UNESCO is to announce its recognition of batik as a unique hallmark of Indonesian heritage at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, held this week in Abu Dhabi. This recognition is expected to be declared today, Oct. 2, and President Susilo Yudhoyono of Indonesia has long prepared a warm welcome for this, appealing to Indonesia's 235 million-strong population to wear batik today as a sign of support for Indonesian culture.
Larasati Suliantoro, a leading batik activist, told an Indonesian newspaper in June, "It's our responsibility to encourage a reawakening to real batik." Another activist, Gaura Mancacaritadipura, underlined the Indonesian sense of batik culture's belonging by saying that it has been part of Indonesian people's lives for centuries. "As an example, for hundreds of years, batik has been a part of the labuhan ritual, the tradition of throwing one's troubles into the sea in materials that sail away," he said.
In their evaluation, UNESCO put a similarly significant importance on documentation from both experts and communities. The final decision on a nominee's inclusion on the list is the exclusive privilege of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee, which will announce its decision at its session in Abu Dhabi this week. The original decision to advance batik's candidacy for inclusion on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage, however, was made by UNESCO's subsidiary body, comprised of Kenya, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Mexico and Estonia.
An matter of preservation
Dindin Wahyudin, the Indonesian deputy ambassador to UNESCO, told reporters that the effort to put batik on the list was not about property or copyright. “This is about safeguarding culture in certain regions. It is about preservation,” he said.
According to Dindin, no other country has registered a request for batik to be considered their own cultural heritage instead of Indonesia's, which makes Indonesia justifiably optimistic that batik will be included on UNESCO's list as an intangible piece of Indonesian cultural heritage. A majority of Indonesia's 33 provinces have their own unique patterns of batik, made by hand in a process quite different from the industrialized mass-printing process. Indonesia has high hopes that grassroots economic benefits will be seen from batik's inclusion on the list, as UNESCO's support in promoting batik's role in cultural tourism, capacity-building activities and other related assistance will go directly to the people and not through any government agencies. Indonesia experienced these assistance schemes when wayang, a Javanese leather puppet, was added to the list in 2005 and when keris, a Javanese traditional dagger, was added in 2003.
According to Wikipedia and other online sources, Batik is a wax-resist dyeing technique used on textiles. Wikipedia noted, “Due to modern advances in the textile industry, the term has come to be used for fabrics which incorporate traditional batik patterns through modern printing methods, and not necessarily for fabrics produced using the handmade batik techniques.”
Batik itself is a cultural artifact with a wide spectrum of meanings. The Javanese traditional batiks, Wikipedia says, have designs meant to depict the three major Hindu gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) in the traditional colors of indigo, dark brown and white. The patterns of batiks not only signify religious meaning, but sometimes indicate rank, as certain nobility are classified by certain batik designs. As a general rule, wider stripes or wavy lines of greater width indicated higher rank. This is why, during Javanese ceremonies, it's never difficult to tell the royal lineage of a person simply by observing the batik cloth he or she wears.
While Java was deeply influenced by the Hindu culture, other regions of Indonesia have unique patterns of batik from different influences. Some popular patterns are inspired by flowers, nature, animals, folklore or people. Wikipedia cites examples of batik or fabrics with traditional patterns similar to Indonesian batik found in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Uganda and Mali in Africa, the islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia and in Asia countries including India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Batik's charm comes from the patience and creativity of Javanese woman, who attentively labor through the tedious and detailed work of “dotting” -- thus the name “batik,” which in Indonesian means “to dot” -- the fabric with wax to create various patterns on the clothes. Of course, the role of the men who prepare the cloth and handle the dyeing and finishing process is also invaluable.
Though the art of batik is spread widely throughout the Hindu and Malay world, it is easy to see that Indonesia is the center of batik. The sophisticated painting, coloring and excellent textile patterns can be traced back hundreds of years, to when people traded these clothes extensively to the other islands of the archipelago and to the Malay Peninsula. The influence of batik spread and later became one of the principal means of expression of spiritual and cultural values in Southeast Asia.
History of Batik
The center of batik artistry is in cities on the island of Java, including Solo, Jogyakarta, Pekalongan or Cirebon. Finely detailed designs are first drawn freehand with a pencil on the fabric. Then hot liquid wax is applied to the designs, to protect the fabric underneath from dyes and create a multi-hued final product.
A Javanese woman applies wax in intricate patterns with a “canting,” a small copper container with a long slender spout. From time to time, she must blow on the tip of the canting to secure the easy flow of the wax.
Areas not slated for coloring are covered with wax. The fabric is then put in a vat of dye. After the fabric is dyed and dried, the wax is removed with hot water, scraped from the portions of the dried material still to be dyed. Next, other areas are waxed over; this is repeated during each phase of the coloring process, up to four or more times, until the overall pattern and effect are achieved.
The Indonesian Batik Foundation (YBI)
In 1995, I set up the Indonesian Batik Foundation, which is called Yayasan Batik Indonesia (YBI) in Indonesian, in collaboration with Yultin Ginandjar Kartasasmita (the chairwoman of the YBI). Through the YBI, we seek to preserve the original culture of batik as Indonesian cultural heritage and also to create new batik designs and develop them in all provinces of Indonesia.
The YBI also works in the socio-economic spectrum of batik, where YBI has outreach programs for women batik crafters to maintain their skills and have their products appreciated as the works of painters are.
The YBI performs an annual batik exhibition where we invite several hundred batik producers and introduce new designs. Hopefully, within the very near future, Turkish arts lovers will have the opportunity to see an exhibition of authentic batik from Indonesia, both for dresses and home interior design.
*Dipo Alam is secretary-general of the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, based in İstanbul, and founder of the Indonesian Batik Foundation (YBI).