Batik in Semarang: Central Java

It is often said that you can tell where a person in Java originates from by the batik they wear. That is, the pola, or pattern on the cloth. Each major city in Java has its own design.

In Central Java the main batik-making centres are in Yogyakarta, Surakarta and Pekalongan – each having their own unique style. Most tourists and travellers associate these three centres as being the places to purchase batik and see the batik-making process.

But, there is another major city in Central Java that is on the brink of being included in the major Batik centres and that is Semarang:

Semarang strives to put its mark on batik trade

Anik Wahyuningsih carefully applied the batik wax, called malam in Javanese, to a piece of white cotton hung on a rack called a gawangan. Her canting, a small copper vessel, oozed hot wax from its nib. She repeated the process several times to fill in the patterns of twigs and leaves on the white fabric. Anik was learning how to make hand-painted batik in Semarang, Central Java.

Batik in Semarang? This is a teasing question. Indeed, when someone utters the word batik, you probably think of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, Pekalongan or Lasem in Central Java. Yogyakarta, Surakarta and Pekalongan have long been known as batik centers. And Semarang? This may be the least known of all in respects of batik. Is there any batik-making in Semarang, a port and industrial city?

“I’m still learning how to make batik. I found out that batik-making is not as difficult as I had thought it was. They key is patience. We must sit for hours. If you feel too tired sitting, then, stand up, and walk around for a short time. The complexity lies in the filling in of the isen-isen,” said the 35-year old Anik, who hails from Cangkiran, Semarang.

Sitting next to Anik were Olifa of Banyumanik and Ratri of Gergaji in Central Java. They too were trying to finish their hand-painted batik.

“We are all first-timers in batik-making. I was so interested in batik-making and had always wanted to try (to make batik). By chance there was a training course. I decided to join the course, and so here I am. I like batik-making very much,” Olifa said.

Anik, Olifa and Ratri were part of some 20 people who were learning how to make hand-drawn batik in Marabunta, an old building dating back from the Dutch colonial times in Semarang’s Kota Lama (Old City).

Most of these novice batik makers were women. They took part in the Training Course for Small-Scale Industry Handicraft Makers of Batik organized by the Regional National Handicraft Council of Semarang Municipality in cooperation with Bokos Kencono Association of Batik Lovers and Semarang’s industry and trade service.

The participants came from the Tembalang, Banyumanik, Ngaliyan, North Semarang, South Semarang, Gunungpati, Gajahmungkur and Mijen districts.

During the training, the participants learned various aspects of batik production, including dipping and coloring.

“Indeed, we want these novice batik makers to be able to make hand-drawn batik. After the training, we are expecting them to be able to make batik and master the technique,” said Umi Sumiati, owner of Batik Semarang 16, a hand-drawn batik small-scale company, who helped organize the training.

Umi said she was trying to revive Semarang’s unique motifs for hand-drawn batik, which may be called Semarangan (Semarang-style) Batik.

“From literature, I found the characteristics of batik from Semarang. The motifs are dominated by those of flora and fauna. Then there are also curved lines resembling hills or mountains. Old-time batik makers may have been influenced by the nature around them,” she noted.

To pursue her ambition, Umi been working flora and fauna motifs into her batik at her workshop for two years.

“But a batik observer has reminded me not to too hastily to call the flora and fauna motifs “Batik Semarangan“. OK, I can accept this advice. That’s why I have called my products simply Batik Semarang 16,” said Umi, laughing.

Interestingly, there were no classical batik motifs to be seen during the training. The parang-rusak, sidokmukti and other motifs seemed to be deliberately “hidden”. Flora and fauna motifs as well as a leather puppet motif stood out prominently during the course.

Umi said the most important thing for beginners was to develop their liking for batik making. “Don’t require them to make batik with a particular motif. Let them be. What matters is that their batik will have its form. If they later would like to make batik with a classical motif in the Yogyakarta or Surakarta style, they may do so. It all will depend on their own interest,” she said.

Ratri, for example, turned out to have her own awareness of motifs in batik. “In fact, the style of a batik depends on the tendency among the batik-making community. It is batik observers that give a name to a particular style. Batik makers, well, will just make their batik. I myself do not know whether the motif I am doing now has a particular style or not,” she said.

But is there really a “Semarang style”? No one can ascertain its existence. What’s obvious is that as a trading city, Semarang is involved in batik trading, especially given the fact that it is home to Pasar Johar, the largest market in Central Java since 1931.

Semarang’s batik industry was managed by Indonesians of Chinese origin. The color red, with depictions of lotus flowers and ducks were dominant. Nobody knows why this batik style suddenly just disappeared.

Rens Heringa and Harman C. Veldhuisen, in their book Fabric of Enchantment: Batik from the North Coast of Java, suggested that between 1845 and 1867, two women also developed hand-drawn batik in Semarang. They were Mrs Van Oosterom, who was of mixed Dutch-Javanese origin and was born in Salatiga, and Mrs Von Franquemont, who was of German-Dutch origin. Both lived somewhere in Ungaran Hill.

Their batik was later known as Prankemon batik. Nobody knows what Prankemon means. The batik was dominated by the colors red and blue or combinations of both. Mrs Von Franquemont added green to her work, for a richer color combination.

When the batik industry in Semarang was near disappearing, a community of batik makers emerged. Their emergence is deliberate. One may say the enrichment of the flora and fauna motifs is indeed an effort to recreate Batik Semarangan.

“We at Batik Semarang 16 have 20 batik makers. With this training course, we have 40. However, this increase in number may be meaningless unless these batik makers have an opportunity to channel their works. This means their products must be marketed so that they will be more widely known,” said Umi Sumiarti of Batik 16.

“In addition, as the hand-drawn batik industry is almost non-existent in Semarang, these batik makers must be able to regularly obtain the materials required to make batik. In this way they will continue to make batik and develop their batik art. Let them then develop their own style,” Umi said.

Umi intentionally develops natural colors for her batik makers. She said she was horrified to see the condition of the batik town of Pekalongan. “Many of the batik-making companies there use chemical coloring stuff. So there is environmental contamination. Rivers in Pekalongan have a foul smell and are turbid. This is the impact of batik waste. I don’t want this to happen in Semarang if the batik industry grows here,” she said.

Several plants that can be used as natural dyes are jelawe, tinggi, secang, jambal, teeran and gula jawa (palm sugar). They produce brown, yellow, blue, red and black. These natural materials are guaranteed never to contaminate the environment.

If the hand-drawn batik industry can grow again in Semarang, it must be coupled with a patent, Umi says. In addition, they must also develop their own designs to avoid monotony. “The most important thing is there must be a regeneration of batik makers. The younger ones must come forward,” she said.

If you wish to take a brief look at batik of Semarang style, drop in at the workshop of Batik Semarang 16 on Jl. Bukit Kelapa Hijau V, Blok BE 1-2, Bukit Kencana Jaya, Tembalang, Semarang.

Semarang-style batik is now also in the showcases of a number of batik galleries in Semarang, following the emergence of new batik makers.