In the interiors of a desert state (Rajasthan), a desolate god-forsaken village in the outskirts of ‘Pink City: Jaipur’, lies a hamlet which breeds fine textile artisans. This piece is an account of a traditional occupation that has caught spaces in infinite wardrobes and yet very few are aware of the plight of the craftsman cultivating the art on textiles. Bagru’s municipal boundary falls in the Sanganer district in Rajasthan. It is famous for its century-old technique of hand-block printing and natural dyes. The eye-catcher of the technique is the bold and delicate designs made by finely carved wooden blocks and the organic eco-friendly colors. In the era of environmental awakening, the excellence of the art is realized by many. It was what led the organization I was interning in to make an inquiry into this and then later made me look into the prominence of this art form. Under the intense heat of June when the sun is brightest in the north-western part of India, I and Ramesh Chhippa strolled in and around the houses which were an industry on its own. Every household was an enterprise. The hamlet is vernacularly known as “Chhippa Mohalla” where Chhippa word comes from Chhippai which means “printing” and Mohalla is an area of a particular boundary where a small colony is habituated, also called as “hamlet”. The artisan who accompanied me was a commerce graduate and a fifth-generation hand-block printing craftsman. The whole Chhippa-caste- Community is known for the Chhippai Occupation and has been passed on from generations (there is no authentic data about the inception of this art in this geography).
There are variants in the printing style, designs, and techniques. A craftsman who works with hand blocks produces Bagru and Sanganeri print where each varies in terms of organic color used, motifs printed and dyeing.
The brilliance of the process is the peculiar usage of mud-resist-printing in which mud (they call Kaali Mitti) is mixed with powdered wood, rotten wheat/barley, limestone and resin (gum obtained by trees). A fine paste is made by mixing it with water at regular intervals. The equipment used for mixing are feet, yes feet, where they knead 10kg paste for at least an hour. It doesn’t come easy as the lime is known for cracking human skin. The paste is further sieved and printing is done on all kinds of clothes such as Cotton, Chanderi, Rayon, etc. The printing is done with the wood hand blocks on which motifs are designed and nail-carved by a Muslim community known as Kherawadi. Earlier, they used to make blocks of Teak tree but now they use light-weight wood such as Rorda (Casuarina) and Sheesham (Indian Rosewood) from Vaatika Gaaon (village). The printed motifs, then are sprinkled with sawdust which sticks with the clay which resists color during dyeing. After dyeing, the cloth is washed (this too with another occupational caste known as Dhobi) with motifs intact.
One design takes seven days to complete and one craftsman goes on to print lengths of textiles, approximately 2000m/month.
Chippas also maintains Sanganeri print textiles in which instead of mud, organic colors are derived from food, vegetable, iron, and alum. This is too a piece of eco-sensitive design machinery in which the cloth base is treated with clay and turmeric. The mordants are very intricate with somber colors based on nature where Bagru’s motifs are bold lines with geometric motifs. Sanganeri prints are not dyed but are washed with hot water.
The Sad Part
Bagru print as an art form received decent attention from the traders and consumers, but it has failed the artists in numerous ways. The value of each hand-block that is put meticulously on the cloth has been taken over by the synthetic screen printing by machines. Yes, mass production of the art form is indeed a problem. And scarce support to this micro/marginal enterprise is another problem. Adultered dyes, synthetic and toxic chemicals meddling with the eco-friendly design is open to doubt. Generating and continuing their generational occupation, with which their identity is associated, the art which is equally water-intensive in a water-scarce state constitutes another challenge. I get that the beauty of the occupation is the micro set up/household set up in which family members invest their capital as well as labor, but it doesn’t mean that any technical intervention can not be introduced. But when capitalism tried to intervene, it stole the art from them instead of trying to improve the working as well as market conditions.
They offered me one saree. I insisted to pay for it. It was 200 rupees. and GUESS WHAT…
AMAZON sells the same thing worth 5000 rupees.
Any average boutique in Delhi sells it for 2500–3000 rupees.
It breaks the artisan’s heart.
It broke mine.
I documented it and I did nothing. Nobody did anything.
……but I never dared to buy a single Dabu print from anywhere else, ever again.