While batik is well known as a tangible piece of the nation’s cultural heritage, few realise the deeper intangible heritage that underscores its gorgeous patterns. Batik, which literally means to write dots in Sanskrit, contains meaningful symbols that have been inspired by classic Sanskrit stories. And the late master batik designer Iwan Tirta crafted designs that broached the traditional with the contemporary.
Photo by Iwan Tirta Private Collection and Bagus Tri Laksono
While heritage is typically passed from one generation to another, this was not the case for Iwan Tirta. The maestro batik maker, who was also a Yale-trained lawyer, did not learn to make batik from his parents, as many traditional artisans do. Born in 1935, he trained under royal batik makers in the Surakarta palace while researching the kingdom. Since then, the name of Iwan Tirta has been inseparable from batik.
During his research in the 1970s, Iwan realised that batik was similar to a chronograph, or time record, based on Javanese philosophies of life. While most motifs are based on organic or animal patterns, each symbol also can represent a character or setting, says Era Soekamto, the creative director of Iwan Tirta Private Collection.
“For example, the parang [knife] pattern. The parang depicts the bravery of royal men. At the same time, it is also drawn in recline to show that the higher we go, the more we have to sharpen ourselves,” These stories and philosophies remain relevant, not only for those of royal heritage, but for all of us.
Era, an acclaimed fashion designer who was invited to join the Iwan Tirta Private Collection after Iwan’s death, says that some of the patterns that he was most famous for popularising were reproduced from architectural masterpieces dating to the Majapahit kings.
Although Iwan may not have seen the works with his own eyes, he likely gleaned information from books or from stories heard from his teachers. Era said that she herself discovered artefacts that were similar to the designs of Iwan when doing research for her own designs under the label.
The batik designed by Iwan Tirta has long been celebrated for its macroscopic patterns, which take subtle motifs from traditional batik and magnify them greatly. His works also offer a different aesthetic when compared to traditional batik. Although boasting a contemporary look, Iwan’s pieces are have been crafted following traditional principles of batik making, which includes meditation and fasting before starting the design process.
“Fasting let him find a peace, which later made it easier to find inspiration for him to do his designs. The artisans may acknowledge this habit. However, the process of making batik is indeed a form of meditation, as people are recommended to be quiet so they can be focused and calm in applying the wax. As batik making is a part of the lives of many Javanese women, this meditative batik has became a part of their culture and something that has been inherited over the generations, which make it a piece of intangible heritage,” Era said.
By chance, Era shared a similar experience with Iwan, in that she learned batik from royal artisans from the same clan. She learned nyanting (to put the wax before the dyeing process) from the designer Carmanita, while Iwan learned the process from Carmanita’s grandmother.
Era said that she values Iwan’s philosophy in batik designs, hence she passionately traced and interpreted the history of each of the 13,000 patterns he had designed before making them into clothing that allows people to cover themselves with pride and heritage. Era has also recently offered classes mixing batik and meditation classes to the general public so people can comprehend the serenity in batik making.
The offerings of the Iwan Tirta Private Collection show that batik is more than a fabric. It has stories, an intensive creative process and meaningful symbolism. Meanwhile, Era says that the patterns of the Iwan Tirta Private Collection can soon also be found in our living spaces, through innovative collaborations with granite-tile makers and interior designers.