Before the advent of industrial textiles, printers were an exclusive community who were highly valued as they catered to the needs of the royal families initially before printing for other communities as well. The dabu or mud-resist printing of Akola traditionally adorned two specific types of fabrics- Phetia and Nandna, worn by the women of Jat, Gujjar and Gadariya communities.
'Phetiya', the flowing Ghagras (traditional long skirts) of women were usually in combination with a Bandhej Lugda, a long fabric draped over the head. Phetiya, made with just a single line of stitching, was crafted by joining the extreme ends of a 8-12 meter fabric, though the length varied according to the body type and social stature of the individuals. The traditional 'Lal Titri' Akola print adorned this piece of cloth in bright shades of red and indigo.
Like the essence of earth, the Akola Dabu prints remain the primeval printing method. Like the patterns, these fabrics are deeply embedded in the cultural identities of various Rajasthani communities. Block makers intricately carve out beautiful blocks in the local area, and the native craftsmen known as Chippas specialize in printing. The forms in which these fabrics are worn are changing with time, yet the soul of the craft is carried forward, unhampered, by the motifs and hues.
Today around 200 men and women together practice this craft in this quaint village where the Beduch river provides water and washing grounds on it mighty banks. Various motifs like Kahma, Lal Titri, Dholika and Kantedar were a priced possession amongst women of the Jat and Gujjar communities. Their traditional long ghagras known as 'Phetiya' were enveloped by the exclusive Akola prints.
Myths & Legends
In the Akola village, it has been a legend, that the colors of the sky - blue of the day, indigo of the night, red of the sunsets - are replicated in the regional attire, owing to their belief in the gods of nature and the worship of what gives them life. They narrate their relationship with the craft as 'the lock carvers sculpt the blocks, the earth lends mud and the river bestows water and that is their possession of a traditional attire, which brings them closer to nature and the worldly orders'.
The origins of the ancient craft of hand block printing can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization. Some historians claim its roots to 3rd century B.C China from where it is supposed to have travelled to India in the 18th century with Gujarat and Rajasthan becoming the most prolific producers of printed textiles in India.
The Hindu caste of cotton printers and dyes known as Chippas were the prominent printing community in Rajasthan. The word is derived from 'chhapna'-meaning 'to print', because the Chhipas printed coloured patterns on cotton cloths with wooden stamps. They worked in harmony with other related communities of Neelgars (indigo dyers), Rangrez (dyers) and dhobis(washermen).
The Chippa communities migrated to areas close to rivers that provided water for washing and mud for resist printing. Replenished generously by nature, it is said that they were employed in India during 8th century AD. The oldest specimen found of Dabu printed fabric in Central Asia indicates this. Dabu printing style was widely practiced in villages of Tarapur, Bhilwara, Pahuna and Akola. Dabu printed cloth was widely adorned by the local women on a daily basis. The village is a self-sufficient system for Dabu printing. Block carvers sculpt the blocks, the earth lends mud and the river bestows water.
The craft is supposed to still exist in its beautiful form in the quaint village of Akola in Rajasthan, where the 7th generation of craftsmen still keeps intact the soul of the tradition.
The word Dabu comes from the 'dabaana' , meaning 'to press', is a craft of beautiful crafted motifs on fabric created for the local women. The patterns are traditional, handed on intact, over generations. The motifs are picked from nature and objects around them and then crafted onto wooden blocks by skilled carvers and block makers. All the women of the Jat and Gujjar tribe wore the Akola print fabric, as it was most comfortable during their daily activities. The craft in Akola had a beautiful plethora of 14 traditional block designs that exclusively printed the fabric pieces.
These designs slowly faded away with time and at present 4 main motifs are known- Kahma, Lal Titri, Dholika and Kantedar.
The Lal Titri motif prominently known as the Akola print beautifully covered the Phetiya's, the long flowing skirts of women in remarkable shades of alizarin and indigo. The Phetiya was spread with an overall print in the ground and a zigzag line like border.
With time there has been use of new blocks and patterns for the contemporary market. New product range has been derived according to the market needs.
Wide ranges of yardages are printed for developing different range of products in accordance with the changing demands. The patterns and motifs are engineered for products like dupattas, stoles, saris giving details of borders, pallu and main body. Earlier, printing with a mud paste helped resist the required designs and patterns, but this slowly shifted to the use of tar in a quest for obtaining more refined designs, which was difficult with the use of mud, which mostly cracked and changed the look.
The mud resist Dabu printing technique is a very lengthy and labor-intensive process which at the same time does not provide enough livelihood to the artisans and their families. This has discouraged the present generations to see much scope in this age old family tradition and look for other means of livelihood.
The tar used for resist is continuously heated and the fumes developed, prove hazardous for the printers. The ash, which is sprinkled on the cloth fumes in the workspace, is to a certain degree another pertaining hazard to the printer and others working around because it causes suffocation from external particles in an almost closed space. New designs and patterns are used these days to satisfy the market requirements in cities and neighboring towns. There has also been a considerable fall in demand from the local people for the traditional patterns and motifs.