By Nia Fliam Ismoyo

Nestled in the mountains of the south coast of Central Java, dominating tne hillside and facing the great expanses of the South Sea, are the burial grounds of Imogiri where the last dynasties of the royal court of Yogyakarta and Surakarta rest. Built by Sultan Agung in 1645 and constructed as a panoramic mausoleum, it still shines forth as a holy place with the charismatic elegance of times gone by when Javanese kings ruled over their lands.

The agrarian village of Pajimatan rests at the base of this cemetery and has been a rich source of craftswomen supplying the court (Kraton) needs for hand batiked ceremonial cloths. These cloths have been and remain integral to the ritual of this mausoleum. As time passed, the needs for skilled hands exceeded the capacity of this village and other women from the neighboring village of Giriloyo were brought in and taught the skills of batik. According to oral documentation, over a century ago, batik was brought to Giriloyo and they in turn developed their own connection to the Yogyakarta court.

In the late 19th century with the invention of the batik cap, a copper stamp, used to print traditional batik motifs, in a more precise geometric fashion; there occurred a kind of renaissance of production of batik outside of the aristocratic circles. With the expansion of batik skills brought by the court as well as the need for cloths, the people of Giriloyo already had craft skills that they were able to use for their own economic needs. Until the 1970’s batiked ‘kain panjang’ (2 ½ m. lengths) was still a major component of Indonesian costume. So early on aside from supplying cloths for the court, they also produced cloths for batik factories in Yogyakarta. They never completed these cloths but only finished the initial and most complex portion of the batiking process. After this the cloth was brought to the Kraton or to batik factories to dye the cloth indigo blue and prepare the cloth for the final dyeing of sogo brown.

Within the ancient creative process of Java there were ‘creators’ of art and they were called ‘empu’. The term ‘empu was given to someone who had achieved a mastery of aesthetics and meditation. An ‘empu’ had an ability to create art that served as bridges between the seen and unseen dimensions and this creator was an explorer of energies that were connected to the natural world as well. The products of the ‘empu’ became art that had a function within the community because it contained such energies. The necessity of creating more of the same works was born of such a need to provide for the community in order that they might share in the power of such energies. In Javanese this is called ‘kagunan’ which is something which has a function to act as a harmonizer of nature and humanity between the seen and unseen. The motifs utilized in batiks of the village of Giriloyo are rooted in such a creative process and the craftswomen of Giriloyo have served in the role to produce these motifs in order that they might function in such a way.

In an interview with Mrs. Sangidu (aged 85) the most senior batik craftswomen of Giriloyo, we can gain a picture of life in the early 1900’s in Giriloyo.

My grandmother batiked since she was small. I learned to batik from her from the age of 10. She lived in Pajimatan and died before the Japanese invasion in 1942.During the war of independence, it was much more difficult to batik. During the Japanese occupation, the clothes we wore were not batik but were made of jute. The problem with that was that the jute was itchy and filled with lice. If we wanted to batik a cloth we had to wait in line all day to get just one cloth. You could only do that once a month. After Independence, then batiking started up again.

Until the mid-20th century, weaving was still actively carried out by many of the Giriloyo village women. Woven on simple backstrap looms, the women created sturdy broadcloth called ‘lurik’, and which were then sold to the soldiers of the Yogyakarta court. At that time the woven lurik was the traditional Javanese costume worn as a body cloth (kain panjang), with a scarf and also for men’s shirts. I don’t understand why people then became more interested in batik. But the public favored the richly decorated batiked cloths to the simple woven luriks. In time the demand for batik far exceeded the requests for the lurik cloths and eventually there were no longer young people interested in continuing the weaving tradition until it disappeared entirely. A lot of the young people felt that batik was much easier than weaving, required less equipment and could be sold more quickly. Women of all ages were interested in batik and the number of skilled craftswomen increased. In those days from our batik work, we could buy rice and spices. But nowadays the batik is only enough to buy the spices. Instead of batiking many younger women are now making plastic bags by matting strips of plastic. A lot of them feel that it’s much easier to do this than to batik because it doesn’t require as much skill as batik and it pays as much or more. And they can do it while talking and socializing.

One of the young women who studied with Mbah Gidu in the 50’s was Ibu Hartina. She is now the head of the only cooperative in Giriloyo, Bima Sakti which was started in 1981. Through some funding from the United Nations in 1982, the Dept. of Industry taught women from this cooperative to process their own cloth. With this knowledge, they were no longer dependent on orders from the court or selling their cloths to factories in Yogyakarta and could sell the finished product themselves. The cooperative now consists of 6-9 women who get together regularly to process their cloth which they batik in their respective homes. Ibu Hartinah sells the coop cloths directly from her home. Following are some of her memories of batik and its role in the life of Giriloyo.

