Pieces of batik hang in glass cases in the Batik Gallery at the Jakarta Textile Museum like illustrated pages jumping off history books.
Each piece tells the life stories and legends of a bygone era in Kudus, the smallest district in Central Java.
One piece shows a black-and-white motif of a capsized ship. The unique piece of batik tells the history of Adm. Cheng Ho, who came to Indonesia in the early 1400s. One of his ships capsized just off the coast from Mount Muria, a dormant volcano, washing its cargo and survivors ashore.
The ship’s cargo consisted of exotic spices from around the world that sprouted on the fertile land around the volcano and still grow there today. Its survivors, the admiral’s army, populated the villages below Mount Muria and are the ancestors of the people of Kudus.
Another unique motif from Kudus is Pakis Haji , or Queen Sago Palm, which depicts the palm’s deeply furrowed trunks and lush green foliage.
“Sunan Muria [the guardian of Muria] cut the tree trunk and made it into a cane that accompanied him during his travels across Java to spread Islamic teachings in the 16th century,” said Yuli Astuti, a batik Kudus artisan. “It’s believed that the cane had magical powers.”
Yuli was one of the pioneers who led a batik revival in Kudus in 2005.
Since the early 1900s, batik from Kudus has been famous for its pictorial and calligraphic motifs. It reached its golden era in the 1930s, when Lie Boen Ien and Liem Wie Tjioe, batik artisans of Chinese descent from the northern coastal city of Pekalongan, also in Central Java, relocated to Kudus and set up production centers.
They combined their expertise and knowledge with the local cultural elements of Kudus batik.
“That’s what makes Kudus batik so unique,” Yuli said. “It’s a multicultural product that combines local, Chinese and Islamic elements.”
The Chinese batik artisans developed vibrant flora and fauna motifs in Kudus, such as the ornate buketan , or floral bouquet, and the exquisite merak katelia peacock and Cattleya orchids, designs that can take more than one year to create.
Handmade Kudus batik went into decline with the introduction of printed and hand-stamped techniques in the 1970s. Customers preferred these new varieties because it was much cheaper, due to the shortened production process.
“By the 1980s, Kudus batik was near extinction,” Yuli said. “The young generation chose to leave batik-painting and work in cigarette factories that guaranteed more pay for less work.”
Kudus produces tobacco and cloves and is an important center for cigarette production, with more than 100 factories.
By 2005, there was only one batik artisan left in Kudus, Niamah, who was then 75 years old and did not have any children to follow in her footsteps.
Jakarta Textile Museum
Jl. K.S. Tubun No. 2-4
Tel: 021 5606613
Rumah Pesona Kain
Epicentrum Walk, 6th Floor No. B 606 - B 608
Kompleks Rasuna Epicentrum
Jl. H.R. Rasuna Said
Tel: 021 29941109
Read the full article by Sylviana Hamdani