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The UK Batik Guild Trip to Java November 3rd – 16th 2013

Getting there Well that’s a story in itself as Malaysian airways and so it seems other airlines too decided to do some strange rescheduling. Some of us ended up spending an unexpected night or even two in Jakarta (although some sailed through it all by travelling via Singapore) and I spent rather more time than I had anticipated at Jogyakarta airport waiting for late arrivals, but by Sunday afternoon we were all happily safe and sound at the Duta Hotel on Jalan Prawirotoman in the heart of south Jogyakarta.

Sunday evening- introductions and a Javanese wedding

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After introductions all round and a welcome gin and tonic, some went off to get food and six of us ventured out into the warm wet night for a visit to a local wedding. It’s not in a hall or a grand house but just in the street with a tarpaulin cover over it. There’s a stage where the bride and groom and their parents shake hands with all the guests and where a woman belts out popular Indonesian songs. Having put some money into the collection box, we are all encouraged to go and have our photos taken with the bride’s party. We slowly shuffle past the huge queues waiting for the food to be served all the time taking photos avidly of the beautiful girls in their lovely lace jackets and batik sarongs and the men in their batik shirts, and emerge elated at the other side. A short visit to the wedding organisers shop-house to see jackets, turbans, and other bits and pieces available to hire for a wedding. Our becaks are waiting for us and back we go after a great experience.

Monday – screen prints, Malioboro street and the shadow puppet show

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My very good friend Susi, who I have known for about 15 years, is going to be my assistant and confidante and local guide and she is there first thing Monday morning to lead us on a neighbourhood walk around the local area. We start with the nearby market which is in full swing: jackfruit, mangoes, chillis, tofu and tempe (fermented soya bean cakes) all kinds of ginger, very long beans, small turquoise fish 2 per basket, the “jamu” lady making tonics and pick-me-ups, gula jawa (round cakes of dark brown cane sugar) tiny little speckled eggs, chickens feet and heads, ladles and sieves made out of coconut shells, rattan fans and baskets,

After that, we walk to a silk screen printing factory which I have never known was there. Seven very long tables, and two man working efficiently together on the screen can print one layer on all the fabric in an hour and a half. They apply the first dye and then the long lengths of fabric are hoisted aloft overhead to dry and then they move onto another screen which blocks off the design of the first one and apply black dye.  In another room, the sewing machinists tell us they can sew 300 women’s kaftans in a day. They cost just 50,000rps (less than £3) each and they are ideal to slip on after a shower in this hot and humid climate. 50,000 rps is also the average daily wage of the workers here. They get their lunch thrown in but it shows the huge difference between our societies where our minimum hourly rate is more than double that.

We next call into a shop where all sorts of batik mostly old and second hand, and some real antiques are sold. We look at  stamped batik in the typical browns (soga) and indigo colours of Central Java and some beautiful hand drawn cloths from Pekalongan a city on the north coast, where the traditional floral designs were influenced by Dutch settlers. These batiks were made in the 20s and 30s before Indonesia became independent in 1945. Susi shows us how a sarung should be worn and I decide to take the opportunity to give an impromptu talk on some of the most common types of batik motif to look out for. These are:

  • parang – which means “knife” the diagonal design
  • semen – the organic design with tendrils and lots of little hook infills which is the type of Javanese design which inspired William Morris when Javanese batik was first exhibited in Europe in the 19th century
  • kawung – the four petalled design.

By now dripping with sweat we are all ready to get back and dive into our lovely swimming pool, the waterfall running down over the rocks. A great morning. Thanks to Susi for her expert local knowledge and for taking us right off the tourist track!

Later, after a talk about the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, we get into becaks for a city tour. Becaks are bicycle cabs for two people (or one if you’re a bit on the heavy side!) powered by the strong leg muscles of your becak driver. There are hundreds – if not thousands of becaks in Jogya and the drivers are always desperate for a fare. We  get going, sometimes stuck behind buses belching out black smoke and sometimes veering wildly into the path of dozens of oncoming motorbikes , but arriving safely at Jalan Malioboro the main street of Jogyakarta. This famous street is lined with stalls selling shoes, fans, keyrings, shorts, T shirts, lighters, toys, puppets, clothes and all the souvenirs you’ll ever need, and on the other side batik shops, department stores, more batik shops and souvenir shops.

We walk or rather shuffle along frequently stopping to find out the price of things, try a bit of gentle haggling, or wait for the others. Luckily with Pak Murdin at the front and Susi at the back like a sheepdog herding her sheep we all arrive back at the same point to meet up with our becak drivers again.

