Preserving Batik in East Java

–By Shreya Kundur–

A common misconception about batik is that it is a specific pattern or motif. Rather, it is the process of making the fabric that deems it as “batik”. I learned this one day as I naively pointed to the skirt I was wearing and beamed to my co-teacher that it was my first batik purchase. My co-teacher, Bu Wiwik, kindly informed me that the skirt was printed and not true batik. “Printing is not batik. See, the back is a lighter color than the front. In batik, it should be the same on the front and back. Come to my house and I will show you.”

Bu Wiwik, along with her daughter Mbak Ima, own Batik Blimbing Malang, a batik production company that is also dedicated to teaching and preserving the art of batik. Groups from all over Indonesia come to Batik Blimbing to learn about the history and process of batik-making. I joined a group of high school students from Jakarta one afternoon and tried my own hand at creating batik.

We sat on the floor around an iron pan filled with melted wax with an electric heater underneath. We received a cotton cloth with a pencil sketch on it and a canting, the tool to apply the wax to the cloth. Mbak Ima instructed us to scoop some hot wax into the canting and then tilt it slightly and trace the pattern on the cloth with the spout. She demonstrated this effortlessly but also gave us many warnings. If you tilt the spout too much, the wax will spill. If you leave the canting out of iron pan too long, the wax will harden. If you don’t apply enough wax, it won’t go through both sides of the cloth. It was tedious yet soothing work.

Next, we used red, orange, green and light blue dyes to fill in the flower motif on the fabric. Then we covered those painted areas with wax to protect the color from the background dye. While I was doing this, Mbak Ima prepared a series of shallow basins filled with various solutions including one with the dark blue background dye. I put plastic gloves on and dipped my fabric first into soapy water making sure to cover every inch. Then I moved it into a primer solution and quickly immersed the fabric on one side and then the other. Then back to the soapy water and finally to the background dye. It reminded me of processing photographs in a dark room with the photo submerged in each chemical solution for precise amounts of time. Finally, we put the cloth in boiling water and stirred it around with a wooden stick for a few minutes. This removed all the wax to reveal the final product.

The process is very labor-intensive and time-consuming. I asked Bu Wiwik how much time it takes to make one piece of batik. She said 2.5 meters of handmade batik usually takes three or four weeks. However, if certain colors are used like natural coloring from leaves and wood, it could take up to one year.

Batik Blimbing does have a few automated tools that can speed up the process while still maintaining the authenticity of the product. After all, this is a business. Finding ways to turn a profit but still preserve the often-slow batik process is a dilemma Bu Wiwik and Mbak Ima are challenged with. “Handmade batik is what makes batik unique. There should be no two pieces that are exactly the same,” explains Bu Wiwik. Machines that can mass-produce are a death sentence for batik, which is why Bu Wiwik and Mbak Ima have dedicated their profession to ensuring the life of batik.

I asked them why they think it’s important to learn about the history of batik. Bu Wiwik says, “learn batik so you can learn about the culture of Indonesia. The philosophy of batik itself is important because in batik we can tell something, we can give a message.”

Shreya Kundur is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant living in Malang, Indonesia. She worked in federal consulting for 4 years and graduated from Georgetown University in 2012. When not teaching her energetic 10th graders, Shreya enjoys learning traditional styles of dance and discovering new ways to cook tempe.

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