Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
Characterized by the sheen given to the finished cloth by the waters of the Sanjara River and a robust colour palette of indigo, black and red, green, pink and orange derived from natural sources; and the mud resist, dyed and mordant prints of Bagru catered to the folk, trading, agricultural and artisan communities that constituted the local population. Each of these communities had a specific sartorial code; the combination of colours and motifs used on a printed skirt, veil or garment could identify the wearer`s community and occupation as well as the season.
In the past, textiles hand printed by the chhipa community of Bagru were used to produce fadats, lugdis, angochas and rezais for the local population. Faced by a general malaise in demand and an eroding traditional market the chhipa community has in the past fifteen years successfully adapted itself to a shifting customer base and altered demand patterns. This openness to experimentation and development has resulted in a resurgence of demand from a clientele that extends from urban to international markets. Today the chhipa community of Bagru caters to all kinds of textile market demands ranging from fabric, textiles to home decor products covering almost all possibilities of a product range in the existing field.
Bagru prints are more renowned for their outstanding quality of being environment friendly. Still today, artisans employ conventional vegetable dyes for printing the cloth. For instance, the colour blue is prepared from indigo, red from madder root , green from indigo mixed with pomegranate and the yellow colour from turmeric. Generally Bagru prints have cultural floral patterns in original colours. These prints form the indispensable part of the block printing trade of Rajasthan. The village manufactures some of the magnificent bed covers and other materials. The excellence of this craft has made this small village near Jaipur a much-reckoned name in International fashion. These prints have also made Bagru an important place of tourist attraction. The name of this place will always be remembered by craft lovers as one that faithfully sticks to the rich tradition of the centuries gone by.
All the Chiapas of Bagru claim to be the descendants of saint Namdeo of Maharashtra (1270-1350). Saint Namdeo, a contemporary saint-poet of Saint Dnyaneshwar, is considered a prominent religious poet of Maharashtra. He was one the earliest writers who wrote in the Marathi language. He is the foremost proponent of the Bhagwad-Dharma who reached beyond Maharashtra, right into Punjab. He also wrote some hymns in Hindi and Punjabi. His depth of devotion and talent in delivering Kirtan was of such a high standard that it is said even the Lord Pandurang swayed to his tune. Despite being a proponent of the Warkari sect, Saint Namdeo established religious unity across the country.
Saint Namdeo was born in the year 1270 in the village of Narasi-Bamani, now located in the Hingoli District in Maharashtra. He was born to a tailor named Damasheti Relekar and his wife Gonai. Yadusheth, his ancestor in the seventh generation, was a devotee of Bhagawad-Dharma. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Pandharpur, where the prominent temple of Lord Vitthal (also called Vithoba) is located. Saint Namdeo’s spent the better part of his life, spanning eighty years, at Pandharpur. His parents were devotees of Vithoba and chhimba by profession.
Namdeo showed little interest in the family outlook. Namdeo is referred to as a chhimba, “chhipro”, “Chhipe” and “chhipa”. This refers to his profession as a printer of cloth. Chhipas were calico printers/artists and used to decorate, colour and print textiles with artwork. Some of them were also tailors as this was a profession connected with clothes.
India has always been famous for its textiles and Rajasthan, especially for its hand-block printed and dyed textiles. Ancient and medieval literature mention the colourful textiles produced in this region. The earliest specimens on display are small fragments excavated at AL FUSTAT near Cairo, Egypt. French archaeologists, while excavating at Al Fustat, old capital of Egypt, found dead bodies wrapped in coarse cotton fabric printed with bright colours. At the time of discovery, these were not documented as originating from India, but later, the renowned French scholar late Mr R. Fister identified them after closely studying the styles of the costumes and textiles depicted in the ancient Jain miniature paintings from Western India, and on that basis they were documented as being from Gujarat, India. This led scholars to start believing that India was producing colourful printed fabric in the 14th-15th century, which was exported to the European and African countries.
