Batik is a centuries-old technique of making intricate and meaningful patterns on fabrics using wax and dyes. This form of textile is found in many places around the globe, but it is a symbol of national and cultural identity in Indonesia, specifically on the island of Java.
Batik is a part of daily life in Indonesia and it holds deep philosophical meanings and messages in its traditional designs, making it a commodity of high cultural value. Today, Batik has become synonymous with the country. Especially after UNESCO designated the Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
In today’s post, we trace the origins of Batik art, learn the general process of making batik and, about the tools required to make the textile. Then, we analyze some of the traditional batik motifs and finally, see the role that batik plays in everyday life in Indonesia.
The Origins of Batik Art
The term batik is a combination of two Javanese words. It comes from the words, mba meaning throwing and titik meaning dots. Together, it refers to drawing with little dots.
There is a lot of debate among scholars as to determining the origins of this art form. This is because the method of resist-dyeing on fabric dates back to 1500 years ago, which was familiar to civilizations in Turkey, West Africa, India, Japan and Egypt.
Now, some believe that this dyeing method was introduced to Indonesia from India, while others believe that the locals developed the art form on their own.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that in the present day, Javanese batik art is the most developed form of resist dyeing technique in the world.
Though the patterns used for batik date back to between the 9th and 12th centuries, there isn’t enough evidence to prove that batik art existed in Indonesia at that time. However, some research suggests that the technique of using wax to resist dye was formulated in the Medang Kingdom (8th– 11th century). From there, it was seemingly developed during the Majapahit Empire (13th – 16th century), which further advanced in the Yogyakarta Sultanate (18th – 20th century). Sufficient evidence of batik is available from the 17th century.
Batik was initially used as clothing for the royals and nobles because the art seems to have developed in the royal palaces of Java. Javanese royalty was known to encourage art and culture and supported artisans by providing tools and the space required for their development. Many of the traditional designs were developed by the royals themselves as they’d supervise their court artisans. These designs were solely reserved for royalty and the upper class.
Over time, the fabric and the technique captivated the commoners and the art of making batik became a favourite pass-time, especially among the local women. They would engage in making batik to entertain themselves as they waited for their crops to grow and for the harvest season to arrive. With time, change of interests, lifestyle and trends, the way of producing batik and the designs on them also developed, reaching its peak between the 18th and 20th centuries. Becoming a valuable commodity for trade.
The Process of Making Batik
The concept of batik involves using molten wax on fabric to make designs and then dyeing the cloth as many times as required. The parts covered in wax produce beautiful patterns in the original colour of the fabric.
Now that we know what exactly wax resist-dyeing means, let’s look at the process of making batik, in detail.
Preparing the Cloth
First of all, the fabric is prepared. Traditionally, materials such as cotton or silk are used because they absorb wax better into the cloth. The cloth must be densely woven, to maintain the integrity of the detailed patterns. The cloth is boiled, washed numerous times and beaten to remove any impurities.
While this is being done, the desired pattern is sketched on paper. Once the fabric is prepared, the patterns are traced onto the fabric using charcoal or graphite. These designs tend to be traditional and have been passed down over generations. Keep reading to discover some of the typical batik patterns and their cultural significance.
After the patterns have been transferred onto the cloth, it is ready for the wax.
Tools and Methods Used to Design with Wax
Molten wax is used to cover the motifs before the dyeing process. There are two main ways to cover the motifs with molten wax.
The most traditional and oldest batik method is called batik tulis. This method requires hand tracing the sketched designs with the molten wax using a pen-like instrument called canting. The canting is a simple tool that was invented on the island of Java. It consists of a small copper container with a spout to hold the wax and easily pour it onto the cloth. The container is attached to a small handle made of either bamboo or wood. There are different sizes of spouts to produce different designs. The small size of this tool allows the artist to make precise designs, giving them sufficient control and ease of movement.
