Prints, patterns and preservation: How Indonesia’s batik artisans draw a younger generation

BEKASI: Peni Cahyaningtyas belongs to a younger generation of hand-drawn batik artisans.

The 33-year old was tracing a floral pattern on a piece of cloth when I met her at her home in a housing complex in Bekasi, West Java province, about an hour outside Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

This is where she works, making batik shawls and scarves. She also sells clothing on her online store, retailing from about US$10 each.

Batik (1) The difference between hand-drawn and printed batik is in the details. (Photo: Imam Safii)

It is affordable, given the time and effort needed to create a piece of batik. However, attracting buyers remains a challenge.

Making batik, Indonesia’s national fabric, is no easy feat.

The ancient craft requires artisans to draw patterns on fabric by hand using hot wax and a pen-like copper tool called “canting”. It has a snout on one end, through which the hot wax is filled up and made to flow out of the nib.

Batik (2) The canting, a pen-like tool made of copper, features a snout that is used to collect the hot wax that feeds into the nib. (Photo: Imam Safii)

Once the design has been traced, the cloth is repeatedly dipped into a variety of coloured dyes in order to achieve the desired final colour.

Batik can also be made by stamping. Large stamping blocks made of copper are used to transfer the desired patterns onto the fabric.

With her steady hands and swirling motions, modern patterns are made, peppered at times with pop-culture references. Peni hopes this will introduce the country’s cultural heritage to the younger generation. She also hopes to encourage millennials to appreciate the works of art, which they can wear.

Batik (3) Peni dries out some scarves, which had been dyed indigo. (Photo: Imam Safii)

“I felt like I should do something so that I can be an influence to other young people. And show them that, hey, batik-making is fun. You can make it everything you want and just create something – but with wax and the canting,” she said.

“You can create any image or design you want, whether it’s Star Wars or flowers, you can create it all.” 

THE ABSENCE OF A YOUNG GENERATION

For Peni, her motivation to take up the craft came from a visit to the royal city of Yogyakarta, one of Indonesia’s main batik centres. There, she met batik artisans at a village.

“I asked them: ‘Madam, how old is the youngest batik artisan here?’ And she said that all the artisans at that village were aged 40 years and above,” said Peni.

“I then asked her: ‘Where are the young people?’”

“They answered saying: ‘The youth these days were not interested in making batik because it was boring and perhaps it has little monetary reward and perhaps the youth are of the opinion that making batik lacks in prestige.’”

Authentic batik is expensive and making it is time-consuming. Some pieces take days, sometimes even months, to create. It is also why preserving the heritage is challenging, especially when it comes to the younger generation.

THE PHILOSOPHY OF BATIK-MAKING

Peni’s mother, Indra Tjahjani, is a batik enthusiast who has been conducting cultural workshops, including batik-making, in the country for the past 18 years.

Batik (5) Indra Tjahjani explains the philosophy behind different batik prints. (Photo: Imam Safii)

“I don’t actually come from a family of batik artisans, but we have been made familiar with batik since we were little,” she said. “So for us Javanese, usually, from the time you are little, you already have to learn how to do the Javanese dance. Now, when you do this dance you have to wear a piece of cloth and you have to be able to wear the cloth of your own making and recognise the motif on it.

“In Java, every piece of batik has its own philosophy. So for me, it was important to convey to the younger generation or whomever else what the philosophy that was behind the décor.”

She said Indonesians must understand the complexity of batik making in order to appreciate the art better, because batik isn’t just about tracing a design with a “canting”.

One such philosophy is the one behind the classic Wahyu Tumurun motif. The main design is shaped like a crown with flowers inside, but there is also one that resembles a pair of roosters or birds. These are surrounded by various plant or herb-like drawings close together.

The Wahyu Tumurun should not be used inside out, and the crown-like motif should be facing upwards when worn.

