Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Blue (and white) had always been Vira’s thing. She has a thing for Santorini and Greece, and it’s a concept I’ve come accustomed to. It wasn’t my specific liking, though I don’t doubt it’s a nice combination, until the movie Troy. I was captivated by the dyed blue on white, decorated with golden accessories, worn by blue bloods of Troy. It was a humble elegance. Not too intimidating, depicting approachable royals. Little did I know back then, indigo or the hue of blue was the color of royalty and one of the oldest colors in the world. I was hooked. So, in the invitation of The Sidji Hotel for an indigo batik dyeing workshop, Vira and I were so on board, and made a weekend visit. (Check out our review on The Sidji Hotel here.)
Naturally, anyone would think an indigo workshop would be about learning how to make the dye, applying it to cloth, and then having awesome blueish textile. But I found myself in the presence of Pak Zahir, who had prepared everything beforehand and just talked me, and a few other enthusiasts, through it. Not that it’s not possible to DIY the process, but his natural process takes time, more than just merely a weekend. Thus, after explaining and merely presenting the process, he left us to draw on blank white scarfs and to dye it.
It was a nice humble ambiance to be sitting on the terrace of Pak Zahir’s home and trying our luck on batik. His home was in the middle of a quiet housing complex at Noyotaan alley, close to the Pekalongan city center. Ibu Sri, his wife, patiently guided us through applying wax with ‘canting’ and answered every whine we had on why the copper-wooden device wouldn’t work. We were such city kids, trying to swap ‘canting’s when merely we just didn’t have the patience nor skill to use it well, yet. Aside to drawing, the group also got to pop in Pak Zahir’s ‘kitchen’, tried some of the batik stamping process and dipped our cloth in batches of indigo of our choice.
It tickled me, once I realised that he explained the indigo and batik process without the mouth-thumps of the Javanese accent. I had been so used to Javanese people teaching and explaining batik to me. Surprisingly, he wasn’t one. He’s a native Palembang, located in South Sumatera, and had only moved to Java after marrying his wife. While his Javanese accent might seem missing, it’s overwhelmingly compensated by his fiery passion. His eyes glimmers every time he shares one of his discoveries.
While I can’t really explain every single detail of the process, you need to visit Pak Zahir for that, I did learn a thing or two during the visit. Pak Zahir is a strong believer of natural material. He believes it’s the best kind around. In his own words, he believes our Indonesian ancestors weren’t dumb, in fact they were really smart. They created long lasting natural coloring, one that can still beat current chemical coloring, popular for its convenience. Blocks of brown sugar and a vase of lime are just some things that were in front of him, to show he uses natural ingredients for the best results. Also, he can’t make the same blue twice. Every batch is different, no matter how hard he tries to replicate it. That’s why he keeps some of his batches if there’s no need to replace them.
What I didn’t know was not only did he have a liking for indigo coloring, he was also a researcher in batik. Double jackpot! Pak Zahir is the dean of the Batik Faculty in Pekalongan University and also part of the team that made batik listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. Wow! The night we had our workshop, he dropped the hotel by to educate us more about batik. Presumably, I thought I knew enough about batik. As usual, I was wrong.
In fact, I knew far from enough to even understand the definition of batik and the basic fundamentals. He explained much of what he had learned about batik and he could explain it in a simple manner to the us. In short, he explained that batik is not merely old patterns on a cloth. By technical definition, batik is a process of color blocking with wax using the ‘canting or stamp’ and dyeing it in color. That’s why many other countries have batik such as Japan with Shibori, Malaysian batik, etc. But what’s awesome about Indonesian batik is that it involves natural ingredients, craftsmanship of equipment, material, applying pattern, and processing it to end product. Even the patterns can be said a ‘batik motif’ only if the cloth was preorder and had a ‘motif’ in the making process. It’s not merely a pattern, it’s a culture, an industry, and eventually an identity of a nation.
The group was also educated on differentiating real batik to those that only use the pattern. Batik is made of color blocking with natural wax and it’s impossible to be 100% perfect. This comes to my favorite batik philosophy. Batik’s perfection lies in its imperfection. A true batik cloth is that of imperfect lines because all is handmade. The more detailed, colorful, and neatly made, the costlier it sells. But, even the most precise, beautiful, expensive batik will have flaws, because it’s made by hand. If the batik is printed by machine and does not include the traditional process, dare I say, it’s not ‘batik’ at all.
I could blab about batik all day, but I think the attention span for online reading won’t stretch that far. I haven’t even begun to tell how important it is to understand the definition of it and how it can maintain a large industry and livelihood of the Indonesian people. Not to mention, the scandals. Oh yes, there’s some of that! It should be done over a decent cup of coffee and cake. All I can say is that Vira and I were educated and I felt that I levelled up when it comes to the knowing which is the authentic batik. Beware, I’ll be watching!
I can’t say that this workshop is a regular thing. We were fortunate to participate as it was organized by The Sidji Hotel, Pekalongan. Considering enthusiasm, I think the hotel will organize other workshops in the future. What’s more interesting is that Pak Zahir is no regular batik producer. Aside to teaching and running a faculty, he and his wife produce their own batik in their own time, they don’t have a mass production or a lot of stock. His stock are those results of his experiments and those for special occasions like exhibitions and such. And his designs are quite interesting for the current market. The group happened to clean out his old stock, even bought some of those he considered failed. It’s a great collection! He looked very happy and confused at the same time.
When I asked him, why is he doing all of this, learning a culture that is not his roots and struggling for it, he replied, “Knowledge always finds a place to be contained. I just accept it.”
By the end of the session I realised, I couldn’t believe we worked a dean into making us batik in his own home. Not to mention, he had to finish the process just because we had little time on our hands. Hence, his hands turned even blue that night, when he presented about batik.
For more information about this batik workshop you can contact The Sidji Hotel.
I would like to thank The Sidji Hotel, Pekalongan, for the visit. It was far from a mere weekend visit to the ‘batik city’; it was an enlightenment to my knowledge. Also thanking Pak Zahir for his will to share knowledge of what he knows so far. I’m sure we’ll meet again in the future for more knowledge. In the mean time, how do you like my handmade indigo batik? It’s an ode to the indigo tree.