When UNESCO recognised Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009, the date of acknowledgement, October 2, was designated National Batik Day, with Indonesians proudly wearing batik on that day – and every Friday since.
There’s good reason for that sentiment. After all, apart from the UNESCO endorsement, Indonesian batik – created using a traditional manual wax-resist fabric-dyeing technique that utilises a pen-like, wax-applying instrument (canting) and copper block stamp (cap) – is renowned worldwide for being highly developed in terms of pattern, technique and finesse.
In Central Java’s two royal cities, Solo – also called Surakarta – and Yogyakarta, batik is intrinsically intertwined with Javanese culture. In fact, the older and under-the-radar Solo is generally looked upon as the cradle of Indonesia’s intangible cultural heritage.
And Solo is well deserving of the title. It lays claim to some of the finest batik workmanship, particularly Batik Keraton (or Royal Batik), which is descended from the royal households Keraton Kasunanan and Pura Mangkunegaran, and bears distinct hues and patterns, with a philosophical or symbolic meaning attached to each motif. In the 1950s, when Indonesian President Sukarno wanted to modernise the nation’s age-old batik industry, he looked to the city’s famous son and batik maestro Go Tik Swan. His resulting catalogue of dozens of new batik patterns, which combined regional motifs and those usually reserved for members of the royal court, reflects Indonesia’s diverse indigenous influences.
Solo also has the distinction of being home to Indonesia’s largest batik collection. Around 10,000 pieces – many antique and highly prized, and sourced over the decades across Indonesia – are stored at Museum Batik Danar Hadi (above), where a thousand pieces are displayed. This exceptional museum was founded by the Danar Hadi family, one of Indonesia’s largest premier-batik makers, to document Indonesia’s treasured living heirloom.
Pride of place
Although batik production has declined on the whole and mass production has crept in, Solo remains Indonesia’s epicentre for batik craftsmanship, and its residents still beam with pride over their batik heritage.
“We’re proud of UNESCO’s recognition, which puts Indonesian batik on the world stage,” says Rey Tanjung, a founding member of Red Batik Solo Community, a community-driven group committed to reviving Solo’s batik legacy among the youth. “For the natives of Solo though, traditional batik is a part of daily life and Central Javanese culture, from a baby’s birth to a person’s death.”
Indeed, batik is visible everywhere in Solo, not just confined to Pasar Klewer, Java’s biggest textile market, dedicated to batik. Some of its surprising appearances: incorporated into a McDonald’s signage and Solo’s Adisumarmo International Airport, in latticework decorating the windows of the terminal.
And once the annual Solo Batik Carnival (above) rolls around every July, the city’s main streets are transformed into a massive catwalk where extravagant, themed costumes incorporating traditional batik are paraded. Hugely important to Solo, the carnival was initiated by municipal organisers a decade ago to boost the city’s batik fashion industry and showcase batik in a fun, modern context.
Even hotels in Solo pay homage to the traditional art form. At the contemporary Ibis Styles Solo, batik stamps are mounted on the walls of all its vibrantly coloured, funky rooms, while the classic Truntum motif, reinterpreted in latticework, decorates its restaurant.
Look beyond the ultra-modern façade of the five-star Alila Solo and you’ll find batik elements, including a 40m-long sculpture (above) featuring hand-painted shadow puppet characters and Solo-style batik patterns suspended from the ceiling of the stylish lobby; an exclusively commissioned batik design for all its rooms; and a signature motif, converted from the Semen Prabu motif (symbolising the Sultan’s eminence), emblazoned on everything, from key cards to the building’s exterior glass walls.
And then there is The Royal Surakarta Heritage Solo – MGallery by Sofitel, where the rooms and public spaces are a stunning batik-fest. Framed bronze-moulded traditional batik motifs feature on corridor walls (above) and restaurant ceilings, and batik prints are on everything, from bed runners to table lamps. The reception desk, too, dazzles with the Truntum motif, while a display of batik masks dominates the mezzanine floor.
Past present perfect
Many of Solo’s batik producers and designers, especially high-end houses, still respect traditions, maintaining a classic Solo style of original motifs and colours, mainly created with traditional techniques or incorporating manual screen printing. Contemporary designs don’t stray too far off the mark: classic motifs are modernised with abstract twists, mixed with modern motifs – such as flowers – and brighter, bolder colours, or rendered in styles inspired by international influences.
In fact, creative designers still use patterns from a dozen or so of Go’s original 1950s designs, but with revised colours and embellishments. Go’s successors, too, continue to produce some of the world’s finest-quality batiks as haute couture designs and collector’s pieces, while Danar Hadi (above) adapts batik for the modern, younger wearer by way of brighter colours and materials such as silk and chiffon. But as Danar Hadi spokesperson Asti Suryo Astuti confirms, “even while following the latest fashion trends, our designers always include classic and original base batik motifs from Solo as well as a mix of other Javanese patterns for a balance of old and new.”
– TEXT BY SAMANTHA COOMBER
PHOTOS: SAMANTHA COOMBER, RED BATIK SOLO COMMUNITY, ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS), BATIK DANAR HADI FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.