Pekalongan is a small city on the northern coast of central Java. Five hours by train from Jakarta, it is also known to Indonesians as the City of Batik.
Batik is synonymous with Indonesia and it can generally be categorised into two types. Batik Keraton with traditional royal motifs from inland area such as Yogyakarta or Solo; and the Persisiran (coastal range) batik from Pekalongan, Ceribon and Lasem. Pekalongan batik is unique in that it bears motifs that is an acculturations of Javanese, Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, and Arabic design influence. The wide variety of Pekalongan batik is a reflection of a rich culture and history in multi-cultural existence.
Oey Soe Tjoen is a famous Chinese batik maker of the 20th century; sarongs with his signature are prized collection today. Each one of these sarongs takes up to two years to produce by hand. Observe the fine craftsmanship with little dots. The ‘Bunga Hokokai’ (Japanese Flower) motifs and the ‘Pagi Sore’ (Day and Night) design produced by Pekalongan chinese are popular with the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore.
I have always wanted to go to Pekalongan, having heard and read so much about the place. Due to circumstances, I was not able to reach this place in my earlier expeditions to Java.
As an artist, I have an overwhelming curiosity for batik painting which has led me to pursue my Masters Degree dissertation on Innovating Batik Painting in Art Practices in 2006. Through my teaching of batik and entries into my online blog, I have become sort of an accidental scholar in batik. And as luck would have it, the former director of Pekalongan Batik Museum Mr. Zahir Widadi stumbled upon my blog and extended an invitation to their annual festival, The 2nd Pekan Batik International 2009 from 29th April to 3rd of May.
The Pekalongan Batik Museum which is at the centre of this festival was opened in 2006. It is a private museum owned by a foundation. The small museum is the former city hall building built by the Dutch colonial. It today housed a collection of Pekalongan batik as well as batik from different parts of Indonesia and included a gallery dedicated to Indonesia’s foremost batik master Irwan Tirta. They also have exhibits of batik implements and a batik resource centre. The museum staff are very helpful and would gladly give you a guided tour of the exhibits and explain the process of batik making.
We also had the honour of meeting Mr Dudung Alie Syahbana who is rapidly becoming a household name in fine batik. His design is contemporary, yet the fine craftsmanship rivals the classics. He has an interesting house made of traditional wooden carvings and experiments constantly with natural fibres. He is all excited about his latest project of making batik on fabric made of ratan fibre. He even showed us his amazing collection of antique batiks.
We got to visit one of the oldest tjap (stamp) batik factory, run by Mr. Facthur Rahman who is a third generation batik maker. They make batik the traditional way by stamping wax onto cloth and then immersing the fabric in dye solution. He does it on a grand scale and their output for local and export market is impressive.
Accompanying me on this trip is Mr. Dino Hafian and artist Teng Nee Cheong. We were also joined by my Malaysian counterpart Miss Emilia Tan, the publisher of myBatik and her entourage. We had a meeting with the mayor Dr. Basyir Ahmad to personally thank him for the gracious hospitality accorded to us. We had a discussion on promoting tourism as well as international trade for batik. He is obviously a leader of the people and passionate about batik. He told us that of the 14 Indonesian provinces producing batik, Pekalongan produces 70% of the total amount.
Pekalongan is truly a batik city. Everyone wears batik, school uniforms are in batik and it is common sight to see trucks laden with loads of fabric or chemicals plying their roads. Tons of batik leave this city for the world in several containers every night. Rightfully, this is the centre of the centre (excuse me for stealing this phrase from the movie Slumdog Millionaire). Later that afternoon we witnessed their batik parade. It was a visual delight filled with pomp and pageantry.
For a batik practitioner, this trip to Pekalongan is like a holy pilgrimage. I am truly blessed.