As darkness quickly falls and the call to prayer starts ringing out we head down to the bottom of Malioboro past the monument to the popular uprising of 1st March 1949 which finally persuaded the Dutch to do the honourable thing and grant Indonesia independence. Then we go through the archway to the Kraton and the  high white walls on either side to Alun Alun Lor the northern square with its two massive banyan trees in the middle.

On we go to Griya restaurant formerly the home of a brother of the Sultan, full of lovely antiques and two sets of gamelan instruments, and a great setting for our meal, which is very Javanese and very enjoyable. Next we are treated to a wonderful ride to the Alun Alun Kidul (south square) where there is a huge crowd of people and an amazing array of fully lit up strange and wondrous electric vehicles in the shape of swans, elephants, peacocks, and more. Tonight is the Muslim New Year and at midnight there will be a silent walk around the 4 kms of the white walls of the Kraton, and for now there are plenty of people out to enjoy themselves.

We finish up at Sono Budoyo – one of the buildings of the Kraton , the Royal Palace, for the nightly wayang kulit shadow puppet show. This is a shortened (two hour) episode from the Mahabarata. The puppeteer sits cross legged in the middle with his puppets ranging from smallest to largest on either side of him, their sticks planted firmly in a banana tree trunk. He taps with his foot and manipulates the puppets with somersaults, twirls, and there are skilful fights between Hanuman the white monkey and one of the black monkeys. You can sit and watch the puppeteer and the rather dozey gamelan players and the giggling and very glamorous women singers or you can go round to the back and watch the shadows and fully immerse yourself in the drama.

Those of us who can stick it right until the end are rewarded with the chance to play along with the gamelan players. One of them said he had been performing every night for 9 years! Back home through the dark but still teeming streets to our very welcome beds.  And that’s just the first day!

Tuesday, a cap batik masterclass at Batik Winotosastro

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We cross the very busy Jalan Parangtritis and a little way up Jalan Tirtodipuran to Batik Winotosastro and are warmly welcomed by Bu Hani and her staff. Everyone is smiley and helpful. First of all we take a look at some samples of beautiful scarves and she explains that this is what we are going to make! Then we watch the 3 young chaps who will be helping us doing the cap work. Caps are copper stamps which are used to apply wax to the cotton. They are often very beautiful and little works of art in themselves. Batik Winotosastro has hundreds of them ranged on dozens of shelves, and we have more or less free rein. Hani explains that she always asks the young men to help with the workshops because they are more flexible in their thinking and enjoy new ideas whereas the old guys just want to do the same as they have always done and don’t like to mess with the  traditional designs. 

We are soon confronted with bewildering choices to make – what colours do we want our scarves to be? What caps do we want to use? do we want a border? what will go on the ends? what about the infill? Its a lot to think about but slowly we get our heads around it.  Once we have been given instructions on how to apply the cap carefully, with just the right amount of wax, the heat and the pressure just right, our kind and patient helpers go over it again to make sure the wax resist is really good. This all takes a while and it is after 1pm before we have all finally finished this first waxing. Over lunch in a large cool room upstairs, we look at some of the pieces from Hani’s personal batik collection and at some of her family photos. She is the fifth generation of batik makers and she herself is in sole charge of the family batik factory now.

Soon we go back down to where the dyers have finished dyeing our pieces and are boiling out the first application of wax, washing them carefully and then passing them on to be ironed bone dry so that we can get on with applying the next lot of wax. This layer is to protect all the parts which we want white and it is applied with the canting. We sit on little stools around the “anglo” the wax melting pot and with the help of a young canting worker each (they working fast and precisely, us slower and more sloppily) we manage to get the second lot of wax on. By 4 o’clock everyone has just about finished and now our slendang just has to go into the final dye bath and the wax boiled off again.  We can come and collect them on Thursday. 

It was an absolutely amazing day which gave us all a real insight into the work and skill that goes into “just” cap batik.

We really need that swim and our welcome tea and cake when we get back to the Duta Hotel. The dusk comes down quickly, the bats starts flying and muezzin starts up his song from the local mosque, and there we are in the pool. Bliss!

