Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India...
Traditionally, ‘Nandna’ print fabric was only used by the women of ‘Bhil’ tribes. Their traditional attire would consist of Nandna printed skirts that doubled as a dhoti when working in the fields. An extended length of cord fabric is attached to the front of the skirt, which when pulled back and tucked into the back of the waist, divides the skirt into a loose pulled back type of trouser known as ‘Dhoti’. Having become quite popular, ‘Nandna’ textiles and techniques are now incorporated into other garments, bedspreads, table cloth, other furnishings and upholstery.
The natural dyeing of cloth depends on three key factors: type of fabric, dye-bath and mordant. About five to fifteen colours or shades can be derived from a single type of plant. Wanting to adopt a more eco-friendly procedure, craftsmen have started using more natural dyes instead of synthetic ones. Nandna was earlier indigenous to Umedhpura in Madhya Pradesh, as the rich mineral content of River ‘Gambhiri’ enhanced the colours of the fabric. The production of Nandna is said to be equally divided amongst both Hindu and Muslim communities, the ‘Chippas’ and the ‘Nilgars’ (printers and dyers). The fabric of Nandna is believed to have united the two religious communities for more than two centuries. The technique of ‘Dabu’ (mud) printing is only practiced in ‘Umedpura’ and the craft is so well honed that the prints are in demand by the ‘Bagh’ printers as well, despite the fame the ‘Bagh print’ gets. It is the use of ‘Datta block’ for mud-resist printing in Nandna fabric that sets them apart.
Indigo, a natural dye that is mainly used in the craft is considered highly and revered amongst the craftsmen community. They believe that a cow which drinks the solution becomes stronger and that if they eat with Indigo-stained hands, there won’t be any problems with the food or digestion. They say that Indigo has the power to turn anything natural. Wearing Indigo dyed fabric is thereby considered auspicious.
The various motifs like ‘Champa’, ‘Jalam Buta’ and ‘Amba’ were prized possessions among the women of the Bhil tribe. The presence of particular motifs determined their importance in the tribe and amongst other women. These motifs were also considered to be auspicious as they were worn during important occasions like weddings and childbirth. The fabric is also believed to be best for rough use and would last more than a year with frequent washes and no extra care.
No work related to printing is looked down upon or attributed to a certain class of people. The division of labor is only associated with the amount of work and the size of the family. Therefore, an increasing number of family members does not pose a problem but provides extra hands for work. The craftsmen have no fixed working hours and usually work for a minimum of 16 hours a day.
Block printing in India is an ancient craft, dating as far back as 3000 BC. It can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization and some historians are of the view that India may have been the original home of textile printing. Archaeological evidence from Mohenjedaro establishes that the complex technology of mordant dyeing had been known in the subcontinent from at least the second millennium BC.
India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century. The country was one of the largest exporters of textiles from the 16th century till the beginning of the 19th century. In the textiles exported, ‘chintz’ was most sought after, though it was also produced in Europe. This was the name given to any cotton or linen fabric with floral patterns and fast colours. The brilliance of the colors in Indian chintz made it more appealing to the European buyers in the 17th century, than the very same fabric produced in their homeland.
Chinese chronicles report the arrival of printed cloth in China from India in 140 BC. In Europe, samples have been found in the 16th century grave of St. Caesarius of Aries. Very few pieces of fabric have survived the wearing of time and season, especially the monsoons. Practically all the material evidence before the 16th century seems to have been washed out. Indian fabrics were found at Fostat, in the outskirts of Cairo. They were excavated during the later part of the 19th century. A Frenchman named R. Fisher made the first concentrated study of the fabrics earlier than the 17th century – distinguishing them into block printed and the resist dyed. These were exported in bulk and were for the mass market than a luxury one. The block printed pieces were believed to belong to the 15th century.
The manner of printing helped distinguish between the fine and the commonplace chintz. The fine one was usually painted. Mordants and resists were applied in freehand using a brush or pen, whereas the commonplace chintz was printed. The gum-thickened mordants were applied using printing wooden blocks. In the paintings, outlines were impressed by blocks or blocks were used for transferring the resist material such as mud, wax, clay or starch.
Block printing was practiced in places like ‘Kukshi’, ‘Dharampuri’ and ‘Thikri’ by a group of people called ‘Chhipas’ or ‘Bhavsars’. A few Muslim dyers called ‘Rangrez’, practiced color printing in the town of ‘Dhar’. They catered to the clothing of the ‘Adivasi’ tribes. The patterns were mostly raw and coarse cotton was used.
