that is both sweltering and stuffy, but laughter and chatter carry on as it would anywhere else. Holding their canting (small wax reservoirs used for designing) the women look up at me and smile. Unfased by the smoke, and apparently my presence, they just as quickly bow their heads and refocus on the fabric at hand — they’re working, after all. Deep blues, fiery reds and sombre oranges sit idly in large dye vats and wax simmers in iron wajan (wok-like pan used for heating wax), and I find myself hypnotised by the scene in this small Jakarta hideaway. Little old women striping, dotting and decorating pieces of cloth with razor-like precision amidst the heat, aroma of burning wax, and smoke that make it all but impossible for me to manoeuvre comfortably about the small bare-walled building. It’s like walking into some sort of surreal dream. But unlike a dream, this place and these people produce something not only totally tangible, but something that has become a national treasure for Indonesians — Batik fabrics.
“A tweaked-out mélange of colours shaped by the intricate patterns passed down through a history of artisans — a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, as UNESCO proclaims…”
A tweaked-out mélange of colours shaped by the intricate patterns passed down through a history of artisans — a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, as UNESCO proclaims — batik is Indonesia’s wax-centric fabric-making technique, and it is one of the brightest colours in the archipelago’s vibrant tropical spectrum. And while batik-style fabric- making can be dated back centuries to places like Africa and the Middle East, it’s in this string of equatorial islands that it not only rose to prominence and was perfected, but became so ingrained in the local culture that UNESCO chose to protect the Indonesian processes in 2009. Originally an art form reserved for royalty, this tedious process has made its way from keraton (palace) to kampung (village), and can now happily be seen daily when one is out and about on the streets of Indonesia. But for a person who knows little more than how to put on a batik shirt on Fridays — Indonesia’s national batik shirt day — a guide is much needed, and this is where Nasir comes in.
“Batik is a part of us in Indonesia. We’re proud to have it, proud to make it, and proud to show it.” Nasir is 45, and not only is he acting as my guide, he works in a small batik factory in Jakarta, and his knowledge of the process is not only based on experience, but on fondness as well. And for a newcomer like me, he starts from the beginning. A normal day, he says, begins with pattern design. “There are many types of designs,” he explains. “These come from our ancestors and the older generations, and have been passed down over the centuries. Some of these designs can even be seen in the reliefs in the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta.” And so with pencil and cloth (usually silk or cotton) in hand, the workers get underway scratching and scrawling sweeping lines, small dots and intricate Indonesian designs. After the designs — usually either geometric motifs from earlier generations or free-form designs that have become more popular in contemporary society — are finished, and a general pattern has been established, the melted wax (usually beeswax or pine resin) is then applied by hand via the canting. Acting as a stencil of sorts, wax is laid over pencilled designs so as to leave the design dye-free as the cloth is subsequently dunked into vats of variously coloured dyes. Over a series of waxing and dying sessions — and a number of hours, weeks, and even months for larger pieces — a design will come out coloured, dried, wax-free, and as visually appealing as one could imagine. Usually finished as a basic strip of batik fabric, this kaleidoscope of colour and design can then be made into anything from shirts (long sleeve for formal events, short sleeve for more casual wear), to pants, to hanging pieces of artwork.
And as the ladies behind the smoke continue their chatter and wax-laying, I notice that the pace of their decidedly harsh Javanese accent picks up after I ask Nasir about batik across the archipelago, but more specifically, about its presence in Bali. Have I offended these matrons of creation? “Not really,” Nasir tells me, “but the process in Bali is relatively new, and so sometimes people here are unsure of batik in Bali, they don’t know enough about it. But to be frank, even though it’s new, the quality is quite superb.” The main difference, he tells me, lies in many of the motifs and designs used. Influenced by the island’s make-up, designs in Bali typically stray away from many of the historically-used geometric designs prominent in Java and revolve more around the caches of hibiscus flowers, the colourful birds, and the variety of fish that call the island home. “Like a Hawaiian shirt?” I ask. He laughs, “Kind of, but obviously a lot more goes into it, and personally, I think the Indonesian version look better.” I can’t say I disagree. But just because the Balinese style is the go-to in Bali, it’s not to say that the traditional work hasn’t surfaced. Check out Batik Popiler in Denpasar, not far from Legian and Seminyak, or Ikatbatik in Ubud for two spots that do well in showcasing not just Balinese styles, but Javanese and even other Indonesian styles as well, along with many of the processes involved.
“Originally an art form reserved for royalty, this tedious process has made its way from keraton (palace) to kampung (village), and can now happily be seen daily when one is out and about on the streets of Indonesia.”
By this time my eyes are drying, and the ladies in the smoke are still chatting and laughing away as they continue on with their wax-laying — a long process indeed — and I ask Nasir if it’s ok if we step outside. He leads me out and we say our goodbyes, but not before I have a chance to take a look at some of the artwork hanging around the small shop that sits adjacent to the workplace. Now I know why those ladies love to laugh — they get to look at stuff like this all day.
(Featured image: Be it contemporary or traditional designs, Indonesian batik – while varied in its colour, material and production methods – are a vibrant depiction of the archipelago’s cultural identity. Presented here, from left to right: Jakarta’s machine-printed batik, stamp- and hand-printed batik from Pekalongan, stamp-printed batik from Bali depicting frangipanis, a brightly coloured stamp-print from Garut in West Java, and a modern stamp-printed batik piece from Belitung island.)