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Passing of Indonesia's Master of Divine Design

Iwan Tirta, Indonesia's Leading Expert on Batik Dead at 75.


One of modern Indonesia's leading cultural ambassadors, Iwan Tirta, died on Saturday, July 31, 2010, after a period of ill health. Tirta, age 75, was a leading lights in the development of the nation's batik industry. At the height of his career, traditionally designed cloths bearing the Iwan Tirta signature graced the walls of elegant hotels and homes, were worn by Indonesia's elite and VIP visitors, and wowed international audiences as haute couture on catwalks in Paris, London and New York.

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Nusjirwan Tirtaamidjaja – born in 1935 in Blora, Central Java, to a wealthy Javanese judge and a West Sumatran mother, was a precociously intelligent child who loved books and music, hungering for knowledge of the wider world. His childhood goal of becoming a diplomat was supported by his father, who sat on the Indonesian Supreme Court from 1950-1958, who enrolled his son in the faculty of law at the University of Indonesia. Graduating in law in 1958 at the age of 23, he was appointed briefly as a lecturer in international law in Jakarta before continuing his education at School of Economics and School of Oriental and African Studies in London. After completing his U.K. studies he returned to Indonesia where he became an associate professor of international law at the University of Indonesia. More foreign studies followed, resulting in a Master of Law degree from Yale University in 1965 followed by a fellowship from the Adlai Stevenson Foundation at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Another educational grant from the John D. Rockefeller III Foundation allowed Tirta to study the dances of the Surakarta Court (Central Java) and the place held by batik in the Javanese cosmology. Those studies re-sparked an interest in the "common thread" of batik running though Javanese royalty, Javanese dance, wayang puppetry and Indonesian native design.

Most probably, the seeds fertilized by the Rockefeller Grant were sown earlier in 1960s when the renowned Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson, a boarder at his parent's home in Menteng, urged Tirta to publish one of the earliest compendiums on batik - Batik, Pola & Tjorak – Pattern & Motif (1962, Djambatan, Jakarta). The same urge to document batik prompted other books, including Batik, A Play of Light and Shades (1996, Gaya Favorit Press) and Batik, Sebuah Lakon (2009, Gaya Favorit Press).

Returning to Indonesia in the late 1960s as one of the country's most highly-educated legal minds, Tirta decided his love of the law was secondary to an unfed hunger for creativity and art. He once related to that law focused on being adversarial, always seeking out the weaknesses of the opposition's position or argument. While art, on the other hand, has a more positive bent, fostering creativity and expression.

Abandoning a career in law, Iwan Tirta successfully combined avocation and vocation, revitalizing the ancient batik industry of his native Central Java.

Those privileged to be included in one of the sophisticated dinners regularly held at his elegant home located above his main gallery on Jalan Panurukan in Menteng, Jakarta, bathed in the glow of the seemingly endless talents of a renaissance man; a bon vivant current in world affairs; confortable entertaining at the keyboard of his grand piano; adept in the culinary arts and able to hold court in a number of languages. Iwan Tirta's natural brilliance were perfectly matched with his generous spirit, eager to share knowledge, skill and fascination with the world with his hordes of adoring supplicants.

Iwan Tirta had been in failing health over the past several years, suffering strokes and other illnesses that had recently required dialysis treatment. He died at 8:40 a.m. of the Abdi Waluyo Hospital in Jakarta on Saturday, July 31, 2010, and was buried later that same day the Karet Public Cemetery in Jakarta.

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