The printers and dyers, in their quest for ideal conditions to hone their craft, also settled in the villages of Tarapur and Umedpura of Madhya Pradesh. The craft is believed to have existed for over three hundred years here, and grown to attain characteristic forms which make it exclusive to the region.
The traditional motifs of the Nandna prints are not necessarily influenced by the flora and fauna in that locality. The erstwhile nomadic life of the Chippa community has brought in influences from all over Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab. The blocks were also sourced mostly from Pethapur, where designs were eclectic. Therefore, the traditional motifs are inspired from nature and have no cultural influence on them.
‘Champakali’ (Frangipani) is worn by the unmarried women of the tribe. It also symbolizes fertility in some regions. Nandna fabric was worn by all the women of the Bhil tribe as it was most comfortable during their daily physical activities like farming. This is also a reason for the prevalence of dark colours like blue, and green as backgrounds. The skirts with ‘Amba’ (Mango) print are worn during marriages and also a few months following childbirth. It is traditionally gifted to the sister by the brother on ‘Raksha-bandhan’, ‘Diwali’ and ‘Teej’.
Champakali : Inspired from the Champa (Frangipani) flower, this motif has the stem bent to one side and the leaves on either side of the stem, ending in a flower.
Mirchi : As the name goes, the motif is inspired from the Chilli. The form is slightly bent towards the right side with respect to its background. The stem is mostly printed in Ochre and the chili in red and white.
Jalam Buta : This motif is of a fruit-bearing tree. The upright stem flourishes into leaves and branches with flowers on both sides. The stem is printed in Ochre and the foliage in red and white.
Amba : One of the most used motifs; the ‘Amba’ (Mango) has a stem which is bent in opposite directions at both the ends – to the right on top and to the left on the bottom. The stem has branches on both sides. It represents the mango tree and is mostly printed on a background color of blue.
Dola Maru : This is a combination of the ‘Champakali’ and the ‘Aekal’ motif. The name is rooted in the famous love story of the Rajasthani prince ‘Dola’ and the princess ‘Maru’ of the Poogal kingdom in Rajasthan.
The process of making ‘Nandna’ is very time-consuming. It takes around a month to complete one lot of fabric; roughly 800 meters. Skilled workers with years of experience are required to carry about the processes.
Many traditional methods of Nandna printing have been forgotten because of their labor intensive nature. The designs and patterns have been varied and retained according to the market demands, which are not that particular about the manner of printing anymore. There has been a stark decline in the volume of production over the years. Training is now being given for the less time consuming method of printing to cope with the fluctuations in demand without having steep effects on the craftsmen.
With the growing environmental consciousness, the craftsmen are seeking eco-friendly alternatives for various processes like dyeing and disposal of dyes. Preliminary steps like neutralizing the dye baths by adding acid or alkaline before draining are being carried out.
Due to the opening of factories in Jawad, many craftsmen have moved on for more income and less or fixed working hours.
Fabric : Cotton cloth in its natural grey state and silk are used in this process. The different types of fabrics sourced for block printing are:
Fabric (plain weave with 4 ends in a dent and 2 weft threads picked together):
– Ded Mulmuls (warp and weft counts 100, 30s and 80s)
– Lattha or mill made grey cloth
– Handloom fabrics
– Dosuti sutti fabric (4 ends in a dent and a single weft thread pick, plain woven)
– Maheshwari sarees
– Chanderi sarees
Mordant: Mordents are metallic or mineral salts that enhance or change the color of the dye, when added to the fabric.
Dyes: Natural dyes such as ‘Geru’ as well as synthetic dyes are used.
Wax : Originally, wax that was prepared and boiled overnight was used. The blocks were dipped in wax and pressed onto the areas of the fabric, where the white color of the cloth needed to be retained.
Mud (for Dabu): Used for drying the resist printed areas.
Wood shaving: Traditionally, wood shavings were spread onto the wax printed areas of the cloth, to help the drying process, but they have been replaced with mud.
Harda: Used to bring an off white tint to the white cloth.
Dhawdi flowers: These flowers are used as dye and mixed along with Alizarin.
Alizarin: This is used in the above mentioned process of printing.
Green pomegranate rinds: These are used in the above mentioned process during the printing.
Mej – ‘Mej’ is a long wooden table on which the fabric is placed and block printing is done. Its height is such that it allows the printer to print in a standing position.
Phathiya -This is a small rectangular table of about 1.75m by 1.35 m. Thick layers of coarse jute are spread over the ‘Phathiya’ as base, to absorb any leakage of color while printing. The ‘phathiya’ used for printing the resist paste.