“When people used this in the old days, it meant they hoped to have a good career. In the past, people making batik would accompany the process with prayers and fasting so the person who would wear the cloth would receive the makers’ blessings,” Mrs Tjahjani explained.

Batik (6) Students at a batik-making workshop trace patterns onto cloth using hot wax. (Photo: Imam Safii)

PRINTED VS HAND-DRAWN BATIK

While Mrs Indra’s workshops could help raise awareness, educating consumers about different types of batik could ensure the survival of the craft, according to young batik artisans like Bagus Priyono.

Mr Priyono is a third-generation artisan. His grandmother began making batik in 1975. Later, the knowledge would be passed on to his mother, who started teaching her children in the 1990s.

Today, Mr Priyono handles the marketing for the family batik business in Jambi province. They produce two types of batik – one that is solely hand-drawn, and another that’s hand-drawn and stamped. 

With more than 50 workers, the company produces 200 pieces of combination stamped and hand-drawn batik each month, and between 50 and 70 pieces of hand-drawn batik.

Batik (10) A batik artisan must be able to balance the tool carefully and avoid wax spills. (Photo: Imam Safii)

Mass-produced print batiks are also now widely available throughout the archipelago.

While they are much cheaper, there are concerns that imitation batiks undercut the value of hand-drawn pieces, which could take months to complete, and hurt the income of batik artisans. 

Depending on the material the batik is drawn on, some fabrics or garments with authentic hand-drawn designs can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

“We often get customers who come and they say: ‘How come it’s expensive?’ And we have to explain because for us, batik is a cultural product. So we can’t let go of stories behind the fabric’s history and we tell the customer so that they understand that.”

“And this understanding must continue to grow so that the customers realise that what they are buying are not just textiles but they are buying art, buying culture and there is a long process behind creating a piece of cloth,” Mr Priyono said.

While there is a market for the cheaper textile, it is important for consumers to discern when they should be willing to pay premium prices for authentic batik, said Mr Priyono, who believes that batik makers should be responsible for educating consumers on what they are paying for and should be paying for.

Batik (9) Artisan Bagus Priyono explains how to spot batik created by stamping. (Photo: Imam Safii)

“First, there is absolutely no error, the patterns are exactly alike and second, the two sides are different. These factors show that the fabric has been printed on,” he explained.

A fabric created by stamping is relatively neat, but each motif would not be identical. 

“When batik is drawn by hand, between one motif and another, even though they’re both the same design, they’re not exactly alike and do not have the same precision,” said Mr Priyono.

PRESERVING CULTURAL HERITAGE

Together with Mr Priyono, Mrs Indra and her daughter Peni are members of Perkumpulan Wastra Indonesia. It groups fabric lovers, artists, collectors and researchers, and has been working to raise awareness about the country’s rich textile traditions. 

Established in 2017, the organisation not only mentors artisans to improve their lifestyle, but also creates and hosts programmes and workshops to introduce traditional fabrics, in the hopes of building a stronger community.

Batik (7) Garments and accessories made with batik are displayed at a Perkumpulan Wastra Indonesia event. (Photo: Imam Safii)

“Many Indonesians are still ignorant, especially the youth who do not recognise batik, woven fabrics and so on,” said Diah Koesnidar, a member of the organisation.

“We are trying to not only familiarise them with more, but also introduce fabric with more youth-friendly motifs. So not too many colours, and not too bright colours as well.”

She said their efforts are slowly paying off.

“We try to begin with the programme which introduces traditional fabrics, then we are also cooperating with textile museums and with various parties, for example we collaborate with Binus University for interiors.”

Besides fashion, batik designs can also be incorporated into furniture such as cushion covers and table runners, or even jewellery.

Batik (8) Batik can also be incorporated into furniture items, such as table runners and cushion covers. (Photo: Imam Safii)

And as trendier designs are created, the expectation is that more young Indonesians will become interested in batik, giving hope to many that it is only a matter of time before a stronger community emerges to preserve this ancient and precious art form.