There is no authentic record for reference on backdating Bagru’s block printing practices. It is estimated that this art form was introduced 450 years back when a community of Chhipas (literally meaning people who stamp or print) came to Bagru from Sawai Madhopur (Alwar), and settled in Bagru. Even today, their community works together in a place called Chhipa Mohalla (Printer’s Quarters), by the Sanjaria riverside.
The Chippas community settled along the riverside like any other nomadic settlement. The bank of the river provided then with clay, which is an important ingredient in getting the base colour of the famed Bagru prints. The artisans smear the cloth with Fuller’s earth got from the riverside and then dip it in turmeric water to get the beige coloured background. After that, they stamp the cloth with beautiful designs using natural dyes of earthly shades.
After founding the new city of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh brought all the royal departments to his new capital and renamed them. Bhakhata Rama Shah, a Jain poet, writes in his work Buddhi Vilas, composed in 1770, (twenty seven years after the death of Sawai Jai Singh) that the Maharaja changed the Persian names of all his thirty-six karkhanas into Hindi. Out of these, four – Toshakhana, Chhapakhana, Rangkhana and Siwankhana, were associated with costumes and textiles.
Toshakhana: Toshakhana probably had to deal with daily-wear clothes.
Chhapakhana: In the Chhapakhana, the printing on cloth was carried out by means of a wooden block.
Rangkhana & Siwankhana: Rangkhana and Siwankhana, as suggested by their names, looked after dyeing and stitching work. The Rangkhana records frequently mention dyeing and printing of Mahmudi.
The social structure of ancient India was based on the Caste System or Varna Vayavastha. The Chhipa community practised the art of hand-block printing only and, till today, it is peculiar to this community. Not only in Bagru, but also in Akola, near Jodhpur and Bagh in Madhya Pradesh, the Chiapas are practicing the traditional art of hand-block printing. All the Chiapas of Bagru claim to be the descendants of saint Namdeo of Maharashtra (1270-1350). They had to migrate due to the incessant warfare and raids between the Mughals and the Marathas. The Chiapas had settled here about 400 years back and some families had migrated from Gujarat. It is said that the Thakur had brought the Chiapas from different places and helped them settle here. He provided the patronage to the Chiapas, which was the watershed event in the history of Bagru. It is said that formerly a lake existed here, whose water was the lifeline of all printing activities; tie and dye work was also done here. During “chhappan saal” there was a drought when people migrated in large numbers and settled in Bagru. Tie and dye work was being done here also and the newcomers brought the skill of block printing here. The cloth originally used to be bought from local villages of Narena or from the haat in Jaipur. These days mill-made cloth is purchased from Jaipur.
Bagru is an important centre of hand-block printing and though it originally produced textiles for the local market, today it caters to the international and the export markets. Bagru prints are done on black, brown, beige, cream and red backgrounds. Shades of blue with much use of indigo blue dyeing processes are a characteristic of this centre. For the purpose of creating motifs printers use various natural objects like neem leaves, Rose petals, chilli, and dhaniya ki bel (coriander sprig). These motifs have changed over the time. Traditionally, ‘Bagru Motifs‘ are bolder and more geometrical in nature. Bagru prints are used for making kurtas, shirts, quilts, bed sheets etc.
The motifs printed at Bagru are large with bold lines, inspired by the wild flowers, buds, leaves and geometric patterns.
Bagru boasts of a handful of crafts persons who still use traditional vegetable dyes in their hand block prints. Bagru’s method of printing is completely eco-friendly. From treating the base cloth with Fuller’s earth (Multani Mitti), soaking it in turmeric (Haldi), to stamping the cloth with beautifully patterned blocks of wood using natural dyes of earthy hues, Bagru’s prints are epitome of eco-friendly textiles and printing practices. Added to that, natural colouring agents such as alum, turmeric, pomegranate, dried flowers, indigo, etc. are used to add colourful designs and motifs to the fabric. Blue from indigo, green from indigo mixed with pomegranate rinds, red from madder root and yellow from turmeric.
