October 2 is National Batik Day (Hari Batik Nasional) in Indonesia. Jarrah Sastrawan is a Balinese-Australian who attended primary school in Bali and has lived in Sydney since. His research interests include the traditional historiography of Southeast Asia, as well as the 20th century history, modern literature and regional popular music of Indonesia. This article is Jarrah’s ‘ode’ to National Batik Day.
If I were an Indonesian public servant, the hardest part for me would not be juggling political interests, climbing the patrimonial hierarchies, or running departments on a shoestring. It would be deciding which of my dozens of batik shirts to wear every Friday, when bureaucrats are obliged to wear batik to work. While most visitors to Bali bring home suntans, paintings or handsome waiters, I bring suitcases of batik shirts, sarongs and scarves. From the subdued colours and stylised imagery of central Java, the brightly-coloured naturalistic figures of the Javanese and Sumatran coasts, to the innovative southern Sulawesi designs modelled on the region’s traditional alphabet, I’ve got to collect them all.
Batik is the technique of tracing or stamping patterns of wax onto cloth and dyeing it so that the patterns appear in the negative. This process can be repeated to produce complex designs of overlapping colours. The term also refers to the motifs associated with this traditional technique, even if the dyeing itself is done using modern screen-printing methods. It’s unclear whether batik was an import from India or whether it emerged in Indonesia independently. Java appears to have the longest tradition of producing batik cloths in the region, as archaeologists have found 13th century Javanese statues wearing cloth patterns similar to what we see today.
Batik shows enormous regional variety. What many people picture when they think of batik are the styles of Yogyakarta and Solo. These central Javanese traditions tend to use a limited palatte of three colours (white/cream, indigo and brown), repetitive patterns with strong diagonal lines, and deep symbolic significance attached to many of the conventional motifs. The north coast of Java was an extremely productive area, with the trading cities of Pekalongan, Cirebon, Lasem, Tuban and Gresik all inventing their own distinctive styles. The coastal patterns make use of strong shades of red, and contain more diverse and more realistic representations of flora and fauna than those of central Java. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Chinese-Indonesian and Dutch entrepreneurs played a central role in developing and marketing batik to an eager Indonesian and international market. In the early decades of Indonesian independence, successive governments built on this market to promote batik as a national dress that was the cultural heritage of all Indonesians, including people such as the Balinese who had never really made it before.
Batik continues to thrive by adapting to contemporary interests: today you can buy shirts that combine your favourite Yogyakarta motifs with the emblem of whatever European football team you barrack for. Some pieces of batik are stunning handmade works of art costing thousands of dollars, while others are basement-bin items so lurid that they put the loudest Hawaiian shirts to shame. Politicians often stress that young people need to wear batik in order preserve traditional culture, but that seems needlessly defensive to me. I may not be an Indonesian public servant, but I do have fifty-two Friday batik shirts to get me all the way to next year’s National Batik Day.