April 22, 2010

Go: Art capital of Java


Batik, silverware, leather goods... HEIDI MUNAN visits Jogjakarta and is captivated by its many crafts

These workers are protected from inhaling dust and chemical fumes
These workers are protected from inhaling dust and chemical fumes
IN Java, wearing fine batik has been the prerogative of the high and mighty for as long as anybody can remember. The best artists were employed by the courts and they had no other work but to produce masterpieces for the noble families.

These workers are protected from inhaling dust and chemical fumes
In the 21st Century, connoisseurs still consider Java batik to be the world’s best, and Jogjakarta, or Jogja in short, the “batik capital” of Java.

Jogja is heir to the traditions of the defunct Javanese empire Mataram, and continues to foster all the ancient arts as valuable industries — batik, silver, leather, wood, ceramic, fibre crafts and related branches.

A government agency, Joga Craft, coordinates research and development, and helps cottage entrepreneurs market their wares.

“About 80 per cent of our batik is exported,” says a government officer, adding that “a good proportion of it goes to renowned fashion houses the world over.”
“Batik production” sounds like the work of factories. In fact, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of home or village-based batik producers.

Most employ a few dozen workers, some of whom attend to the mundane jobs such as preparing the dyes, soaking the wax, hanging out cloths to dry, etc.

Only skilled hands are entrusted with the canting (tjanting), an ingenious device that channels liquid wax in a fine stream, not unlike a fountain pen.

With this tool, the worker — no, the artist — draws time-honoured designs on fine cotton, or silk.

Completely hand-drawn pieces are obviously the most expensive, costing well over RM1,000, especially if they are teamed with a sash.

There’s a semi-automatic method of batik-making. A cap (tjap) or brass template is used rather like a rubber stamp, except that it is dipped into hot wax instead of ink.

This device produces repetitive overall patterns. The edge of the piece may still be finished by hand.

High-end consumers turn up their noses at batik cap, they wouldn’t even look at fabrics which are machine-printed with batik designs!

Only in Jogja

Tourists are not so particular. They can visit batik boutiques all over town and look at the luxury items even if they don’t buy many.

Jogjakarta lies in a district of fertile farmlands, where suburbs merge into padi fields
Jogjakarta lies in a district of fertile farmlands, where suburbs merge into padi fields

There is a roaring trade in every kind of craft, including batik, up and down the bazaars. Get an eyeful of the famous Malioboro shopping street where everything is on offer, from cheapy-cheap to court-standard!

“Court Standard” means something in Jogja. The present Sultan is also Governor of the Special Administrative Region, and he keeps the court of his ancestors in impeccable order.

Some parts of it are accessible to tourists — but don’t dream of strolling through the venerable portals of the kraton in shorts and T-shirt. Long skirts or pants, please, and decent shirts or blouses!

The Palace itself is an intricate array of buildings, courts, ponds and gazebos. With a bit of imagination, we can picture the coming and going of a sultan’s extensive family, numerous vassals and slaves, the noise of domestic work, music in the women’s pavilion, shouting in the kitchens, restless horses clanking their harness... all that is gone, but some of the atmosphere remains.

Elderly retainers here and there act as guardians of the place, guides stand by to explain the many exhibits to visitors. A gamelan orchestra performs in an open-sided central hall, a lengthy show of wayang kulit (shadow puppets) is in progress.

More crafts

Shadow puppets are cut of parchment-like leather, brilliantly coloured, to represent the good and evil characters of ancient tales.

The puppeteer manipulates the figurines on slender rods, illuminated by a strong light that throws their moving shadows on a screen in front of the audience.

Wayang puppets and leather-work in general is another craft for which Jogjakarta is famous. Harness-makers and saddlers used to work for the royal stables, other fine leather-work was made for the court, and for those townsfolk who could afford it.

To this day, the ponies who pull andong (horse carriages) around town are sprucely harnessed and decorated. The natty carriages do more than just add a picturesque note to the town’s street scene, they demonstrate its comparative safety. In Jakarta traffic, a pony would be reduced to minced meat in less than 10 minutes!

Horse furniture is embellished mainly with brass buckles, bells and spangles. In the old days some of it was silver.

Once upon a time, a whole village was employed by the court, simply to produce precious metal utensils and jewellery. This is Kota Gede at the southern fringe of the town, where every third house is either a silver workshop, or a silver showroom.

Like batik, silver comes in different quality and price ranges, and it’s worked in a variety of techniques. Filigree, lace-fine flowers and ornaments made from thin silver wire, is one of the specialties of Kota Gede. Young female artisans with slender fingers seem to be particularly good at this. A few ateliers turn out repouss√© work, sheets of silver foil hammered into a carved mould that gives the finished work its shape.

According to one silversmith, the “good old days” were in the 1920s and 30s, when Dutch colonial officers ordered whole tea and table services to be made to individual designs. The skill is still here — but who orders a solid silver teapot, cream jug, sugar basin and hot-water jug nowadays? With a massive silver tray?

Unfortunately the price of silver has risen in the last decade so the finished products, however beautiful and artistic, cost more too. “Novelty” items like a silver figurine of a horse, a boat and the like sometimes catch the eye of a wealthy buyer, but the most popular items are jewellery, brooches and bangles and neckpieces, often matched.

It’s no longer enough to be a good silversmith — an artisan has to be a good businessman too, and keep a sharp eye on fashion trends.

Travel Tips

Visitors to Jogjakarta can find accommodation aplenty, from five-star hotels in town to very modest homestays in the Prawirotaman area.

A few “heritage homestays” have taken over colonial mansions, some of them beautifully adapted. It is a good idea to browse the Jogja section of and make a few inquiries before booking at a really cheap place.

And then, rush into the shopping fray. Malioboro Street is a good place to start. Don’t forget to bargain vigorously!

Ask around for smaller, specialised markets like the one at Baringhario where locals go for spices and jamu. There’s even a Bird Market at Ngasem — the problem is probably how to bring your tweeting purchase back home.


Batik and silver ateliers welcome visitors. Jogja Crafts can provide their addresses. Details, call 62-274 488 560, 274 4890 219, 274 749 7005, fax 62-274 488 560 or email

There are daily direct flights from KL to Jogjakarta. Check flight details with Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaa or AirAsia (
A mistress of the art, working on an exclusive piece of batik
A mistress of the art, working on an exclusive piece of batik


Susanne49 said...

Very interesting to learn so much about Java and its culture, people and their work. Thanks for sharing.

Sorry for being absent so long from your blog. A lot was going on here and still is. After hubby's health problems we have to find now a new living place. :)

I'll be back commenting, maybe not every day... I hope everything is fine with you and your family.

riwayaterakru said...

Me too Sue, have not been there for a long time, looking for something that I want my blog to be like. I thought I have found it now. I will be there as usual, insyaALLah.