Book Review – Batik: Creating an Identity

Batik is renowned the world over and I was particularly interested to read the review by Rita Widiadana on the latest book on Batik, Batik: Creating an Identity, and look forward to buying myself a copy. As we all know batik can be your cheap street-side or market crap or you can buy an excellent and well produced pieced at an exuberant price.

Batik: Creating an Identity
National Museum of Singapore (2007)
pp. 142
Bilingual: English and Mandarin

For the Javanese, batik is more than just long pieces of cloth, sarongs or shirts.

It is magic cloth. Like many other textiles produced in Southeast Asia, batik patterns are more than a form of decoration. They are significant symbols that express various local identities for the people in the region.

The name of the fabric came to be identified with the people of Java although batik was also produced in other places like Southern Sumatra, Central Sulawesi, Malaysia and even Singapore.

The existence and use of batik was already recorded in the 12th Century and the textile has since become a strong source of identity for Indonesians.

Malaysians who have similar cultural roots with their neighbors in Indonesia began to explore batik and to claim it as their own.
Singapore, Indonesia’s closest neighbor, has its own batik history. However, it is very difficult for Singaporeans, especially the young, to view batik as part of their cultural identity.
Developing into one of the most advanced and high-tech nations in Asia, multi-ethnic Singapore has been losing its cultural roots.

This precious book, compiled by Lee Chor Lin and published by the National Museum of Singapore, is aimed at encouraging the young to recognize their social and cultural ties with Southeast Asia.

Batik seems to be one such avenue. The book, therefore, is written in English and Mandarin to enable young Singaporeans to understand its content.

The book starts with the history of batik making in Southeast Asian countries, especially in the Pesisir or coastal areas.
It reveals that batik was not a widely practiced technique in Southeast Asia. In the mainland, batik was used by the Tai-speaking and hill peoples who began to migrate in large numbers from southwestern China to Indochina and Thailand around the 17th Century.

Practiced only in limited areas — Java, southern Sumatra and central Sulawesi — batik of the island world offers a wider variety of patterns and colors, and its usage was more widespread than in the mainland.

However, it is the Javanese tradition of batik, which was also introduced to southern Sumatra, that has created the most dynamic and prolific range of fabrics.

Batik in Java Despite its importance in Javanese culture and economy, the early history of batik in Java is not well-recorded; Batik was first mentioned in 12th-Century Javanese literature. It was referred to as color fabric through terms such as tulis warna or randi tinulis.

Batik had already been recorded by Chinese merchants in the 9th and 10th centuries. Wang Dayuan, a Yuan-dynasty merchant, made two trips to maritime Southeast Asia during the early-14th Century and wrote in Daoyi Zhilue that the people in East Java produced a printed fabric that was fine and extremely color-fast.

According to KRT Hardjonagoro, Indonesia’s best-known expert
on batik, the art of batik took its formal shape during the reign of Sultan Agung Hanyokrokusumo in the early 17th-Century Mataram Islamic kingdom in Central Java.

Javanese batik styles — classical batik patterns and motifs — dyed in a brown and blue color scheme were formalized in the Mataram kingdom.

The kingdom should be seen as the blueprint for modern Javanese culture, Classical-style batik providing a continuity of aesthetics from the Mataram kingdom to the present day.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was the first to record in detail descriptions of the technique and fabric as seen through the Western eye, in his famous book The History of Java.

By the mid 19th Century, the cities of the Pesisir (coastal areas) of Java emerged as important batik centers, where many workshops were started and managed by non-Javanese: Arabs, Chinese, Europeans and Indo-Dutch Eurasians.

The imported machine-woven cotton from England and the Netherlands became an important contributing factor in the visual definition and appeal of batik.

The fine weave of European machine-woven cotton provided a smooth and tight surface on which complex patterns could be drawn.

The early 20th Century saw the invention of metal blocks for waxing batik motifs. This initiated a revolutionary change in Java’s batik industry, increasing its volume of production.
The golden age of batik probably started at this point and continued up to World War II. Batik from that period had the greatest significance for Javanese society. The scale of batik production and its usage both inside and outside Java made batik a very cosmopolitan fashion statement.

After World War II, Java no longer claimed a monopoly on the export of batik. As early as the first decade of the 20th Century, weavers and dyers in Trengganu and Kelantan, states on the east coast of Malaysia, were encouraged by the British colonial administrators to experiment with batik cap (printed batik).

In response to the rise of other fabric production in the region, the development of Javanese batik went through an interesting time during which Indonesian nationalism brought back batik into the realms of statecraft and identity formation.

The designing of batik patterns, packaging of batik under brand names, and tailoring batik into Western-style garments and household products were developments that led the batik industry towards the internationalization of this traditional fabric.
Reproductions of designs copied from old batik seem to be a popular, though costly trend that has developed in segments of the contemporary batik industry.

Contemporary batik seems to be enjoying a renaissance, working its way into the mainstream vocabulary of the international fashion world.

Batik in Singapore

It is interesting to learn how batik fabric came to Singapore.
As a trading center, Singapore was a recipient of many fabrics. The existence of batik fabrics in Singapore was recorded only by photographic portraits taken at the turn of the century or earlier; these give some hints on the types of batik used in Singapore by the different ethnic groups.

Noted photographer G.R. Lambert took very important shots recording the types of batik available during the period 1880 to l910.

The photographs collected by Singapore National Archives and the National Museum of Singapore, provide some interesting insights.

During this period, textiles worn mostly by Peranakan Nyonya, (ladies of Chinese descent), were Pesisir-style batik imported from Lasem, Gresik, Semarang and Surabaya in Indonesia.

The batik features in photographs taken in the l930s are Indo-Dutch batik made by Dutch batik enterprises in Pekalongan. After World War II, Singapore was transformed as an Asian trade hub.

The rapid social, economic and political change affected the fashion styles of its people. Batik was no longer in fashion.
The fabric was found only in several old coastal villages of Katong and Geylang where the Peranakan Chinese community had taken root. On the other hand, batik making developed quite significantly in Malaysia.

Singapore is trying hard to reinforce its identity through batik.

The book says that the Museum collected a series of classical Javanese batik styles and other types of batik patterns that could be an invaluable source of inspiration for young Singaporean fashion designers.

Indonesians can also draw a valuable lesson from this book. As the custodian of batik art, Indonesians should be grateful for being the possessors of such a rich culture.

The work of figures such as Iwan Tirta, Josephine Komara, Obin and many other talented batik artists across the country is important to the preservation and development of batik.

This book adds to the catalog of volumes on batik and is an invaluable source of information for those wishing to learn more about the centuries-old batik art.

Rita Widiadana