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Posts Tagged ‘coastal batik’

Northern Java, Indonesia

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The famous “megamendung” storm clouds design

Jim and I got off the plane in Jakarta and straight into the familiar sweaty heat and humidity of Java. Oh joy, we are literate. After the helpless incomprehension of written Thai, it’s amazing how good it feels to be able to read again. The smells are familiar too; the distinctive whiff of kretek clove cigarettes, verdant, damp vegetation, drains and poverty. We’re out of Jakarta as fast as we can make it, to Gambir Station to catch the train to Cirebon, about about 125 miles east. When the train arrives it has traditional batik designs painted down some of the carriages. Only in Java!

This is an eksekutif class train and thus we join the Indonesian middle classes in air conditioned splendour. We have comfortable seats with loads of legroom, a food and drink service, smiling ticket inspectors, and a violent American film to watch. Most of the time we gaze out of the window. It’s always a shock to come here after the neat and tidy orderliness of northern Thailand. Java is hotter, dirtier, shabbier, poorer and there’s just so many people. For every job in Java there are at least 10 people trying to get some little bit of it – there are too many minibus drivers, too many becak drivers with

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“Taman arum” another famous Cirebon batik design is painted on the train – a very superior form of grafitti!

their little cycle carriages, too many beggars, shop assistants, ticket collectors, motorbike taxis, market sellers. Java is just one of Indonesia’s 16,000 islands but it is the centre of Government, and culture in many ways. About the same size as Britain, it has 140 million living on it. As I said, there are just too many people!

Cirebon doesn’t look any different from last time I was here, although maybe there are even more cars – the pavements are always blocked with stalls and warungs. A warung is what might charitably be called a “pop up restaurant” great if you fancy sitting on a grimy mat or bench under a dingy 20 watt light bulb eating some questionable food which was made this morning and has had a day’s worth of flies settling on it. Still not everyone in the world has any better options. We are here for the batik.

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Becak driver hoping for a fare

Cirebon is famous for its its own distinctive style – “Batik Ceribonan”. Most of it is made at a village called Trusmi, a few miles out of town accessible by bashed and beaten up old minibus. You climb in the back, peer down through the filthy waist height windows and try to make some sort of a guess at where you want to get off and then pay the driver an absurdly small sum of money.

Up a narrow “main street” we squeeze through market stalls, school children (in batik school uniforms!) becaks full of women and their market shopping or empty and their drivers looking for a fare, motorbikes, reversing minibuses, piles of rubbish or building materials and mobile food carts. Eventually we reach the batik shops.

Every type of customer is catered for here. There are bargain basement shops selling shirts for men and shapeless housecoats for women in cheap, imitation batik print, and there are smart air- conditioned salons with VISA signs on the door. These establishments cater for women with elaborate hair dos who emerge from cars with dark windows (so they can more easily ignore the filth) who are looking for something nice to wear for lunch with the minister’s cousin’s wife. Their drivers wait patiently outside.

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Batik workers often work in small groups at home

Although a lot of it is printed imitation, there is real hand made batik on sale here in Trusmi. The prices start at a couple of quid and go up to 5 million rupiah or more – enough to rent you a decent house for a year. We want some silk batik scarves for the shop and some cloths in a famous Cirebon design – Megamendung.

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A woman with her baby in a batik slendang watches as her husband makes cap (stamped) batik in their home

This evocatively named pattern, it means “storm clouds”, came from China. You will have seen it on Chinese embroideries or ceramics – it’s even on a pattern we are all familiar with – the “willow pattern”. Chinese traders have been coming to this northern coast of Java for centuries, along with Arab merchants and later Dutch soldiers, traders from the East India Company, colonisers and settlers. All of them have left their mark and a study of the batik textiles from these parts is a veritable history lesson.

The Chinese are still here – many generations later they still keep to their own traditions. Being the enterprising sort of folk they are, some of them started up their own batik workshops. We met the present owner of one of these workshops – “Lina’s Batik”, the first time we came to Cirebon in 1986. She and her sister ran a sort of Chinese community centre here complete with a school to teach the children to read and write Chinese characters. Ibu showed me the certificate dated 1927, which her grandfather gained from the Sultan giving his permission to produce batik .

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Lina, a 5th generation batik maker with one of her wonderful batik tablecloths.

Lina’s now sells mainly to big stores in Jakarta, but they still make batiked altar cloths for the Chinese neighbours to buy at New Year, and the long cloths used to carry babies embellished with dragons and double happiness symbols. They also make beautiful megamendung cloths in the traditional colours; red, blue and white.

One year I came to the workshop just as two pieces were being finished. They were dyed in a red dye made from the roots of the mengkudu tree (morinda citrifolia) and a blue dye made from indigo. I swallowed hard when I heard the price, and bought one of them – now I wish I’d bought them both.

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Heri outlines the storm clouds pattern in wax. The first stage of the process.

To make a perfect megamendung cloth, the parts which will be white and blue are first outlined and then filled in with a thick, strong wax. The cloth is dyed a deep rich red colour. If the dyes are chemical, then this is a quick process taking just a few minutes. If they are plant dyes – or rather the “mengkudu” root dye, then this is a much more lengthy process. The cloth will be dipped and dried up to a dozen times.  Then that thick layer of wax is removed in very hot water and the next waxing process starts. First the red parts and the white parts are protected with wax and the cloth is dyed pale blue (chemical or natural indigo) and the blue layers are built up gradually in this way from the palest blue to the darkest. The more layers there are, the more times the cloth has to be waxed and dyed, and the more expensive it is. Mine has seven layers. Finally all the wax is boiled out and the cloth is finished. No wonder they don’t make more than a couple a year. The blue clouds seem to float and hover above the red background, and all in all its one of my favourite batik cloths ever.

Megamendung designs have been adopted by Cirebon and you can see them on street signs, wallpaper, school uniforms and, of course the trains. There was absolute outrage when it was reported that the perfidious Malaysian were trying to get it patented as one of their own National designs.

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Children in Java have a very rich street life!

Anyway back to Trusmi where we have spent a day reminding ourselves how to speak Indonesian, buying, bargaining and laughing with the sales girls in various shops. Just before we are ready to go home, the rain starts. Not just a drizzle or even a downpour but a deluge which forces us to stay for another half hour in the shop where we’re trapped. The road fills with mud brown water, the motorbikes come to a standstill, and soon the kids come out to cavort around and soak themselves.

Welcome to Java! We may be appalled at the poverty, the degraded environment that people live amongst, the overcrowded streets and the level of hassle but I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before we are hopelessly in love with it all over again.

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