Friday, October 07, 2011


Kedungwuni, Nashir said, is where his grandmother used to live and where he was born. I love the sound of the word Kedungwuni and since hearing about the place I have formed an image of a sleepy little batik village. For me, the villages are the nicest part of Indonesia.

Yesterday Nashir borrowed a motorbike and two helmets and off we went to the village of his ancestors and his beginnings.

I prepared myself for the inevitable gap between the “sleepy batik village” of my imagination and the present-day reality with lots of traffic and noise. I was still surprised, however, when Nashir turned into a driveway of a lovely Dutch colonial house with rounded arches. This was where his grandmother lived and where he was born. Family members still lived there. We sipped tea with them before Nashir took me on a guided tour of the house.

I enjoyed the contrast between the colonial, Dutch appearance of the front of the house and the industrious Javanese appearance of the back of it where life used to really unfold. Intermediate between the two was a square concrete section with low concrete walls and skylight where Nashir’s grandmother together with her employees used to do their batik work. Her presence there is still strong because a sketch of her, drawn by Nashir, presides over it.

The back used to have a dirt floor. This is where Nashir’s afterbirth is buried, following Javanese custom, thus making his attachment to the place eternal. Now it has a cement floor. He showed me the section where the chickens were kept when they came home to roost. There was the kitchen where his grandmother prepared packages of food for everybody in the morning, wrapped up in banana leaves. “Everybody always had enough to eat” said Nashir admiringly about his grandmother. There was also the section where Nashir’s uncle began his clothing business.

Nashir’s uncle was next on our agenda. He still has a thriving clothing business transforming batik into wearable goods, now in his own large house with its clean, calm and bright front and industrious back section.

To appease our rumbling stomachs, his wife took us a few steps down the road to a warung where delicious, traditional vegetarian Javanese food is prepared and packaged in banana leaves. Food is an item of local pride. The people here talk about it so much that they may as well be French! And Nashir’s mother would be the leading chef because I have tasted nothing as excellent as her cooking.

After we were sated, Nashir’s uncle led us to the famous Oey Soe Tjoen batik workshop. We were warmly and generously received by a young woman who is taking over the business from her parents. It was an opportunity to enquire about Eliza van Zuylen-Niessen.

The Oey Soe Tjoen workshop began in 1925. During the war all of their patterns were lost. Samples were gradually recovered, however, and now about 100 traditional possibilities may be commissioned by shoppers. They are presented in a fat photo album. The industry continues in the traditional spirit. The young woman showed us a modern batik that she has invented with biblical scenes. She is allowed to sign her name to this batik and thus the available stock of patterns continues to grow. (Recently, a Japanese person contacted the family to write the history of this famous workshop. He took all of the photographs and records back with him to Japan and nothing more has been heard of him since. They suspect he was a victim of the tsunami.)

In response to my questions about Eliza van Zuylen, the young woman called her mother from the back (where the workshop is still found although most batiks are now made in the homes of the batik-makers). Her mother married into the family in 1971, coming from Yogyakarta and so had little personal experience or memory of Van Zuylen, and then just of her successor who returned to The Netherlands in the 1970’s. (Eliza Niessen died in 1947.) She did disabuse me of a false impression that there may have been cooperation between Van Zuylen’s workshop and the Oey Soe Tjoen workshop. Apparently, they all worked independently.

Harmen Veldhuisen’s book entitled, Batik Belanda 1840 – 1940, which I do not yet own but which I was allowed to thumb through a little more while visiting Oey Soe Tjoen, provided me with the most important clues for follow-up family research: Eliza’s father was a soldier in the KNIL (Royal Dutch Indonesian Army). He came from Roermond and he was stationed in Fort de Kock where Eliza was born. With hard facts like dates, and names of people and places I can move forward. When I get back home, a visit to the Bronbeek Museum library, where there are many KNIL records, I will be able to take another step in the search for my link with Eliza Niessen Van Zuylen.

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