Millar Sungkar 

Rumah Batik dia-dio

Pekalongan - Yogyakarta

     We cannot begin to truly appreciate this magnificent story telling batik made by Ibu Millar Sungkar from Yogyakarta, until we appreciate the role of isen-isen and tanahan motifs.

     Batik from the Pasisir was and still is, famous for the finest and most technically intricate examples of the batik process and for its exquisite use of colours.  Central to the achievement of these qualities is the incorporation of isen-isen and tanahan motifs.  Isen-isen are tiny motifs used to fill in within the outlines of the key motifs while the tiny tanahan motifs fill in the spaces outside the main motifs, on the background.  It is the isen-isen and tanahan motifs that distinguish Indonesian batik from that of other countries, where they are not used.

     Isen-isen and tanahan are not contrasting motifs but rather have much in common.  
Depending on the region where the batik is made, the same tiny filler motif may be used as 
an isen-isen motif or as a tanahan motif.  In each region the batikkers/Pengobeng (hired women who waxed the batik),  consider their own version of isen-isen and tanahan motifs a condition for what is regarded a superior work.

Ibu Millar Sungkar - Rumah Batik dia-dio, Yogyakarta
Batik Workshop - Pekalongan
Pekalongan (north coast of Java), 2010
Skirt cloth kain sarong and selendang (a shawl)
Handwoven silk, synthetic dyes; batik tulis
Photo: Mick Richards
     With the emergence of batik Belanda in the 1840s isen-isen and tanahan motifs were employed to strongly enhance the main motif and the overall visual and technical sophistication of the batik cloth.  This enabled the creation of not just the illusion of a colour change, but also the introduction of actual shades of colour, by intensifying or dispersing the isen-isen dots and/or lines.  Also the illusion of depth and form is achieved by the use of dots that from a distance appear like fine lines.  To serve this purpose, filler motifs that were once of uniform size and distribution were now dispersed at random, sometimes in sparse spacing, and others more concentrated, and they varied in size.  These two filler motifs are still used extensively today.

Examples of isen-isen motifs, their names and interpretation.
APPENDICES, page 214, Index of Principality Isen Motifs -
Batik - Spirit of Indonesia, YAYASAN BATIK INDONESIA,1999,
ISBN 979- 95801-0-2

     My appreciation of isen-isen and tanahan motifs is totally encapsulated in the following cloth that speaks volumes about the utilisation of these two types of filler motifs by leading contemporary Javanese batik artist, Ibu Millar Sungkar of Rumah Batik dia - dio.  

     While Millar’s retail outlet is located in Yogyakarta, her batik is made at varying workshops in Pekalongan.  Her work is exceptional in both its creativity and its craftsmanship.  The following hand-woven silk sarung and selendang (shawl), tells the story of Yogyakarta’s famous war hero, Diponegono, a Javanese prince.  He fought the Dutch colonials in the Java War of 1825-1830.  It is him on the horse-back.

As this cloth is a sarung it contains a kepala, the dark coloured rectangle with the hero on horse back motif.  The kepala is surrounded by a floral border, a continuation of the same floral border pinggir, running along the complete top and bottom of the cloth.   

In addition to the prolific incorporation of tanahan and isen-isen motifs, Millar's lead batikkers/Pengobeng possess extraordinary canting (wax pen), skills.  With agile hands, a highly developed eye, breathing control, and immense patience, the batikker is able to produce a myriad of lines, dots and shapes by the application of flowing hot wax onto the cloth.  Like the ink painter's brush, the canting is intrinsically suited for linear expression, responding to the subtle shifts in the flow or motion of the batikker's hand and canting.  The highly skilled batikker with a single glide of the canting, can translate the outline of the desired motif into flowing line, conceiving it simultaneously as a single gesture of life.  This approach is less concerned about repressing given appearances accurately and more a response to the spirit of living things- birds, butterflies, trees, tulips, lilies, horses, etc.  Like the ink painter the batikker only has one chance to harmoniously apply the wax outlines to the cloth as the medium does not allow for a "second chance".  A batik hand-waxed with a canting is known as batik tulis, the most expensive form of batik to purchase.

This detail enables you to more clearly see the outstanding use of line to capture the sense of battle and action and pattern to provide you insights into the terrain on which the battle is taking place, the various uniforms worked by the soldiers, both dead and alive, along with clouds, birds, sky, etc.  I love the decision to leave the gorgeous flow of the cloud outlines, above in centre sky, as lines!  We see this use of dark coloured outlines on other parts of the surface.   

I hope you have enjoyed being introduced to this very much 'alive' cloth.  It is always a favourite with friends when looking through the collection cabinet housing the batiks, folded on their individual roles.  On opening the doors you are always met by the rich fragrance of cloves, a good protector.  The cloves are accompanied by a small bowl of white pepper- corns.  I would so appreciate any comments you may have about this cloth, a cloth you have, or batik in general.  It is always great to hear the stories of others who have been captured by the beauty and the stories of and attached to, Javanese batik.

Appreciation:  Followers who have received this Post would be amazed that it is the first since May 30, 2013, nearly six years.  I now hope this is not going to repeat itself but I do feel I am more able for that not to occur.  Extremely poor health has been and sadly remains, the culprit.  Passion, perseverance, curiosity, and love of life has to remain at the centre of each day. 

I would love to express my gratitude and thanks to two wonders of the batik world, for their support and generosity of spirit, such powerful motivators.  If you are an enthusiast of Javanese batik you will certainly know the names of Maria Wronska-Friend and Rens Heringa.  They have both made a significant contribution to knowledge, understanding and appreciation of batik from Indonesia via their teaching, writing, exhibition development, conference presentations and numerous other face to face interactions.




  1. Gregory, your extensive knowledge continues to amaze and educate me on this beautiful subject.
    Keep up the amazing work.

  2. Greg
    It is wonderful to hear your voice again after so long. Your passion and knowledge of batik continues to inspire and inform us all - as does your exceptional strength, resilience and love.

  3. Greg, you bring these beautiful textiles truly alive. I loved your account of the origins of the batik and the form and meaning of their motifs. You speak with the kind of quiet unassuming knowledge that is such a pleasure to read but which I know is built on a lifetime’s love of the arts. We are all blessed to have you back blogging again. It’s where you belong.

  4. Hello Greg, these batiks are so beautiful and intricate and you have brought them to life for me. Congratulations and keep going strong - RodJ

    1. Rod, thank you sincerely.......the morning we purchased this cloth, was an amazing one as we probably spent one & half hours sitting on the floor with Millar and a very large pile, of beautiful batiks in front of us, from which Millar removed one at a time..........we ended up overwhelmed! Probably the most difficult decision we ever had to make. She is a brilliant artist. You and Trish would love Yogyakarta.

  5. The key motives of the presented techniques are the basis for the creation of original batik elements. They reflect part of the traditional culture.

  6. Thank you most sincerely, Chris, for your enlightened response to this beautiful textile and for your heartfelt encouragement of me. Your words lifted my spirits mightily. Terima kasih kawan.


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