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Batik preserves rich heritage, weaves social divides among cultures


July 2011


Last week, on July 12 to 16, an exhibition dedicated to traditional Javanese batik cloth took place at the Embassy of Indonesia at Washington, D.C. The American Batik Design Competition showcased a vast collection of the rich heritage Indonesian batik brought to world history and how it has fused with contemporary western-influenced garments. With its theme titled “The Spirit of America in the Heritage of Batik”, the competition challenged artists to illustrate the American innovation by making original design pieces in the backdrop of traditional Indonesia, highlighting the archipelago’s batik culture.

The Indonesian Embassy at Washington had  “American Batik” in mind, a new design concept that aims to strengthen U.S. and Indonesian ties and foster cultural cooperation between the two nations, says Indonesian ambassador Dino Patti Djahal.

Listed as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in October 2009, UNESCO acknowledged the batik and its cultural implications to preserve the rich Indonesian heritage, alongside the wayang (shadow puppet play) and kris (ceremonial dagger) in previous years and the angklung (bamboo musical instrument) just last year. “Batik is regarded as a cultural icon with its own uniqueness,” said Aburizal Bakrie, coordinating minister for the People’s Welfare. “It contains symbols and a deep philosophy of the human life cycle — and it was submitted by Indonesia as a non-material element of cultural heritage.” For a developing nation like Indonesia, earning such an honor was only the beginning for its economy.

Since its recognition as a world-class cultural preservation, batik gained popularity in the fashion industry, flaunting its artistic beauty as a commodity for global outreach. Indonesian administrators has been encouraging Indonesians to wear batik on Fridays. Workers in the private sectors and government officials alike put on batik on a daily basis. The casual mall rat, the youth generation, and everyone else walking around the streets of Indonesia, is wearing the batik again.

It has, essentially, identified the Indonesians.

A typical Yogajakartan white background motif. Photo from

You can easily find batik (and fabrics with its patterns) all over the archipelago. It first appeared in Java, where dark-colored motifs evolved into a local favorite. Today, every region in Indonesia has a batik signature of its own. Just as we see the white background batiks everywhere in Yogyakarta, we can also spot the vivid colors enlivening the northeastern coasts of Indonesia.

Batik historically uses wax-resist dyeing decoration technique, which is ultimately a painstaking process of dipping linens into wax, then dyeing them. It’s a traditional art form invented when the first civilizations came into existence in the world. Samples of it can be found all across the ancient Orient. However, none has been found as highly developed a fabric was as the batik in Central Java. Patterns and motifs of the traditional batik were woven so intricately that they can only show how those figures have structured a unique civilization richly-ingrained in the traditional Javanese life.

Even though batik’s development was largely influenced by the Hindu culture, Indonesian archaeologist F. A. Sutjipto believes that the Indonesian batik is a native tradition. Original materials found in batik-making are widespread throughout the archipelago, notably the root of morinda tinctoria tree, processed into red dyes. Other ornaments include the skin of soga tree, the damar kucing, the bee wax, and other plants and animals found throughout the Indonesian islands.

Sutjipto’s studies provided numerous evidence that the batik-making tradition formally took shape through local roots. Tracing back to the early 17th century, he found early roots of the modern batik culture during the reign of Islamic Mataram, just after the Hindu-Buddha kingdoms were replaced by Islamic rulers. This era popularized the present notion of batik reserved exclusively for powerful people reckoned with nobility and placed in higher social standing. During traditional Javanese ceremonies, one could tell the royal lineage of a person by the clothe he or she was wearing, as wider stripes or wavy lines of greater width indicated higher rank, or “clothe maketh man,” so they say.

In the early 19th century, batik began rising to international fame. During the colonial era, the Dutch had profound influence in batik-making ever since merchant Van Rijckevorsel stepped foot on the lands of Indonesia. He brought his batik collections back to the Netherlands and this has exposed its beauty to the westerner’s eye. Consequently, batik has impressed art patrons and the general European public alike, as exporters continued reinventing original prints according to the European taste. Through this cultural assimilation, batik evolved into a valuable Indonesian legacy as it quickly gains a new international appeal.

Entering the age of industrialization, these new breeds of batik officially popularized the batik print, which emerged from the invention of automated techniques and machineries. To reduce the cost of the fabric, patterns have been mass-produced repetitively, thus increasing its volume of production, while the old dyeing technique became simply known as batik tulis, or literally, written batik.

According to professor Michael Hitchcock at the University of Chichester in the UK, batik has “a strong political dimension”. His doctorate research in Eastern Indonesia while attending Oxford University instilled him a keen interest in the batik culture. Recently, he stated that “the batik shirt was invented as a formal non-Western shirt for men in Indonesia in the 1960s, not long after the country’s birth.” He commented on the long-running cultural dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia, saying that batik served as a radical political statement for Indonesians, because the nation was a major member in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a list of 118 developing countries that came together representing the political, economic, and cultural interests of the developing world. Malaysia, however, was a former British colony that did not really fight for its freedom, he said to The Telegraph.

This fashion statement has somewhat revived in the 21st century since it waned in the 1960s. Some called it a renaissance of the old days, but others in the fashion world are reinventing batik from a traditional symbol and revolutionizing its meaning into a much stronger national identity.