Block carving and printing has a very local dialect. The number of blocks per design depends on the number of colours that the design will have. The outline of the motif(s) is called ‘Rekh‘; the block for the background is called the ‘Gadh‘; the block used to fill in colour is called ‘Datta‘. In other kinds of block printing, if the number of colours is more, the number of ‘Datta’ will be more too. Sometimes, designs do not have the ‘Rekh’ or the ‘Gadh’, but that is only because of the play of negative-positive spaces, which designers have started working with. However, traditionally, a design had to have all three of these blocks.
Like any other trade, Bagru’s blck printing also comes under considerable flak for its adultery in art form. While retailers sell Bagru products at a premium price, a fraction of this reaches the actual workers. The printers are looking out for cheaper, faster options of increasing the output -“ putting this trade at a risk.
Market demand, poverty, poor living and working conditions have forced these craftsmen to resort to trade shortcuts that range from using synthetic dyes, machine cut tools, to fabrics of sub-standard quality.
While modern tools, techniques and synthetic dyes, are increasingly replacing traditional art forms and methods Bagru prints are finally getting recognized. With attention back on preserving the near extinct art forms, there is a revived interest in preserving the rare art of hand block printing with vegetable dyes.
Bagru prints are unique, captivating and exotic. Erstwhile used for clothes and turbans, Bagru textiles are increasingly in demand for home furnishings and dÃ©cor. Bagru prints and motifs are preferred for bedspreads, bed sheets, table linen, and home accessories.
The process of block printing is widespread due to its intricate process, motifs and vibrant colours.
The main raw material is the colour used in the printing. Traditionally the artisans used natural colours but today chemical and artificial colours have replaced it. The main raw materials are Colours/ Dyes. Different types of dyes are used for silk and cotton: Vegetable/ Natural dyes, Discharge Dyes, Reactive dyes, Rapid fast Colours, Pigment dyes.
Apart from this, cotton fabric, fuel and mordents like harda and alum are required for the printing process.
The wastage in the process of hand block printing is immense when it comes to water and chemical wastes. Usually less fabric is wasted, as the dimensions of the block are multiplied to calculate the dimensions of the fabric to be printed on. The chemicals in the water seep underground, polluting the underground water of the area, and in turn leading to a lot of water wastage.
The main tools of the printer are wooden blocks, which are available in different shapes and size as per the design and requirement.
1. Printing Table- The tables that fabrics are printed on have varied specifications as well. Block printers often customize them but vastly it approximately measures 3 feet in height, 3 feet in width and 9 feet in length and it allows about 3-4 printers to stand and work simultaneously. But earlier, the tables would be about 1 feet high, 2 feet wide and 5 feet long because there would usually be only one printer who would be sitting on the ground and printing. The to-be-printed fabric is not placed directly on the wooden table because when the block printer hits the block to get a proper print while printing, it would damage the block and the colour would smudge. So the table is covered with layers of canvas, jute and other fabrics to provide a cushioning for easier and clearer prints.
2. Colour Plates-While printing, the printer needs his colours next to him and such that he does not have to keep carrying them around, since it would break the flow of the printing process. So, block printers use a wooden tray in which they keep colour, called ‘saaj’. The tray works on a certain kind of mechanism, which would make sure that the colour just dabs onto the wooden block and the does not smudge on fabric when printed. Colour is poured into the tray and a wire mesh is kept over it, after which a piece of felt is also placed on it because felt soaks the colour nicely. Finally a fine cotton (malmal) cloth is kept on the cloth.
3. Tray Trolley- These are wooden trolleys’ accommodated with two shelves and wheels in the base for the easy movement and are locally called as ‘patiya’, 3 feet tall, suitable for working on the printing table. The upper shelve is to keep the color tray is kept while in the lower rack is required to keep blocks in.
