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Batik as Uniquely Indonesian

Some of batik motives

Batik is unique
The same artist asked to paint again – it can’t be the same

Intrinsically Indonesian, yet viewed by some as a product of the past, batik is being targeted to capture a new generation.

Batik is deeply entrenched in the Indonesian psyche. Despite production by other countries, Indonesian continues to think of batik as uniquely Indonesian. Many government organizations and some private companies also require employees to wear batik once a week.

Traditionally, batik refers to fabric decorated painstakingly by hand using hot wax and then dyed to create a pattern in reverse. Villages developed patters and colors so distinctive that a connoisseur could tell from sight alone the specific source of certain motifs. Central Java is particularly well known for the quality of its batik. Cities like Pekalongan, Solo (previously Surakarta), Cirebon and Yogyakarta vie for the title Kota Batik or Batik City.

Batik tulis

Malam (wax) and canting

At the high end, crafting quality batik takes many hours. Batik tulis, literally ‘handwritten; batik, involves hundreds of designs drawn painstakingly on the cloth by hand using hot wax applied with a copper stylus called a "canting". The cloth is then dipped in dye to create a reverse pattern and the wax scraped off. Depending on the complexity of design, this may be repeated more than 20 times, with a day between dyeing to dry, It’s like a painting.

Batik cap

A cheaper alternative is batik cap, where designs are stamped on manually. These days, machines print simplified batik motifs directly onto cloth (usually polyester or rayon) for a mass-produced version, referred to as printed batik.

The price range is wide. A cheap print shirt can go for as low as Rp. 20,000 (US $2.18) while its handmade tulis counterpart in silk might retail for a few hundred dollars. There is no shortage of buyers at the high end of the spectrum, a nod to the buying power of Indonesia’s famously moneyed elites. Batik tulis, the haute couture of traditional fabric, occupies a social niche. Exacting Indonesian aesthetics mean that the Javanese version of batik tulis cannot be recreated anywhere else in the world. It can also easily take four months to produce one piece.

Yet it is the history of batik that works against the product when it comes to the younger generation. They view it as being very traditional.

Today’s batik remains a predominantly domestic product. According to the newspaper Media Indonesia, government statistic in 2006 placed batik exports at US$110 million – just 34 per cent of a total production worth approximately US$322 million. In all, the batik industry employs nearly 800,000 people. The domestic market is the dominant one. Today’s batik comes in a mind-boggling variety of shapes, prices, cuts and colors to target the youth market.

Batik can be seen in home décor, ceramic-wear and accessories. Citos, a popular youth mall in Jakarta, offers a glimpse of how the product is moving into popular culture. On a Tuesday night the floor is filled with busy kiosks, one-fifth of them devoted to batik, cut and stitched into garments that mimic the swinging loose tunics and wide hippy skirts sold at trendy stores such as Zara.

No one disputes that innovation is necessary. Yet as batik takes on a modern cast, one hopes the appreciation of the traditional process won’t be lost. Batik is unique.

Finding the best batik
Central Java has traditionally been a prolific producer of batik. Yogyakarta, Solo, Cirebon and Pekalongan are just a handful of cities in which the tradition survives. Much of these producers’ work makes its way to cities around the world, but it’s worth going yourself to pick up unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. Jl Malioboro in Yogyajarta is a good place to go to see the work of these artisans. For printed batik, you can try local malls, markets or even department stores. There are also batik stores at many airports.

Producers profiled (main showrooms):
* Allure: Jl Kemang Raya 27A, Jakarta Selatan.
* Bin House: Jl Teluk Betung 10, Jakarta Pusat.
* Danar Hadi: Jl Melawai Raya 69-70, Jakarta Selatan.
* Iwan Tirta: Jl Wijaya XIII No 11A, Kebayoran baru, Jakarta Selatan.

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