Wednesday, to Solo for Danar Hadi’s and Trewinddu

The Chinese Batik room

The Chinese Batik room at Danar Hadi

We are up an hour earlier today to get on our little blue and red bus for the two hour trip to Solo with our  Balinese driver Indra who skilfully avoids kamikaze motorbike riders and cars under taking and over taking. There’s never ending ribbon development all the way but with plenty of vibrant green rice fields in between and once in the city of  Solo, we go straight up the huge main street to the Danar Hadi batik museum, shop and factory.

It is indeed a fabulous museum with a very knowledgeable guide who shows us round all 11 rooms containing the most beautiful  batik from all over Java: Kraton batiks with their ultra conservative and ancient traditional motifs full of significance and worn until independence only by the Sultan, his family and Court officials: “merchant” batiks made by commercial workshops with their adaptations of tradition: Chinese batik made by or for Chinese settlers who have lived in Java since well before the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in the 16th century: Batik Belanda – Dutch batik depicting flower bouquets, birds, butterflies and even fairy tales and battle scenes made by Dutch and Indische women (half Dutch half Indonesian) in the 18th and 19th century. We also see some of my favourite designs “Tiga Negeri” (three countries) which was batik commissioned by Solonese merchants and sent to Lasem on the north coast for the red “mengkudu” dye, Pekalongan or Jogya for the indigo blue and back to Solo for the soga brown dyes.  I love the fact that they tried so hard to attain the wonderful strong and vivid red that they “head hunted” dyers from Lasem, but still couldn’t do get it. There was obviously something in the soil or the water of Lasem which made so special so it was worth the cloth travelling there specifically to be dyed.

From the beautiful, elegant and air-conditioned surroundings of the museum we pass into the hot, steamy factory with the acrid smell of wax and here around 80 men and 100 women work either at the cap tables or at their bamboo stands making batik. Talk about a sweat shop! We all feel the stark contrast and pass comment that Pak Santoso the owner could spend just a little of his enormous wealth (made from selling batik) on the conditions of the workers who make it for him. It wouldn’t cost a lot to put in ventilation, windows or more fans. The contrast with Hani’s lovely workshop at Winotosastro is extreme.

After lunch (desert was an acquired taste – steamed cassava with cheese and cream) we went to Pasar Trewinddu to have a look at the Antiques market and to try and buy some second hand copper stamps.

On our way to the train station, we drive through Laweyan – Solo’s traditional batik district where the lamp-posts are shaped like cantings and the streets are named after batik designs. The tall white outer walls of the batik manufacturer family homes and workshops in the narrow lanes provide a glimpse of a rich and fascinating past.  We catch the train back to Jogya , a very pleasant journey of just an hour and a quarter through vivid green rice fields, thatched rice barns and little shelters for the bird scarers to sit and shelter from the sun. Tantalising glimpses of Mount Merapi rising hugely through the clouds make us all reach for our cameras.

Thursday, the Kraton, a downpour and the Ramayana Ballet

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Today we are going to the Sultan’s Palace, the “Kraton” through lovely shady streets quiet after the noise of traffic outside, of Dutch style bungalows with  trees and plants everywhere.

We enter through the gates into the grounds of the Royal Palace and a lady guide shows us around  whizzing through her speeches as if she wants to get us processed so that she can go back for another tour. One of the Court’s gamelan sets  is being played by mainly women players and three ladies are singing in that peculiarly Javanese discordant high pitched style which is definitely an “acquired taste” (which I have totally acquired)

We see portraits of the past 10 Sultans and their family trees with leaves for the girls, fruit for the boys and tiny unopened buds for the dead children. One Sultan had 78 children so he has a big tree!

Everywhere in the Kraton grounds, there are beautifully dressed palace guards in the Jogya style brown and white batik sarongs, hand woven lurik jackets, batik turbans and the kris knife stuck into their waistbands at the back. Occasionally there are ladies wearing batik “kemben” breast cloths and sarongs. Luckily we are also able to see the Palace guards “cleaning” the wayang kulit collection (leather shadow puppets) although this seems to consist of laying them out on the ground and then sitting having a chat and a fag with their mates.

Next we stop off to visit a wayang kulit making workshop and the master explains how buffalo hide is prepared by stretching and polishing it and then carved by tapping out shapes with 31 differently shaped chisels and flattened with a sea shell before it is painted and the buffalo horn handles are added.

He shows us the beautiful leaf shaped “Gunungan” which is used at the beginning and end of a scene in the story and the meanings of all the symbols on it. The two Guardians of good and evil the snake winding up through the tree of life, the tiger for intelligence, the bull for power, the birds and butterflies, the monkeys signifying the family and social life and at the top the lotus flower. Who would have guessed there was so much in it? Well of course, anyone who knows anything about Javanese culture I suppose.

