28 November, 2008

By The Way: Batik, a symbol of Javanese domination?

Sri Muljani Indrawati and Mari Elka Pangestu are the icons of Indonesian batik. The two women in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's cabinet can be seen sporting batik dresses perhaps more often than any other public figures.

The two look elegant and comfortable as they go about the business of managing the country's economy.

Batik is experiencing somewhat of a resurgent lately, with more and more people wearing the designs regularly, even to work. In the past, batik was generally reserved for special occasions, such as wedding ceremonies; most men for example would keep just two or three in their wardrobe.

Today, government agencies, state enterprises and an increasing number of private companies, make Friday "batik day" or "casual wear" day. The batik industry has responded to this by introducing more creative designs and motifs.

Short-sleeve batik shirts, long dismissed as too casual, are now in vogue even for office attire.

Personally, this is important for me. I am one of the few Indonesians who have never felt comfortable wearing batik. And if you don't feel comfortable in something, you just don't look good in it. Thankfully, a short sleeve batik shirt is not as torturous as the long ones.

I felt somewhat unpatriotic at times whenever the nation gets up in arms at Malaysia for promoting their own batik styles, and more recently at China, which has flooded malls in Jakarta with their batiks.

The resurgence in batik in Indonesiais in part a response to this growing intrusion into what Indonesians feel is our heritage. If Japan in the 1970s and 1980s had a slogan "Buy Japanese First", then Indonesians are now being told wear batik if they love their country.

I, for one, don't buy this at all.

Batik is an ancient method of dyeing fabric that was developed in Java -- so it's more correct to say that its part of Javanese heritage.

We Sumatrans have kain or songket and Baju Melayu or Teluk Belanga as traditional costumes for men. Admittedly, I'd never be seen dead in one of those.

I don't think Indonesia has the right to accuse other countries of stealing our batik. Wax printing methods have been around for centuries, which I think makes it a sort of an "open source" style. What we, or rather what the Javanese have done, is to develop the designs into a higher form of artistic expression.

The Javanese claim to batik is more a claim to specific motifs and designs. Indeed, no one can take this away from them, but if you think about it that way, there is no such thing as Indonesian batik in Indonesia, just as there is no such thing as Chinese restaurant in China or a Padang foodstall in Padang.

In Indonesia, batik aficionados recognize Yogya batiks, Solo batiks, Pekalongan batiks or Cirebon batiks for their unique designs. But there is no such thing as Indonesian batik.

The Malaysians, Indians, Chinese and Africans have every right to claim their own batiks, at least as far as motifs and designs are concerned. Incidentally, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Nelson Mandela is not wearing Indonesian batik. He may have worn a few from Iwan Tirta's collections, but apparently most of his Madiba shirts are supplied by a South African designer.

My sorry excuse for not wearing batik is that to me it is just another form of Javanese cultural domination that we other ethnic groups in Indonesia have had to endure.

They already dominate the nation through the sheer size of their numbers, especially among the ruling elite. Their culture permeates our lives, and batik is just another part of this.

But you can't win them all.

We Sumatrans won the language war back in 1928 when the Javanese, the largest cultural group in what is now Indonesia, agreed to use Malay as the root for Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. That's a huge concession on their part that no amount of "Javanization" of our local cultures can ever match.

Perhaps, I'll start wearing that batik shirt after all, if only to preserve Malay's linguistic domination. (jakartapost)

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