Sun, 04 Jun 2000

Rattan craft provides good life for Central Java villagers

By Ali Budiman

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): It is an interesting phenomenon that certain villages in Central Java make particular handicrafts. Some specialize in gamelan instruments for example, some leather puppets, while others make guitars or rattan products.

The livelihood of the villagers depends on the handicraft itself, or at least on some aspects of it, like its transportation or marketing.

The process starts with the principle of mutual help (gotong royong). The responsibility of work is shouldered together, joy and sorrow are shared, and togetherness is an obligation in the community. However, among the villagers there is often an individual who cleverly fosters this pattern by an extra achievement, beyond the usual demands of an agrarian community.

In Trangsan village, Sukoharjo, south of Surakarta, the credit goes to Wongso Laksono, the village head from 1950 to the 1960s. He died a few years ago at the age of 85 and had no children.

Wongso was not overly concerned about the welfare of his villagers. They live close to the rice growing area of Delanggu and green, lush rice fields can be seen in all their fertility around Trangsan. But he had vision. Right from the beginning of his term in office he observed that Trangsan villagers made use of the bamboo that grew in the bushes around their homes. They cut down the bamboo and turned it into simple kitchenware, such as tampah, rice steamers and furniture like tables, chairs and amben beds.

"He was like a villager in general. Naive, modest, not fussy. And he was intelligent and far-sighted," said Djito Widodo, 65, an experienced rattan craftsman who often holds rattan craft training workshops.

"By the mid-1960s bamboo supplies around the village dwindled. Also, from an economic point of view, it became more profitable to use rattan, with bamboo being used only for the frames," said the dark-skinned man, who considers Wongso to be his father although the two men are not related. "At the time Pak Wongso tried hard to find places to buy rattan in Semarang or Surabaya. He even went as far as Kalimantan and Palu, Central Sulawesi, the country's largest producers of rattan."

Now, more than 260 heads of families in Trangsan produce rattan furniture, mainly chairs like guest chairs, dining room chairs, garden chairs, rocking chairs, arm chairs and "royal" chairs (like thrones). Old-fashioned products like double seats for children bicycles are not crafted anymore, while products like baby swings are rarely made.

Innovations are made by young craftsmen like Janto Raharjo, 33, a former student of Muhammadiyah University in Surakarta who failed to finish his studies because he wanted to work. He then got married to a girl from his village.

Like most young people in Trangsan, he has been familiar with the world of rattan handicrafts since he was a youngster. When he came home from school or during holidays, Janto filled his leisure time playing with and then crafting rattan. His parents and siblings are all farmers but Janto is more attracted to the rattan industry, along with most of his neighbors. His is a simple way of thinking: the rice fields owned by his parents are spacious but some day they will be shared between his siblings. If the rice fields do not grow any bigger how can they be shared with new generations?

In 1995, after his marriage and the birth of his first child, Janto established the Amanah Rattan Furniture company. Thanks to friendships with artists in Solo and Yogyakarta, he was convinced that he could make new, exciting products.

Sixty to 70 percent of his products are exported. Japanese customers in particular like dining table items, small and complex, with the natural colors of the rattan preserved as well as possible. Americans and Germans go for unique household furniture, distinct from existing creations. Australians, in line with their country's symbol, like to see animals like the kangaroo in the form of garden decorations. Janto says these designs are the most intricate. The patterns must be handled by a rattan expert with a natural instinct for his or her art.


The country's political situation is a big factor in the business. If there is news of riots or violence from Jakarta, the factory gets a telephone call asking Janto to postpone orders. People are sometimes overly worried but Janto must stick to his word. When agreement is reached, he will receive 50 percent as a down payment. The balance is transferred as soon as the products are ready for dispatch. The total cost and the risk of the dispatch is the customer's responsibility.

Last month Janto was preparing a big order from France for 1,800 guest chairs. The price agreed was Rp 170,000 a piece. However, the television carried the news that President Abdurrahman Wahid had proposed the revocation of the decree banning communism. The result was that the order was postponed until the end of the general session of the People's Consultative Assembly, scheduled to take place in August.

One of the important aspects of marketing is the participation in exhibitions, both inside the country and abroad. For exhibitions abroad, Janto just sends a sample that takes into account the prevailing tastes of the country concerned.

Some of Janto's customers are artists in Yogyakarta and Solo. They sometimes order rattan artwork based on very special designs. Only one piece is made and the intellectual property rights are transferred to the customer. Apart from being complex and a new design, these pieces often provide creative input for Janto, who never stops making new pieces.

Every Tuesday and Friday, at least two trucks bring seven-tons of rattan from Gresik, Surabaya, to supply industries in Trangsan. During peak periods Janto's workshop may use two tons of rattan a week and have to hire additional labor from Wonogiri and Gunung Kidul. At other times, these people work in rice fields in their respective regions. He does not employ craftsmen from Trangsan itself because all of them are occupied.

The level of unemployment in Trangsan is the lowest in Central Java. The villagers may make comfortable chairs, but that doesn't mean they spend their days sitting around!