Bypassing Jaipur

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

Bypassing Jaipur: Changing Castes, Natural Dyeing and Bum-Chik-Bum in Kaladera

Sunny and Meeta


They had never seen white soldiers before. Once they had passed by on horseback. That’s all they knew of the Raja of Jaipur, to whom the village as gifted. They neverBritish Raj.They knew very well the Baiji, the sister of thehad a Thakur over lording them. Nearby villages aisinghpura, Narsinghpura were probably all named after some Rajput scion. The nearest town Chomu, too had its small palace and reigning Rajput, who had sold the palace to a Bania who turned it into an atta mill. Kaladera. Never really found out why it was called that. Me and my spice (better than the word spouse!) had first gone there in early 1994 to carry on our work in hand block printing and natural dyeing. Kala-black, dera-campsite/settlement. We preferred to think of it as Kala-art.

Kaladera is a big village with a population of around ten thousand. It has a mix of forty castes and sub-castes which do not intermarry, both among Hindus and Muslims.

We came up with fourteen castes which worked with some natural material and did skilled handwork. Some who to this day carry on their traditional vocation – Kumavats-stone workers and masons, Manihars-lacquer bangle makers,Neelgars-indigo dyers, Chippas-block printers, Kumhars-potters, Lohars-metal workers, Patwas-thread workers, Khati-wood workers, Regars-leather workers, Sonhars-precious jewellery makers .Many others like basket weavers, weavers, metal jewelry casters had left their craft. Though there is a khadi wool blanket weaving workshop in the village and many castes have tried their hand at weaving.
Rajasthan. The land of chivalry and grandeur. And great home cooked vegetarian food.
It has changed drastically in the fourteen years we have been visiting it, along with the world around it. We are not just talking about Jaipur and its huge new townships like Vidyadharnagar and Mansarovar (advertised as the biggest colony in Asia!) Which is now fighting over water resources; with brand new SEZ called the Mahindra World City coming up near it. And obviously a hundred new complexes, as land gets expensive in Delhi suburbs, land all the way on the highway to Jaipur and beyond is sold to property developers. Prices in Kaladera village have gone up up to 25 times in front of us, land in the village was hundred rupees a square yard is now Rs 2,500/- a square yard! Most village residents cannot afford the land now, and agricultural land is being bought by outsiders mostly. Soon land will be affordable only in dry districts of the country or where the ultra-left groups operate.
We can reach Kaladera, avoiding Jaipur altogether.Kaladera is the same distance from Delhi as Jaipur.And only forty kilometers from Jaipur.We catch the Jaipur bypass at Chandvaji, now a spanking new highway, also the route to the beautiful Samode palace, we reach Chomu on the Bikaner highway from Jaipur. From Chomu, Kaladera is just ten kilometers.Chomu is the biggest mandi near Jaipur and the region has good groundwater. So no sand dunes, only lehlahata green fields of wheat or mustard in winter, and many vegetable crops as the area has the Saini caste in abundance, who are great gardeners, even had one of their own as a local MLA lately.
Kaladera has its collection of havelis, owned by Banias, some of whom made loads of money trading in Assam and Calcutta in early twentieth century. The Patwa, thread-worker we work with saved up enough money over ten years to buy one of the dormant havelis, we found postmarked inland letter cards and letters lying half unburnt from early 1900’s.They were usually from Calcutta to Kaladera. Banias who are rich keep these havelis as reminders of their roots, occasionally using them for some functions or stopovers when they visit their favorite shrines in Rajasthan.Some women walk all the way barefoot from Kolkata, obviously taking the train barefoot too! One of the most famous pilgrimages is Khatu Shyamji; you can see hundreds of groups of dozens of people walking the highways barefoot with bright red, pink and yellow flags.
Most havelis lie dormant now with descendants spread all over India, slowly falling into ruins. Further up north is the Shekawati region famous for its painted havelis and as the origin of most of the ultra rich Marwari business families. Kaladera comes in the region known in local region as Dundlod, and the locals call their dialect as a khichdi of various dialects. There are many dialects in Rajasthan, a little harsher near Haryana, a little softer near Gujarat. The saying goes that water and language change every 10-12 kos ( a kos being roughly about two miles ).The creativity of using English words mixed up with Hindi is at its maximum in rural India where there is a perpetual shortage of English teachers in schools. We have come across words like “discursh”, a mix of discuss and nishkarsh in Hindi meaning conclusion. The word ‘jack’, the tool for lifting a punctured car, is used for asking whether you have a contact, or connections!
As one said earlier, there are forty castes in the village. Around seven among Muslims and rest among Hindus. Each caste has their own collective knowledge of life, of work, of spirituality and of pleasure. Each caste has its own experience of the modern urban world and how they deal economically, socially with it. Each caste is very secretive about its knowledge and experience domains. Rarely does it cross boundaries in rural India with friendships across castes. The children of the family of Chippas, printers, we work with had other caste friends in school but soon after school most of their friends were of their own caste. We once wanted to sponsor a cricket tournament with the rule that no team would have more than six of one caste and we were told no such team was possible!

We have read since childhood either sad stories about Dalits or the widows of Brahmins and Rajput households. Working with artisan castes one realizes how caste based most Hindi literature is. Among the Chippa caste there was widow remarriage, as you cannot have a hand going waste, also men and women worked together, washing and dyeing in the river nearby. We read or know very little about the social and cultural histories of the middle castes of middle India. It’s the big silence about the big majority.