A batik fashion show showcasing fashion designer Denny Wirawan. Photo from Asia Society.

Currently, in Indonesia, batik is the new black.

“Since this batik craze began my business has continued to grow,” said Lala Gozali to The Jakarta Globe. The owner of Gianti Creation, an original line known for combining modern designs with traditional motifs, has reportedly earned monthly profits up to Rp. 40 million (USD 4,400) since it first launched in 2003. By collecting batik and making clothes out of them, she has not only earned a luxurious living through her thriving business, but lived her passion for preserving the Indonesian heritage through her priceless collection of traditional woven fabrics. Some traditional colors, originally brought about from natural dyes, are indigo, dark brown, and white, depicting the Indonesian’s religious influences of Hinduism. These colors represent the three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively.

The trimurti of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Shiva. Image from Krishna Darshan Art Gallery on Stephen Knapp's website.

Over years of its development, the Indonesian treasure and its worldwide cultural expansion welcomes a variety of influences to its motifs, with each region adopting different approaches to their own artistic taste. Pattern designs of batik in indigenous regions are inspired by a wide range of foreign motifs, as we can normally see the fabrics imprinted with Arabic calligraphy, Indian peacocks, Japanese cherry blossoms, Chinese birds, and other embellishments representing a particular ethnic identity.

“Nowadays, batik artists are too lazy to learn and read about local culture, and this will jeopardize the future fate of batik, because Hardjono and Iwan found their ways through reading and learning,” said Soedarmadji Damais, co-author of “Java Style” during recent month-long batik exhbition at the Jakarta Textile Museum.

Damais was referring to two batik maestros, Solo-based Hardjono Go Tik Swan, and Iwan Tirta, ambassador of the Indonesian batik.

From May 31 to June 25, the exhibition displayed 150 batik collections belonged to the museum and some of the most reckoned batik enthusiasts, including Tatiek Fauzi Bowo, wife of the Jakarta governor, Pia Allisyahbana, founder of Femina magazine, and Meutia Hatta Swasono, former minister of the national organization empowering women and children (Menteri Pemberdayaan Perempuan dan Perlindungan Anak Indonesia). The exhibition promoted the role and history of batik as it is ascending the world stage through fashion, but more importantly, it was purported to raise awareness among the youth population on how it played a significant part in Indonesia’s evolutionary identity since the day the nation claimed independence. “People, especially younger generations, need to know the symbolic meaning of batik as well as the important figures from the history,” Tatiek addressed during the exhibition. It’s no wonder Indonesian gained new pride in wearing batik, traditionally worn for special occasions but now a norm in everyday fashion.

Singapore Airlines stewardess uniform. Photo from Wikipedia.

Like Tatiek, fellow batik collector Ann Dunham, better known as the late mother of United States president Barack Obama, participated in the effort to promote Indonesia’s heritage and its significance. In 2009, Dunham’s textile batik art collection went into national tour for the two-week exhibition A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks. It toured around six museums in the United States and made a final stop at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., giving a looking window to Americans while taking them back to the richness of traditional Javanese culture, as fabricated in these vibrant textiles.

One popular example of batik’s international appeal is its influence on world-class flight carrier Singapore Airlines – their iconic Singapore Girl uniform in a Sarong Kebaya. Designed by Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain, the goal of 1972 Singapore Airlines (SIA) marketing campaign was to project a cultural reflection of the Asian heritage, symbolizing the Asian grace and hospitality in its cabin service. The Singapore Girl took over passengers hearts and won the Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award in March 2004 for the 18th Singapore Tourism Board’s annual tourism awards. SIA also took pride after ongoing achievements in their service, now widely knowns as the best airline in the world. To note, they are recently named as the World’s Best Business Class Airline at the 2011 World Wide Airline Awards.

What we can look forward now is the biennial batik exhibition attracting batik aficionados from all over the world.

Indonesia will hold the World Batik Summit 2011 at the Jakarta Convention Center (JCC) on September 28 to October 2. “The event is expected to attract international’s interest towards batik,” says founder of Batik Indonesia Dipo Alam to ANTARA news. The summit aimed to establish a strong networking community between batik makers and its lovers around the world. Through such treasured artistic and cultural legacy, the Indonesian Batik Committee is set to establish the nation as the “Global Home of Batik” within the world community. This summit is a gateway for foreigners to enjoy immersing oneself into the deepest roots of Indonesian culture. Event attendees are sure to experience batik’s enduring charms like no other place in the world can give.

To find out more about the World Batik Summit 2011, visit

Works Cited:

Batik, the Traditional Fabric of Indonesia“.  Living in Indonesia, A Site for Expatriates. Expat Web Site Association Jakarta, Indonesia.

Profile: Non-Aligned Movement“. BBC News. Last Updated: 07 Aug, 2009.

Collins, Nick. “Indonesia tells Malaysians ‘Hands Off Our Batik‘ “. The Telegraph. 05 Oct, 2009.

Krismantari, Ika. “Continuing Indonesian Batik’s Legacy“. The Jakarta Post. 04 Jun, 2011

Krismantari, Ika. “Batik Frenzy Not Strictly Traditional“. The Jakarta Globe. 07 Feb, 2010

Stover, Adrian. “Batik for Americans and Indonesians Alike“. Asia Society.  08 Apr, 2011.