4. Scale- Scales are used to mark the areas to be printed on fabric.
5. Chalk- Tailoring chalk is used for marking and the sharp edges of the chalk give fine lines.
6. Brushes: To maintain the life of the block, metal or nylon brushes are used to clean the wooden and metal blocks after use.
7. Tambadi (Copper vessels): Traditionally copper vessels are used for dyeing and washing of cloths.
8. Mogari (wooden roller): A cylindrical wooden roller on which the cloth is kept and beaten is called a mogari.
9. Kotan (Wooden mallet): This is used to beat the cloth over mogari, to remove the starch from the fabric
The characteristic wooden prints of Bagru are commonly referred to as the Bagru prints. These prints of Bagru involve a procedure that is different from other prints. This exclusive technique of printing utilizes wooden block in it. In the beginning, the desired design is carved out on the wooden block first and then this carved block is used for reproducing the design in the chosen colour on the fabric. Chhipa Mohalla (printer’s quarter) is an area in this town where most of the people are textile printers by occupation. If one walks along this quarter, one can always find people absorbed in artistry with dyes and blocks.
A critical component of block printing is block carving and it is an art form in itself.
1) BLOCK CARVING:
Wooden Block: The first requirement for block printing is the print to be carved out wooden blocks. For generations, artisans have been carving blocks out of teak or sheesham wood. The wood has to be seasoned properly for blocks to be carved out. The design is first printed out on paper and then stuck on the wooden block. Using iron/steel chisels of different shapes and sizes, the artisan then carves out the design from the wooden block. The handle of the block, also mostly made from wood is attached with nails to the opposite side of the design base for support and grip during printing. Every block has holes drilled into the wooden piece for air to pass freely and to allow the release of excess colour. The blocks can be made of any shape: square, rectangular, circular etc. The block is soaked in oil for about 10-15 days after it is made to soften out the grains of the wood. The life of these block are approximately 600-800 meter of printing.
This step is important to rid the fabric of any impurities. In the olden days, they would use cow dung diluted in water to do this. Today, they wash it in soap water to do the same. The cloth is dipped in a soap water batch for about 2-3 days to get rid of starch and impurities and then made to dry in the sun.
3) HARDA DYEING:
The fabric is dyed in cool water and harda powder (a natural mordent). They use harda as a primer. This step is done to increase the colour absorbing capabilities of the fabric.
Once dyed, the fabric needs to lay flat and dry in the sunlight. The fabric will have a yellowish tint after this stage, which will later disappear once washed.
5) COLOUR MAKING:
While the fabric is drying, we watch as colors are mixed.
Black: Horseshoes that sit on coals for a period of time, brushed of rust are then put in cans with water and sugar cane juice, left to ferment for periods of months to yield black dye.
Red: A mixture of natural gum paste, pieces of rust and alum.
Indigo: Natural Indigo, extracted from the plant leaves is used to get blue colour. A ‘V’ shaped well called ‘Naand’, dug in the ground is used for dyeing. The Indigo along with casatoria seeds is added in ‘Naand’ containing water and is left for months to ferment (this brings out the iconic blue of the Indigo). Then, the fabric is dyed in it for 10-15 min. These days due to very limited supplies of natural Indigo, the synthetic Indigo color is widely being used. It mixed with sodium hydrosulfide and caustic soda in the ‘maat’ (clay container) containing water. The ‘maat’ is left to mature for 3-4 days. The fabric is then added to this solution and dyed for 10-15 min. and then dried in sun.
Brown: Red kashish with water.
Once the fabric has dried and the colours have been made, the fabric is stretched out and pinned on a large table and starting with the ‘Gadh’, the printer prints the fabric.
7) FINAL WASHING:
Once he printing is done, the printer washes the fabric in water and then dries it out.
List of craftsmen.