Tue, 04 Mar 2003

Batik designer Iwan Tirta taking stock

Bruce Emond Contributor Jakarta

Iwan Tirta has reached a point in his life where feeding the ego no longer takes center stage, but that should not be taken to mean that Indonesia's ambassador of batik design is resigning himself to a complacent dotage.

Far from it: at 68, the famed raconteur is still not one to suffer fools gladly, volunteering sage albeit blunt personal advice or, in more intimate settings, wickedly cutting down to size some of the country's leading figures.

But while he has enjoyed the trappings of success, he is not interested in the ultimately self-defeating trap of trying to keep ahead of the pack. Glitzy fashion shows and the yearning to see his name splashed across newspaper headlines are a thing of the past.

"The big question now is, `Now what?' One should always ask that kind of question after reaching a certain age or stage in one's life. For me now, the gathering of feathers in my cap has slowed down a little bit, and now is the time to consolidate and transfer my knowledge to other people and younger generations."

He compares his position to the "good guys" of Javanese Ramayana and Mahabharata shadow puppet plays, who start divesting themselves of their material possessions once the battle is won to adopt a humbler, more altruistic approach to life.

"My biggest worry is looking at the situation in Indonesia about preservation and documentation for future generations," Iwan said. "We have a very oral tradition in our culture, so you always say so-and-so is still alive so we can still do it, but then you realize that they're not and there is no documentation proper.

"Scattered, yes, archives, no."

Although freed from colonial rule almost 60 years ago, Indonesians still have yet to realize who they are as a people, he said, as precious cultural points of reference are lost forever.

"The erosion in our culture is happening so fast that people don't actually know who and what they are, and what we have. We never actually know what we had because there is no proof except for a little bit here and there."

Iwan uses drawings, interviews and computers to document the batik tradition, and is preparing to head a project with the Ministry of Trade and Industry concentrating on batik patterns of the country. He is also working with a hotel chef, training him in the "home-style" Indonesian cuisine prepared by the women of the house instead of the blander hotel school version.

These are not as glamorous or exciting as some of his past endeavors, but that does not matter to him.

"I sound like a needle stuck in the groove of a record, but it's so important to do this. People won't realize until it's too late, when they ask, 'Oh did we have those things?' We cannot move forward without preserving our past."

His own batik designs (he is branching out to batik motifs on ceramics and silverware) are also meticulously documented and stored at a center for design patterns, with outside parties able to use them for a fee.

In a marriage of the commercial and art, his sophisticated computer technology is supplied by a Japanese company, which is getting its money's worth by using a tag line with the message of "Helping to save Indonesian heritage".

In his new role of champion of cultural preservation, Iwan is holding true to his life motto of reinventing himself. Raised as the only son among four children in a well-to-do family (he continues to live in his childhood home in Menteng, Central Jakarta), he graduated law from Yale and spent several years working at the United Nations in New York.

His reinvention as a batik designer in the 1970s has led to worldwide recognition of his talent and knowledge. Apart from becoming a household name in his homeland, Iwan has dressed some of the world's most powerful people in their visits to these shores, from then president Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy in the mid-1980s, to Bill Clinton and other world leaders during the 1994 APEC conference.

Even 007 himself Roger Moore, in his capacity as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, donned an Iwan Tirta shirt.

There are other sides to him that contrast with the polished, high-profile image. He still loves a meal at Trio, a simple, cubbyhole of a Chinese restaurant beside the railway tracks in Menteng, a favorite spot for him since he tasted his first Nanking chicken there a quarter century ago.

He also took up bodybuilding in the 1970s as he spent more time in his second home of New York, saying he wanted to buck the image of fashion designers as limp-wristed, fey types.

Along with success, Iwan has also experienced difficult times. He suffered horrific burns to his legs 30 years ago when someone carelessly tossed a lit cigarette into a sluice at his batik workshop. In more recent years, Iwan has had to deal with a financial wrangle, and nearly lost his home before the matter was resolved.

Iwan attributes his ability to reinvent himself, as well as easily move between different and contrasting worlds, to his love of knowledge.

"It doesn't matter what you read -- just read. At least you know. If you're an economist, don't just read about economy. Read novels, read magazines. They will give you the necessary support to have a vision."

Never married (he famously sidestepped the inevitable inquiry of TVRI interviewer Anita Rachman by quipping that his bachelorhood was his contribution to the government's population control efforts), he spends most of the year in Menteng with his beloved pugs, occasionally visiting his New York apartment.

His memoirs may be in his future -- "That's the next step but I worry that if I'm too revealing, then I might end up in jail!" -- but he said his only regret was that he was not born so fabulously, drop-dead wealthy to make a difference in the lives of others.

"Money for me is a means to do good things ... Philanthropy is such an important thing. So after the hoarding comes the time to reinvent yourself, which is the pattern in America," Iwan said.

"Here people are still in the process of acquiring things. Later, their grandchildren will do it (philanthropy). You have to remember that most Indonesians have this agrarian mentality, that you have to hoard to avoid disaster."

In taking stock of his life, Iwan borrows a bit from the famed My Way. Naturally, he first notes the woeful misappropriation of the song, with its reflections on life's regrets and preparing a gracious exit, as an I Will Survive by beleaguered but defiant political leaders.

"You know, I do go my own way, but there is no final curtain yet," he said impishly.