Little dots make history

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Handcrafted fabrics and designs often have many stories to tell. Here are a few tales of batik design which is said to have travelled from India to Indonesia

Once upon a time (maybe a few thousand years ago), some members of Gujarat’s trading community, sailed to the islands of Indonesia. They were carrying patola fabric as gifts for the Sultan. Interestingly, the design continues to thrive in the archipelago, locally called as Nitik. The designs are still worn by the royalty!

Taking cue from patola, the local artisans came up with more designs; each island has some unique designs and motifs. Collectively, it’s called batik. The literal meaning of batik is ‘making dots on a cloth’.

Batik flourishes in Gujarat, some parts of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. However, Indonesia has made the art form its own and there are many workshops and stores in the cities of Yogyakarta and Solo that produce the designs the traditional way, using hot wax and canting or tjanting needles (something similar to Kalamkari art). 

During our visit to Indonesia, we visited Batik Winotosastro, a home industry, which is owned by Hani Winotosastro. Taking us around the unit, Hani said, “At Winotosastro, we make batik fabric using hot wax and dyeing process. First, we draw the motifs with a pencil. Then, we apply wax on the design with canting needles. The third step is filling motifs and waxing those parts of the design which have to stay white. Next is colouring the fabric, followed by dipping the cloth in boiling water to remove the hot wax. Later those parts which have to stay coloured (dark blue) are rewaxed. The design which has to stay white is covered up. And, then the cloth is dipped again in dye to be coloured for the second time. The last step involves removing all the hot wax.” 

Quite a long and painstaking process! Hence Hani dismisses the fabric not made with hot wax as: “That’s not batik but textile. It’s made with screen print.”

Batik design is made on cotton, silk, rayon, linen and drill, and it has specific colours, depending on the region it’s being manufactured. “In Yogyakarta (or Jogjakarta) the colour of batik used is dark blue-black, brown and white. In Solo the colours are black-brown, yellow-brown, whereas people in Pekalongan wear colourful designs,” Hani adds. 

“Each Indonesian tribe has their own batik motif,” explains Alpha Priyatmono of Batik Mahkota Laweyan. He goes on to add, “A few years ago, Papua New Guinea residents came to our workshop in Solo to study batik. We encouraged them to make their own batik motif with something that describes Papua, and they chose Cendrawasih bird. In Cirebon (West Java), people are known for their Mega Mendung motif. Solo and Yogyakarta also have their characteristic batik designs. They share same motifs but the batik result between these cities is different. Solo is popular for their golden-brown coloured finish (Sogan) apparel, and Yogyakarta is popular for their white and black-dark brown coloured finish.”

Besides these, some designs are meant for the royalty. “The pattern Parang Barong can be only worn by the Sultan. Then we have special wedding motifs too. The Semen Sido Mukti pattern is for the couple and for the parents the motif is Truntum,” informs Hani. 

Considering that batik is their national attire, Indonesians wear it the traditional way. And, then there are those who like to wear their batik in modern prints. “The classic motifs are Parang, Semen, Ceplok and Nitik. Each one has a rich history and philosophy,” pointed out Hani.

Talking about the attire for the young and old, Priyatmono said, “We still use batik for sarong, but today it’s also used to make shirts, pants, women shirts. We also use batik to make accessories like caps, jackets, shoes, necklaces, bracelet, bags, etc. We have diversifed it.”

When it comes to youth, they are not so much aware about the design or its history. “They demand whatever is popular in that season. They prefer to buy ready-to-wear batik than the material, unless they are getting married or attending a wedding,” he adds.

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