To make the design, the artist, who is traditionally a woman, sits on a short tool or on a mat, places her non-dominant hand behind the cloth, and carefully works with the canting with her dominant hand. She hovers the canting over the graphite marks and carefully pours the molten wax on the lines, without making any mistake. Once done, she hangs the cloth over a bamboo frame to cool and harden.
In this method, both sides of the cloth must contain the same motifs, so the process is repeated twice. That way, the cloth can be used on both sides. This is the most time-consuming way of producing batik. It takes months to complete one piece of cloth. But, it is surely worth the effort as it is the most guaranteed way to produce smooth and high-quality batik. Hence, it is also the priciest form of batik.
The second method of designing with wax was developed in the middle of the 19th century, just after the industrial revolution. This method would help meet the high demand for batik in less time and provide a more affordable option for the masses. This is the batik cap (pronounced chop) method.
This method uses stamps to print the designs in wax. For this process, there are no sketches made on the fabric, the stamps are dipped in molten wax and directly but precisely printed on the cloth by expert artists. The stamps are pieces of bent copper shaped into a design. The top of the stamp has a handle to apply the correct amount of pressure. These stamps come in various shapes and sizes and many of them together can form really intricate patterns. This is a much faster way of producing batik.
Some batik factories like to use a combination of these two methods to produce their desired designs.
The way that the wax is prepared is very secretive. There is a different wax recipe for different designs and purposes so, naturally, there are different qualities and types of wax. For example, cheaper quality wax is used to cover the larger areas whereas supreme quality wax is reserved to make complex motifs.
Traditionally, a blend of beeswax and paraffin wax is used to bring out each of their best characteristics, making it ideal for designing. The best waxes are supposedly sourced from the islands of Timor, Sumatra and Sumbawa.
Working with the wax is no easy task. If the correct consistency isn’t achieved, it won’t produce the desired results. This is mainly done by maintaining the temperature of the wax. For instance, if the wax is too cold, the wax will harden too quickly around the spout of the canting. If the wax is too hot, it will flow too quickly and won’t maintain the shape of the design.
Once the wax cools and hardens, the cloth is dipped in dye several times to get the right shade and the desired number of colours on the fabric.
The dyes used for this process come from locally available natural ingredients. Therefore, colours like beige, blue, brown, dark red and black were most common.
The most traditional colour for batik was blue, which was extracted from the leaves of the indigo plant. Shades of brown or yellow, known as soga, came from the bark of the yellow flame or soga tree. While dark red was extracted from the bark of the noni tree. Other colours were made by mixing these ‘primary’ colours.
The time that the cloth is soaked and how often it is dyed would ultimately determine the colour of the final product.
To complete the process, the dyed cloth is immersed in boiling water to melt the wax off the cloth. This reveals the designs previously covered in wax, showing the undyed parts forming a beautiful contrast to the rest of the fabric. Once the cloth dries, it is ready for use.
The entire process of producing batik, at least in the traditional way, is compared to the process of life, right from birth to death. It is also because batik is part of every Indonesian’s life, right from birth to their final hours.
Traditional Motifs and their Meanings
The motifs found on batik have developed in different regions of Indonesia over the decades. Motifs are inspired by nature, folklore, mythology and religion, among other things. As every community has their own distinct motif and meaning behind it, traditionally, patterns on the fabrics are carefully chosen as the choice of patterns cannot be random. We’ll look at some of the regional batik styles, motifs and analyze what they represent.
Javanese Kraton Batik
Also known as Javanese court batik, is the earliest form of batik on the island of Java. The fabric is traditionally dyed black or hues of brown. In this style of batik, there are some restrictions on the use of certain motifs. For instance, larger patterns were mainly reserved for royalty.
An example of a Javanese court batik motif would be parang. These motifs feature parallel diagonal lines, with the shapes of a parang, an S-shaped Indonesian knife. There are many meanings to this motif. The parallel nature of the lines symbolizes continuity, while the diagonal line represents a steep slope that acts as a symbol of the challenges faced in life.
