The Ancestral Heritage of Natural Dyeing in Batik Design

Photography By Windy Ariestanty

“Our ancestors’ knowledge is too distant.” The words of Zahir Widadi, an indigo batik craftsman from Pekalongan and Dean of the Batik Technology Faculty of Pekalongan University, were unmistakable even through the sound of heavy rain. “If we don’t introduce today’s generation to the value behind batik and natural dyeing that have existed for hundreds of years, our ancestors’ legacy will be doomed.”

Despite indigo—from the Indigofera plant—not being native to Indonesia, the existence of this colour can never be separated from Pekalongan. Located on the north coast of Java, this UNESCO award-winning city was not only the gateway through which indigo arrived in Indonesia, but was once the largest indigo exporter in Southeast Asia.

In 1830, paddies in the west side of northern Java—Pekalongan, Kendal, Brebes—were damaged. Harvests plummeted. As the largest port city in South East Asia at the time, Pekalongan bustled with traders from many different countries. India exported indigo to China through northern Java. Due to the extremely fertile soil, tom (Javanese for indigo) seeds brought by the Indians thrived.

From a book belonging to a Dutch acquaintance, Zahir discovered something that started his involvement with indigo natural dyeing. “In that book, I read that the north coast of Java was known as the best blue gold exporter,” says Zahir. The ‘blue gold’ refers to Indigofera. The Dutch East Indies Company, which at the time was suffering the effects of increasing competition in their sugar export business began to switch their investment to this marvellous indigo-producing plant. Sugar cane fields became indigo fields.

That line from the book fuelled his desire to find out more about the ‘blue gold’ story. Every morning at 3 o’clock, Zahir woke up and drove his motorbike along the north shore to sickle wild indigo. For years he has been learning all he can about natural dyeing using this moringa-like leaf: trying to recreate the processes that would have been used since over two hundred years ago.“Batik Tiga Negeri (three-land batik),” says Zahir, referring to one of the batik masterpieces, “incorporates three primary batik colours; red from Lasem, sogan (brown) from Solo, and blue from Pekalongan. The Pekalongan blue is indigo.” According to Zahir, colour actually has gender.

Our ancestors combined the feminine sogan with the masculine indigo to produce colour harmony. The colour combining is an example of our ancestors’ wisdom, they believed that everything on Earth comes in pairs. As for the concealment of indigo behind sogan to produce an almost black colour, Zahir thought it as a political act of not making foreigner’s colour the primary one in Javanese batik that had no blue.

“Remember, indigo did not originate from Java, but India,” Zahir continues. In addition to being the oldest colour on Earth, indigo is also a sacred colour that depicts the relationship between the wearer and the Highest, and behaviour best displayed by a warrior or leader. “That’s why indigo is only worn by a king and his sons.” The man who was once the head of the Pekalongan Batik Museum adds that indigo is also a colour that symbolises firmness.

Hidden in the original cloth, ancestors have left a legacy of their natural dyeing technique, revealed only to those who seek it. “In a piece of cloth, not only knowledge of a design process is presented and documented, but also wisdom and behaviour.” Having studied philosophy makes Zahir believe that the legacy of traditional knowledge, including natural dyeing techniques for fabric, will vanish if not preserved by later generations. So, do not be upset if someone steals, develops and makes our ancestors’ knowledge theirs. “Not until this happens do our people usually shout in disagreement, like in that ‘claimed batik’ incident,” he chuckles.

Unwilling to see our ancestors’ knowledge vanish or get stolen, Zahir conducted research to reveal their natural dyeing technique that was able to produce a blue that would not fade for hundreds of year, and would also make the fabric long-lasting. “I never want to say that indigo is an ancient colour that once disappeared. Don’t let it happen again,” Zahir says. His research was fruitful. Zahir found out that there were three natural reductors used by our ancestors in indigo dyeing: brown sugar, molasses (a viscous product resulting from refining sugarcane), and tape (sweet food made from fermented cassava or glutinous rice). He also found that nature and weather conditions can also have an effect on the resulting blue. In fact, no two shades of indigo will look alike after dyeing.

He distributed his findings to college students, farmers, weavers, batik artisans, or anyone with a general interest. At his house, Zahir holds workshops on hand-drawn and stamped indigo batik on various fabrics. He also educates batik craftsmen to produce quality indigo Pekalongan batik. Besides focusing on natural indigo dyeing techniques, Zahir also developed tanahan batik patterns—small patterns that become the background for the main pattern. As a man of tradition, Zahir believes every batik pattern has a special meaning and purpose. Using tanahan as his indigo batik pattern is Zahir’s way to be able to wear batik all the time without ruining the tradition.

Those who have learned from Zahir come from all around the globe. “By sharing, we have protected this natural dyeing technique,” he says calmly while teaching me to fold batik cloth.

“Our ancestors didn’t teach us to keep knowledge to ourselves and be greedy. Is there anywhere in the scriptures that mentions a natural dyeing technique was found by ancestor A or B?” he asks while smiling. “Our ancestors, on the contrary, taught that one of the creators’ attitudes is being humble. They merge with the creation. What we need to do is preserve their inherited knowledge so it doesn’t become extinct.”

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Windy Ariestanty