‘In my lifetime there has been such a drastic change in life here in the village. Because of the limited farming land, fewer people are farming and many more are working as laborers. In terms of part time work, the women prefer to do some kind of work that is quick and easy and can make money.

Before his death Pak Raden Harsoyo, of the Yogyakarta court (Kraton), urged us to preserve the traditional motifs. This didn’t mean that he didn’t approve if we did piece work for designers or sold the work to factories, but he really emphasized the need to continue to make batik with the traditional motifs. I have completed many cloths for the Kraton. There are some motifs that I am allowed to reproduce and sell and there are some that I have been told that I cannot make except for the Kraton. I wouldn’t dare to disobey. I have made the large Kampuh cloths, which are the traditional marriage cloth for the Kraton and consist of matching cloths for the bride and groom. The cloths are from 5-7 1/2 m. in length, we divided the batik work amongst us. When I was asked by the Kraton to make the kampuh again, I had to refuse. Some of the women who batiked with me before could no longer help and one woman had died. I am also now very busy with my grandchildren. To make the kampuh, I had to really concentrate. In the morning I had to finish all of my housework before I could begin and I couldn’t do anything else. You have to have a perfectly quiet heart and full concentration to do that kind of fine work.”

Within the court system that supported the birth and zenith of Javanese traditional batik, the system of ‘empu’ which is a Javanese term for a master who has excellent technical skills, a deep philosophical grounding and esoteric abilities in meditative practice which such a master would have used to approach the creation of sacred objects. This term is more than the master artist for not only does the term ‘empu’ imply a master of aesthetics but it also is essential that such a person has the capacity to create objects which bear symbolic significance and act as a mediator between the seen and unseen world.

The batiks of Giriloyo were born of such a tradition. Will there be a future for this ancient tradition within the contemporary agrarian culture without the court patronage? Among those craftpeople who continue to preserve the techniques and motifs of traditional batik will there be ‘creators’ who can touch all the levels from which Javanese traditional batik reached its zenith.

What is the relevance of these sorts of motifs? Why not just leave them and forget them as something from the past? This traditional art form which in bygone eras had an important function has now become only decorative patterns for fashion and an economic tool. Perhaps what was most important in traditional batik was the inner meaning that was found in its motifs which now remain relevant in our era.

Beauty has broad boundaries and forms appear as an interaction through the spirit of humankind from era to era. So the heritage from our ancestors can be found in symbols which are not static but act as a constant bond from generation to generation. The form of expression of these symbols will appear as is relevant to each era.

The artists of Utopia, shown in this exhibition, also batik symbols from their ancestors but directly with their creativity and these symbols function as art icons. But they created batik from the beginning in the 1970s as a means of achieving economic independence. However, they still create with a connection to the earth and the ‘Dreaming’ of the respective artists. These symbols that were originally only used during their ceremonies, remain important to them in this regard and function as well s in their batik, which they sell for a profit. Although both Giriloyo and the Utopia artists create batik by working together on a cloth, their processes are very different.

Why are the Giriloyo batiks in an art exhibition?

The production process of traditional batiks has great relevance in our contemporary era of mass production. The structure of the collective in the production of batik is of great interest and is valuable to examine. From the creation of a design by a master, through the production of a batik, until the wax is removed from the cloth, where the cloth has a function within the community. The cloth remains imbued with its culture though the aspects have changed

What aspects of the collective process of ancient Java can be found in batik in Giriloyo today?

In ancient times batik motifs were valued because of the connection giving meaning which the master or creator was able to give to a cloth. At this time the Kraton still values these symbols but the old system of ‘larangan’ (where certain motifs were restricted because of their spirit power) has become a means of social status. In Bu Hartinah’s batik work we can see that her work still carries a vibration and is integral to the batik making process which has a magic of leading the maker into an atmosphere of ‘larashati’ or calmness. The essence of the collective that was handed down in the artistic batiks is filled with many levels of meaning relevant to students of textile in this era as well. The format of the infrastructure of batik, at its zenith, carried all aspects of culture and were interconnected in a wholeness. The function of the inner value of an artwork served to strengthen the energies of the people in the community and lead them on a path of seeking greater knowledge relevant to the era. Symbols handed down in fact reflect the true spirit of a culture which gives a sense of self to its people. In short symbols can form and give life to their community. If there are ‘creators’ are engaged, new forms will be born and designers will most certainly be inspired to connect and move towards some wholeness in culture. Where are the ‘creators’ of batiks in Indonesia at this time who can touch all the layers that are manifest in the heritage of traditional Indonesian batik? Culture is likened to a plant and as such much be looked after.
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