The parang, on the other hand, is a symbol of power, strength and duty of protection. That explains why it is a common pattern worn by men as Javanese society regards men, particularly, fathers and husbands, to be the protectors of their community and family.
Batik Belanda from the Northern Coast of Java
This style of batik was developed by European women, the majority of whom were the wives and family members of Dutch officials working for the Dutch East India Company. Women could only travel to the Dutch East Indies from Europe around the 19th century. When they arrived, their lives were quite dull, making them feel anxious and isolated since their interactions outside their community were limited. To find a way to entertain themselves, they picked up on the local art of batik. From there emerged Batik Belanda. This style uses softer colours, floral designs and even symbols from European folktales.
Buketan motifs are used for batik Belanda. The buketan is derived from the French word bouquet, so evidently, it heavily features a bunch of neatly arranged flowers. Originally, flowers like tulips, roses and lilies, that weren’t native to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were used for the designs. Additionally, the motif features flowers, birds and butterflies. It is a representation of a medley of cultures.
Lasem, located in central Java, produces batik that is dyed in a bright red colour. Chinese influences are visible in this style of Batik. For example, the motif of the Hong bird is a distinct design from Lasem. The Hong bird is commonly known as the phoenix. The bird in the fabrics is designed almost like a peacock, with long, lean and flared wings. It is a symbol of honesty, justice, loyalty, politeness and generosity.
Balinese batik is inspired by Hindu culture due to the prominence of Hinduism on the island. It uses bright colours for its motifs. A popular motif from the island of Bali is the Singa Barong. It is a mythical creature that is a mix of a lion, garuda, tiger and dragon. This creature is a symbol of power, courage and strength.
Cultural Significance of Batik in Indonesia
The use of batik is prominent not only on the island of Java but all over Indonesia. Its uses aren’t limited to clothing. The textiles are also used for decoration, home accessories, furnishing and are even a part of rituals and ceremonies. For example, in Javanese culture, a first-time mother, in the seventh month of her pregnancy goes through a ritual where she is given seven kebayas and wrapped in seven layers of batik. Each layer of batik has different motifs that represent the seven characteristics and qualities that the mother and her family wishes her child to have, from God.
Batik is also a form of visual communication which is used to transfer traditional knowledge from one generation to the other. As the knowledge of batik art is traditionally held by women, when the skill is passed down and a girl is able to design batik with a canting by herself, it is regarded as a big achievement.
The art of batik also holds economic importance as it is a source of livelihood for millions in Indonesia. Though the best batik can be found in Java, the industry isn’t limited to that island. It even exists in Madura, Padang, Papua, Bali and Toraja-Sulawesi, among other places.
Lastly, batik is also of high national importance. It has become a symbol of Indonesia and, as a result, it is even the uniform of flight staff in Garuda Indonesia, the flagship airline of Indonesia. Moreover, batik is worn every day at schools, gatherings, at home and even places of worship. In many government and even private offices, it is mandatory to wear batik at least once a week.
Batik is an expression of Indonesian culture that holds such deep significance to the communities that it developed in and to the nation as a whole. It is truly a symbol of pride for Indonesia.
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Hasibuan, D. & Latifa, I., 2016. THE SOCIO-CULTURAL LIFE OF BATIK IN INDONESIA AND THE LIMIT OF CULTURAL HERITAGE. International Review of Humanities Studies, 1(2), pp. 57-70.
Lokaprasidha, P., 2017. The History of Batik and The Development of Kampung Batik Kauman as a Local to International Tourism Destination. Journal of Tourism and Creativity, 1(1), pp. 39-48.
Steelyana, E., 2012. “BATIK, A BEAUTIFUL CULTURAL HERITAGE THAT PRESERVE CULTURE AND SUPPORT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN INDONESIA”. Binus Business Review, 3(1), pp. 116-131.
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