Gadi – ‘Gadi’ is a trolley rack with two shelves made of wood. This movable rack is used for placing the blocks for printing and the printing pastes.
Saj – This is the tray which holds the printing paste. This wooden trough is 30 cm long, 25 cm wide and 7 cm deep. The bottom of the trough has an asbestos sheet.
Katli – Katli is a bamboo or metal mesh which is placed inside the Saj. It serves as a sort of inkpad when the blocks are dipped into the tray.
Tamda – These are copper vessels used for alizarin dyeing. There are two types Tamda depending on the capacity – one which can be used to dye 200 mts of cloth and the other a 100 meters.
Tarseia – This is a huge shallow copper vessel used for cold dyeing. For example, the ‘Naspal’ or ‘Harda’ treatment is done after Alizarin dyeing.
Handi – Vessels used for storing the resist paste. These are shallow, broad-mouthed earthen vessels of different sizes.
Paundi – This is a cement tub used for bleaching and washing purposes.
Measuring tape – For measuring the lengths of raw fabric to be cut.
Brush – Used for cleaning the printing block and ridding it of dried flakes of printing paste.
Dastana – These are gloves used by the dyer to protect his hands from repeated stains.
Blocks – Wooden blocks with required patterns are brought in from Pethapur, Gujarat which has been a source of blocks for many years.
Wooden blocks carved with traditional motifs are used to imprint the fabric in beautiful patterns. The resist dyeing technique is used and the craftsmen also specialize in mud-resist printing. The ‘Gadh’ and ‘Rekh’ blocks form the motif in different colours, while the ‘Datta’ blocks paste the mud onto the parts which don’t have to remain neutral on dyeing.
The fabric is first cut into different lengths as per the requirements of the product being made such as garments and bed sheets. Taking into account the amount of shrinkage the cloth will go through various processes, the craftsmen cut the fabric accordingly. After this the cloth is soaked in water for 16-20 hours. During this step, the yarn swells up and the impurities and starch is removed. After this, the cloth is beaten on stone platforms and strained to remove the excess water.
Mordant are metallic or mineral salts which enhance or change the color of the dye when added to the fabric. When the fabric is immersed in ‘Harda’ solution the fabric changes to a cream yellow color. The harda acts as a mordant for the alum paste and increases the pliability of the fabric, thereby allowing a uniform absorption of printing paste. The fabrics are dried in the sun.
‘Geru’ or ochre is used on the cloth to make outlines of the design that has to be printed. Two people are involved in the process. Geru color is used to draw guidelines that can be washed away after printing.
The cloth is spread out on the ‘Mej’ or table. The printing blocks are dipped in the alum paste and their impressions are printed on the fabric. The fabric is then dried in the sun. This step takes one day to complete.
The process of washing fabric is called ‘Bichalna’ or ‘Pachalna’. In this process the fabric is washed and dried several times.
The fabric is boiled in ‘Alizarin’ and ‘Dhawdi ka phool’. The ‘Dhawdi’ flower keeps the red color of alizarin from spreading onto the printed alum. After it is boiled, the fabric is taken out and dried, without washing. Once the fabric dries, it is dipped into a solution of gum and water. This enhances the fastness of the color.
Traditionally wax that was prepared and boiled overnight was used. The blocks were dipped in wax and pressed onto the areas of the fabric, where the white color of the cloth needed to be retained. Wood shavings were spread onto the wax printed areas of the cloth. This process is now considered to be laborious and has been replaced with mud-resist paste or ‘Dabu’ which is a better method, as mud takes time to dry. In this technique, mud printed areas are sprinkled with a fine dust made up of thin roots and soil used in growing wheat seedlings. This also increases the adhesive strength of Dabu.
This is a cold dyeing process where the cloth is dipped in a solution of indigo dye. This process takes two minutes for each fabric. When dipped, the cloth turns to a rich green color. When this is exposed to dry air, rapid oxidation takes place and the green color turns to a deep blue shade. The process is repeated till the required shade is achieved.
For the fabrics on which mud-resist paste is used, washing continuously with running water removes all the mud. Whereas, wax can be removed only if the fabric is immersed in boiling water, till the wax melts and leaves the fabric. The melted wax, floating in water is reused.
Sand is spread over the base cloth on the ‘Mej’ or ‘Phatiya’. The Nandana fabric piece is placed over it and the printing is done on the red colored regions with gum and lime paste. Sand is spread over the gum to speed up the drying process.
Green pomegranate rinds are crushed and boiled to create a solution called ‘Nasphal’. This solution is dabbed over the cloth to change the color of Indigo to a darker shade of green. The fabric is then boiled and left to dry in the sun.
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