Yogyakarta (Jogja) is the center of classical Javanese culture, kept alive by the patronage of the royal families of the two cities. Gamelan orchestras, sultans’ palaces, graceful dancers, buffalo-hide puppets and batik decorated with spiritual motifs all play important roles in the lives of even the most modern Javanese.
What the Italians did for fresco painting, Indonesia did for batik. Batik is a wax-resist technique for dyeing fabric, familiar to most people from Balinese sarongs. The term refers to both the technique and the fabric dyed using this technique. It’s unclear whether the technique was invented originally or independently in Java, but it’s certainly become an integral part of Javanese heritage.
Yogyakarta in particular has a long history of batik, with many batik artisans at work in the city. The designs can be amazingly intricate with many colors. This is especially astonishing given how labor-intensive the technique is.
Batik is a bit like European tie-dye that you might have made when you were a child. The first stage of the batik production is to heat up wax in a small pot over the fire. After the wax is heated you then use wooden tools to add wax to a piece of fabric. The tools work a bit like a pencil or a paintbrush. You have to try to add the wax in clean lines (Batik actually means Wax Written). As a designer you can either draw these designs freehand, or use a thin piece of paper where you trace your designs.
Once you’ve added your design in wax to the fabric it is soaked in dye. After this the fabric is boiled in hot water to get rid of the wax. The part of the fabric that was covered in wax will stay white. To create a design with multiple colours the fabric needs to be dried. Once it is dry another layer of wax is added and the process is repeated. The first colour added is normally the lightest.
Shadow puppets are an ancient Indonesian form of storytelling, consisting of wooden puppets maneuvered behind a shadow screen, with accompanying gamelan music. The puppet shops are almost as common as batik, and you can also find a puppet making demonstration in most of the shops. The process looks like it requires painstakingly steady patience.
To make the handcrafted shadow puppets, the artist begins with a piece of buffalo skin. After it is cut to the desired shape, various sized chisels, which are recycled from old bicycle spokes, are used to ingrain intricate and delicate patterns. On the bottom third of the puppet, near the feet, you’ll find four different patterns that represent the four elements of nature: earth, wind, water, and fire. With their powers combined, they continue up to the middle portion of the puppet, where you would find the heart. Here the patterns change to resemble the rising and falling of human emotions. Finally, the top portion of the puppet contains designs that signify the crown of knowledge. After the chiseling process is finished, the painting can begin. It’s another tedious task that results in a beautiful, intricate, one-of-a-kind puppet.
After learning all about the shadow puppets, we recommend seeing an actual shadow puppet performance. You can sit and look at the shadow puppet show, then walk around to the ‘behind the scenes action’ where a gamelan and live singers are set up. This is especially neat during the puppet fighting scenes when the puppet master is twirling the puppets around his head and throwing them into the air. It’s not exactly a heavyweight championship, although we would love to see a crowd out of their seats cheering and jeering for puppets.
Learn more about an integral part of Javanese culture as you partake in this Yogyakarta discovery with us.
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