Batik at Tembi, with Tatang
After the busy dusty dirty streets of Jakarta, it was pure relief to arrive in Tembi, South Yogyakarta, with its bright green rice fields, banana trees, ginger and coconut palms.
I couldn’t resist returning to the village of Tembi, it was where I first met Tatang and visited his group of batik artists last year, during my Scholarship trip. I wanted to meet up with them all again and see their new work, this time with Richard.
Tembi Rumah Budaya
We stayed in Tembi Rumah Budaya, or ‘Tembi Cultural Home’, in a traditional style bungalow surrounded by rice and peanut fields. Everyday agricultural workers tended the land by hand, weeding, harvesting peanuts or planting rice for the rainy season. It was a really lovely place to stay and incredible value, at £30 a night it included breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea with cake and dinner, which I hadn’t known about when making the booking, such good luck !
Soon after our arrival we were greeted by Tatang to discuss our week ahead. We planned to visit batik villages, wood carvers, Parang machete makers, cap printing workshops and cap makers, batik artists and puppet makers, all with Tatang as our fabulous cultural arts tour guide.
Tembi Rumah Budaya has its own small Museum of culture and a music forum allowing students to study and play Gamelan and other musical instruments. On our first night we were invited to a concert of Javanese folk usic in the amphitheatre at the back of the grounds. The female singer sounded melodiously beautiful, her voice crystal clear, full of quivering harmonies and expression. It was a real treat and we only had a few steps to our bungalow afterwards. The next night there were several singing groups from Sulawesi, Borneo, Malaysia and Java, playing in a mixture of styles, some quite theatrical and dramatic.
Many of the villages in this this region of Bantul including Tembi are known for their batik making, each specialising in its own distinctive style. The creative skills of ordinary and often poor people are breathtaking, exquisite Tulis designs delicately flow across the cloth, all hand drawn in wax with a canting.
The women generally work in rudimentary conditions; a low stool on a concrete floor, a bamboo stand to drape the cotton over, a kerosene burner to heat the aluminium bowl containing the wax and various sized cantings filling a rusty tin. Their manner is serene while they work almost instinctively, “drawing” repeated designs with wax onto the length of cotton.
I spent two days with some ladies working on my own batik at Tatang’s workshop, it was a real privilege. Sitting on a small stool all day was challenging enough, but to keep a steady and constant hand while applying wax to draped, un taut cotton was very difficult ! Batiking the traditional Javanese way is all together different and much more demanding than our contemporary methods in the UK. It’s about precision and accuracy, calm application with an even flow of wax and no drips allowed.
As I only had 2 days to make this 2 metre batik cloth I decided to mix abstract and traditional motifs to make faster progress. It was hot work but pleasantly therapeutic with the chatter of people around me, the regular Muezzin call to Prayer and the distant Gamelan playing.
I was able to complete my batik in time, dyeing it with green and blue Naphthol dyes, with the help of Tatang, who did all the chemical work for me. Naphthol dyes are banned in Europe, UK and the USA because of their toxicity and danger to the environment. It is a shame we don’t have a safe version of, or similar dye to Naphthol because of their instant colourfastness and ability to be boiled without losing any colour depth. As soon as my batik had its final blue dye, still wet, it was dipped into a pot of boiling water to remove the wax, all done in 5 minutes ! It would have taken me at least a day of ironing through newspaper at home with my Procion cold water dyes, and wax residue would still remain.
On our way to a cap making workshop we popped in to see Mufida’s natural dye studio set in a picturesque rural area outside Tembi, it was good to see her again and admire her beautiful batik work.
We visited a cap making workshop and saw the lengthy and skilful process of cap construction, where copper strips are carefully bent into shapes and soldiered onto a framework, creating intricate patterns to print hot wax onto cotton. This home industry was hidden in a small village, down a back lane, a place we would never have found alone.
The next day Tatang took me to a friend’s cap stamping workshop to have a go at the cap printing process myself. I expected to have a few basic lessons first, but was ‘thrown in the deep end’. A two metre length of cotton was smoothed onto the printing pad, my instructor Rahmad folded it diagonanlly across one end to make a crease, then I was told to follow the fold with my cap. It was really quite difficult to keep the edge straight as well as lining up the cap design to repeat neatly.
Standing directly by the hot burner the heat was overwhelming, making my task even more challenging, but I did manage to fill my fabric with a Parang motif. I Really have to admire the skill and speed at which Rahmad and the other craftsmen work, never making a blotch, the repeated motif never out of line or offset, they show such expertise.
Dyeing the batik
Our days continued with visits to shadow puppet makers, a stone mason, a blacksmith and his wife, who forged a Parang machete for Richard. When he received it three days later the wooden handle had been beautifully carved into a dragon’s head.
It seems the whole region is populated by highly accomplished and creative people, all proud of their hand making skills. It was a genuine treat to meet and talk with these resourceful craftsmen and women. It has been a fascinating privilege to be able to watch the different time consuming processes of their work and see the results.
All thanks to Tatang, a talented artist himself who knows a whole range of interesting experts, artists and makers in and around Tembi.