Batik is a technique used for decorating woven cloth with colored patterns; it is also the cloth decorated in this way. Long before the archipelago became known as “Indonesia”, the batik of Java was a much-admired fabric in Europe, Japan, and mixed-Chinese communities in coastal southeastern Asia. It served as the inspiration for the batik tradition in Malaysia and also the contemporary traditions that developed in France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Germany after the World Expositions in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, a time when collections began entering European museums. Extolled by admirers all over the world, Javanese batik has been glorified by Indonesians as a national icon and a fixed part of the national identity.
Despite collections of batik in museums throughout the world dating back to the mid- 19th century, the finest examples are still to be found in private and public collections in Indonesia. This is especially true of pieces inherited from mothers and grandmothers, for it is the women who have been the most involved with the making and wearing of batik through the centuries. The role of men has traditionally been as designers and managers-cum-merchants, until the wax-printing stamp was introduced in the mid-19th century and chemical dyes at the end of the 19th century. No longer were dye recipes the secret preserve of women, although their delicate handwork continued to be essential for hand-waxing. What was deemed ‘heavy’ work became the domain of men: handling heavy waxing stamps, dealing with heavy bundles of cloth in the dye vats, organizing large stables of batik workers.
One very important batik collection in Indonesia began with inheritance, the Danar Hadi batik collection in Solo, Central Java. Danar Hadi is a batik enterprise whose owners came from families who were involved either in the supply of raw materials or the making of batik. From simple beginnings in the late 1960s, the business grew to Indonesia’s most prolific batik industry today, producing not only real batik (patterned through the use of manually applied wax to resist dye) but also textiles mechanically printed with batik patterns. Today, it is Indonesia’s top batik business and the only one owned by Javanese.
The city of Solo, home of the Susuhunan of Surakarta, whose forefathers were once termed Emperor of Java, is the unchallenged center of batik-making in Indonesia. Hence, it is now known as “City of Batik”, a tagline that is now formally attached to the city’s formal identity, as the visitor immediately notices from banners and posters at the airport. Batik-making and batik-wearing are inextricably embedded in the city’s lifestyle, as the first-time tourist can easily see.
Alighting from the airplane, one is usually welcomed by someone clad in batik shirt or dress. Walking through the lounge, one cannot help glancing at window displays showing off the finest of the store’s merchandise. Batik adorns not only people, but also the interiors of offices, grand hotels, and even humble dwellings, in the form of wall hangings, tablecloths, and cushion covers.
A ride downtown reveals more batik stores, with the Klewer market a mecca for those patient and curious enough to rummage through huge piles of batik, from printed imitations to real handmade batik. The section of the town known as Laweyan is filled with batik workshops; it is the place where many of the batik enterprises started off as family home-industries, imbuing the area with a special character that does not appear to have changed much in decades. More small batik workshops are to be found in villages surrounding Surakarta, catering not only to domestic but also to international markets, such as South Africa.
Life in contemporary Solo appears to beat to the rhythm of its recent past. It is a city pulsating with the paradox of two very different worlds, a serene and highly refined royal court tradition and a dynamic, modern enterpreneurship. In between, batik is often found feeding the refinement of the former and the exuberance of the latter. A much newer facet of life is the effort to put Solo on the national cultural map. Competing with the reputation of the neighboring province of Yogyakarta, a Sultanate, as a much more popular tourist destination and cultural hub, Solo has been busy at work improving its infrastructure. One outstanding result is the newly rebuilt airport, arguably the best in Central Java, including Yogyakarta. It has also developed a cultural calendar of events that range from an International Music Festival to a Batik Carnival. The signs of early cosmopolitan life are getting stronger: more starred hotels, new and arty budget hotels, and large shopping malls. And everywhere Solo’s special kind of batik is in evidence.