One of the common threads of my favorite Eisenhower Fellows is their multifaceted careers. Laretna Adishakti is no exception. I was able to meet with her in her family-owned of Mustokoweni Heritage Hotel. The entry was an unassuming but very cute coffee shop. We were just digging into our Nutty Cream and Cinnamon Latte when we were escorted through the back and downstairs to a beautiful courtyard.
We were led around a hanging batik-in-progress and into a gallery with a series of rooms of beautiful batiks. The pride of the gallery was the “indigo room” which featured all natural fabrics printed with traditional patterns using all natural dyes. Knowing that batiks are the pride and joy of Yogyakarta culture, we felt we had just entered the Holy of the Holies.
“Sita” Laretna arrived and invited us for some tea in the courtyard and started to give us some background on what we were admiring. As a professor of Architecture at Gadjah Mada University, she gave us a wonderful introduction. There are several threats to the rich and deep culture of batik in Java. Most recently erupting volcanoes in the region have wiped out homes and villages. We saw some evidence of this on the way to the Borobudur temple. Some boulders the size of cars were still lying in the midst of houses nearly 20 km from Mount Merapi!
Sita explained “unlike devastating earthquakes, sometimes volcanic activity makes places too dangerous to ever return.” These people are then homeless and their crafts and traditions disappear. This led her to found the Center for Heritage Conservation. The mission of CHC is to help retain the skills and knowledge of these traditions. They also work to preserve the natural materials and dye recipes used in batiks.
A typical institutional and academic approach would be to document and publish their findings. CHC’s commitment has gone beyond this and iaids in the production of the batiks. They control their supply integrity by purchasing natural textiles, then contracting rural batik wax artists to paint them with traditional patterns. One of my favorite patterns is called “chicken feet” by locals but is a rigidly geometric style. When complete CHC brings the, back to Yogyakarta for dying and melting the waxes away to reveal the previous coloring. I asked how they controlled this and I was taken still another level deeper in the compound.
Neatly tucked behind the courtyard was a garden and I saw my first Indigo plant. I was taken back by how such an unassuming plant could have caused so much geopolitical conflict. They are able to crush the indigo lease on sight to make the dyes. Apparently the dye color requires an exponential amount of leaves and requires expertise to get right. The darkest blues may require 25 times more leaves than the lighter blues.
After dying the fabrics hung to dry, stiff as a rock. Special melting and washing processes were required to turn them into the supple batiks in the gallery.
The most inspiring thing was when we started looking at the dye sources. We had samples of Mahogany bark and a variety of other javanese woods that all made distinctive colors – learned by studying traditional Batik sources. Most of these dye sources were only known to certain villages. However with Sita at the helm, she saw the opportunity to combine traditional patterns and dyes and cross-fertilize the research and create new color combinations. The blending of deep mahogany with medium indigo is just breathtaking. These striking new color combinations and re-emergence of traditonal patterns with natural material has caught a lot of attention.
In the end there was an important lesson for me here: researching and preserving traditions can itself be a very creative venture and allow new possibilities to emerge. I am excited to see how these efforts will create the “new traditions” of batik!