We hoped to go on to Taman Sari – the Water Castle, but first we are in need of a stop for a drink and a snack – and its lucky that we do because no sooner are we installed in a lovely little café than the rain starts chucking it down. It’s absolutely torrential and its clear that we’re not going anywhere while that carries on – but luckily the Water Castle Cafe has good food and a very friendly family so we don’t mind. When it clears up enough to venture into the small tiny back streets we jump through puddles to visit a few small independent batik workshops. One  makes huge batik panels which are used to make designer dresses and another who makes pieces made into bright shirts

We visit Susi’s dad and the house where Susi  lived as a child and where her husband Kelik lived next door – childhood sweethearts.

By the time we’ve finally all satisfied ourselves on the various things we need to buy, its too late to go into the Water Castle but we make our way back to the becaks through a pure white underground tunnel – part of the secret way that the Court could walk from the Palace to the Pleasure Park without going through the streets.

Later that evening we get back into becaks for the short trip to Purawisata  for the Ramayana Ballet performance, which has been performed every night for the past 29 years! The outdoor stage is beautiful and we have great seats in the amphitheatre. The two women singers and the gamelan players take their seats and slowly it begins, although not before the performance is blessed by a priest with incense and flowers.

The story is beautifully sung, played, acted and danced – tiny steps, swishing sashes and amazingly delicate and flexible hand movements from the women, incredible acrobatics and fire skills from Hanoman the white monkey, great bow and arrow work as well as grace from Rama and Lakshmana, macho posturing and fierceness from Rahwarna and Kumbakarna, great shoulder-work skills from Cakil with his jutting teeth, and great antics from the monkeys (including three little kids dressed as part of the monkey family)  All in all a wonderful night and the cherry on the cake is getting up on stage for a photo with the main players – you don’t get that at Covent Garden.

Friday – Giriloyo village ladies and the Royal Tombs

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 Today our first stop is to a wood batik workshop  where the sanded wooden bowls, plates, boxes, masks, keyrings, mirrors, fridge magnets and what have you are batiked in just the same way as cloth. They are waxed, dyed and then boiled out and varnished. The end product is superb and everyone finds something they like in the rather dark and dingy warehouse.

Onwards out into the green padi fields to the Bima Sakti womens batik co-op in Giriloyo, a village famous for it very fine batik tulis. We are soon sitting on tiny low stools round tiny waxpots. It’s extremely hot and sweaty and we apply very hot and sticky dark brown wax onto designs which have been traced out onto cotton squares. Everything has to be waxed very well and doubled on the back before the cloth can be dyed. It goes first goes into detergent, then acid salts and then the dye, its washed again and goes through the whole process again (all done in a series of plastic baby baths) before finally ending up in a big cauldron for the wax to be boiled out

We sit down to lunch and then get tempted by some of the beautiful hand drawn cloths which have been made by these village ladies including some sampler cloths which include the names of the designs. We sign the guest book and looking back through it see several names we recognise – this place may be out of the way but its a mecca for batik lovers from around the world.

Our indigo blue squares  are dry so we all pile back into the bus and drive on a little further to Imogiri.  Luckily someone opens a gate (for an appropriate tip) to avoid having to climb a huge flight of stone steps and we find ourselves at the top of a very high mountain where the tombs of the former Sultans of Jogyakarta and their families are. They are only opened once a week, but before we can enter, we must be dressed in appropriate style. So we are shepherded into a very small room where three ladies dress us in tight “kain panjang” and “kemben” breast cloths – breathe in, tug and pin! What a sight we are with our bare shoulders and tight skirts. We totter with difficulty up more stone steps and at the top wait our turn to enter the tiny dark room of the tomb of the late Sultan Humenkubuwono IX. Here we can sprinkle flowers onto the tomb, touch or kiss a sacred stone, say a prayer and slowly back out again. It’s hotter than a sauna in there. About a dozen people are waiting patiently to ask the priest who sits by his everlasting holy fire to convey prayers for them. The atmosphere is solemn and spiritual, which has the effect of making us somewhat giggly.

We drive back through fields of ripe rice until we get back to Duta at 4pm bang on time for a very welcome cup of tea, a swim and the latest teatime snack!

So far, so good. Everyone is enjoying themselves. The weather is hot and sticky but there’s not much we can do about that. It’s just what Java’s like.

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