'Gajah Uling' batik: The pride of Banyuwangi
By Antariksawan Jusuf
BANYUWANGI, East Java (JP): When the name Banyuwangi is mentioned, many Indonesians think of it as the land of erotic Gandrung dance. But not many of them realize the significance of the type of batik worn by the dancers. It is certainly not the Surakarta batik with rich creams and browns juxtaposed by yellowish gold. Nor is it the somber opulence of brown and blue dyes as in the Yogyakarta style. Nor is it the Pekalongan pattern.
Gandrung dancers wear a plain white background with brownish black flowery motifs in a question-mark like pattern in the middle of the cloth. That question-mark like pattern is called Gajah Uling and it is typical and distinctive, although not found exclusively in Banyuwangi.
Among an estimated three thousand batik patterns designed in Java's principal batik centers of Surakarta, Yogyakarta and Pekalongan, Gajah Uling is found as a minor feature drawn in a corner of a more elaborate and complicated pattern, according to Soedjojo Dulhadji, owner of a batik craft center named Sayuwiwit. The name was derived from a local heroine, the leader of a resistance group against the Dutch colonial powers of the mid 1770s.
Soedjojo is also one of the prominent people to help the Banyuwangi batik reach its current social status in the eastern tip of Java. He started his batik business in 1995. Over the years, he has conducted several visits to Surakarta and Yogyakarta to study the origins of Gajah Uling, but to no avail. He also holds a certificate for batik production from the Bureau for Research and Development of Batik Craft Industry in Yogyakarta.
Soedjojo is from the Temenggungan area, home to the centuries- old audience hall of the Banyuwangi (formerly Blambangan) kingdom. This hall is currently the office of the Banyuwangi regent. Temenggung is the historical title of a high-ranking official during the colonial period.
It is no coincidence that now the Temenggungan area is known as the center of Banyuwangi batik production. Soedjojo believes that during the time when the Blambangan kingdom was under the control of the Mataram kingdom of Yogyakarta, batik was created by women in the royal family. But the servants of the office of the temenggung practiced their batik skills at home. The skill in batik craft was inherited by thee children of Temenggungan where today where hundreds of batik artisans hand-paint plain white fabric into pieces of colorful cloth.
There are some 15 types of Banyuwangi batik pattern, but Gajah Uling stands out as the most popular. And today Banyuwangi batik refers mostly to Gajah Uling.
Other designs include Kangkung Setingkes (a bundle of kangkung vegetables), Kopi Pecah (broken coffee beans), Sembruk Cacing (a pack of worms), Alas Kobong (burning jungle), Paras Gempal (broken stone), and Moto Pitik (chicken's eyes). They are all rich in symbolic associations and meanings. Javanese ancestors usually had their personal philosophies and lessons for life expressed as symbols in children's songs and in batik patterns rather than having them in books.
What does Gajah Uling really mean? There is no common agreement even among batik crafters in Banyuwangi regarding the meaning of Gajah Uling. But an elder observer from Temenggungan, Wak Jahari, said gajah (elephant) is the biggest animal on earth. It symbolizes the great God. And uling is derived from eling, an old Javanese word referring to the action of remembering the God.
The original colors, white background and brownish black, respectively refer to eternity and good characteristics.
Gajah Uling's popularity now extends beyond Gandrung dancers in Banyuwangi. School children wear it for uniforms, and local government officials and people from almost all walks of life are seen donning Gajah Uling for functions such as official ceremonies and wedding parties.
The Association of People of Banyuwangi, whose origins are in Jabotabek (Ikawangi), make it a must for members of their organizing committee to wear the Gajah Uling for their annual gathering.
To meet the varying tastes of potential customers, Soedjojo also creates and designs more colorful, elaborate patterns of Gajah Uling. The color goes beyond the traditional brownish black, red and maroon. He provides his customers a choice from a plain cotton sarong to a ready to wear lounge shirt.
There is no record of total production of Banyuwangi batik. The three major producers, including Sayuwiwit, are estimated to produced more than 60,000 meters a year.