Anyone who has stayed in a village knows how the neighborhoods are separated by caste, few are mixed. The Dhobis stay in one part, as the Banias and Brahmins in another, the SC’s on the outskirts of the village. The village market square had shops belonging to only the Banias. Over the 90’s many banias have sold off and moved to Jaipur and the farming castes like Sainis, Jats, Ahir-Yadavs are buying up shops for their sons and getting into modern small retail like stationery shops, tailor shops, readymade garment and gift shops, shoe stores and watch stores. When we had reached the village there were a few dozen shops, some at the bus stand, mostly in the center. Now there are hundreds, with every mohalla having their own too. The concept of shops, residences and workspaces we are preparing for Delhi would seal up every village and small town in India.

The caste of Patwas which strung together necklaces, made rakhis,thread camel decorations move from mela to mela,mazhar to mandir,selling their stuff have now transformed into small superstores of cosmetics, plastic toys and infant readymade garments sourced from Sadar and Gandhi Market in Delhi. They use the empty returning trucks on the Delhi-Jaipur-Ahemdabad route as their transport.

Kumavats, the traditional builders and stone workers have opened welding, metal fabrication and construction material supply businesses, as wood becomes expensive and most people can afford only sheet metal doors, sometimes a tin sheet welded onto an angle frame. Once a young Kumavat mason told me how half his community works outside and he had worked on an Oberoi project in Himachal.He said he could earn much more in Mumbai but no one would know if he died on the streets there. Now with a construction boom in the village he has turned contractor and is very busy.

The Chippas, the printing caste we have worked intensively with over the past 14 years use to traditionally print the Ghaghra fabrics worn by women of all castes. Slowly the ghaghra went out of fashion with the coming of saris. The Ahemdabad mills started printing the traditional motifs on fabric and there was a major decline of hand block printing. Many Chippas shifted trade becoming jeep drivers, opening ration depots or khad-beej shops, mill made fabric stores and tailoring shops. In the sixties there was a major upsurge in demand for the Bagru vegetable print and lehariya tie-dye by the hippies in the west and since then there has been continuous innovation in process of hand printing, with its cyclical patterns of boom and bust. Many Chippas along with Banias, and partition refugee Sindhi community got into screen printing in Sanganer, the textile printing mandi near Jaipur. Supplying all India with fabrics, saris and bedcovers, there was a major shift from hand block and natural printing. Till today Bagru remains the biggest center for syahi-begar and dabu. Syahi is waste iron fermented in molasses for black printing, and begar is an alum based paste for red print when developed in alizarin (a first generation dye invented by the Germans to destroy the dye monopoly of the British, traditionally the madder climber or al root was used). Dabu is the mud-resist which is special to this region made from potters’ clay, slaked lime, tree gum and insect eaten wheat waste. Many Chippas have turned exporters and are crorepatis, till date these processes are a monopoly of the Chippa community, with store chains like FabIndia and Anokhi being large buyers of printed fabric and producers of readymade garments.

Kaladera is also one of the dozen villages around Jaipur which practices this craft of natural dyeing and mud-resist. There were villages specializing in their own prints and no one copied the other village prints. Some made huge bedcover like sheets called jajam to cover huge rooms for collective functions; some made wedding chuniris and some ghaghra fabric. There is even a hierarchy of color, with the Rajputs wearing sunhera colors – oranges, reds and pinks which were more fugitive and needed redyeing regularly so they would look fresh and smell good. The farmer castes like Jats wore indigo and green while the lowest could only afford the easiest available grey dye – kashish or ferrous sulphate.

So higher the caste less its desire of fixed colors! The lower caste needed fixed colors as they could only afford one or two ghaghras a year.

With us, many graphic designers, illustrators, artists from People Tree and young people interested in craft came over to Kaladera, over the years. There were long haired males and short haired women. One artist friend, while he was sitting in the village square sketching the scene was invited to sketch someone’s old father before he died. He even got a free samosa and a chai for sketching a halwai!
In the initial six-seven years we used to do the dyeing with the family as production was small and their children were young, and could only join in after coming from school. Our printer Raghunath Nama, had to fight off many of his caste kin who thought that we would learn the secrets of natural dyeing and open our own workshop. The family joked that they were getting labor from the big city to do their work, and pay them for it! Traditionally the wood blocks used to be very small, and mostly floral. Later exports defined the prints with Japanese desiring big fish prints and African motif bedcovers. We and People Tree created modern graphic prints and fun patterns based out of a visual language coming out of Indian creativity. Initially we used to go in our Maruti 800 and buy the natural dyes from an ayurvedic herb wholesaler in Jaipur. Over the years now there are wholesalers coming to the village to sell Harda, the base dye which has natural tannins to fix the prints, Anar Chilca or pomegranate rind from Himachal anardana factories, for yellow dyeing. Natural dyeing needs mineral mordants like Alum to fix the colors. Each fabric has to be dyed 3-4 times in natural dyeing and printing while in modern chemical processes you dye just once and print on top or just do printing without dyeing. So the whole natural dyeing process takes much longer and is much more effort.
In the initial years there was electricity only for a few hours a day and the closest phone was ten kilometers away. Now there is regular electricity, a good road to Jaipur and many mobile phone towers. Young men buy mobikes with brakes that play the latest Hindi film tune on pressing the brakes. The latest Hindi and English music is remixed with Rajasthani folk songs by local DJ’s who charge a packet for wedding parties, arranging the mandatory lights and dance floor. One can hear even techno strains coming from some far away dhani in the fields during late night celebrations! There is cable TV and internet, even broadband, mostly used to rip off movie and music VCDs.
Many years ago on the gau-char or fodder lands, an industrial area was developed by the state government .Initially no one came for a few years as the electricity, road or telecom infrastructure was insufficient. As the region has good groundwater resources, Coca Cola set up its bottling plant in Kaladera.It was the first big factory in Kaladera.With it came the Bihari labor influx who agreed to work at much lower wages longer hours. Rents started going up as ITI trained skilled labor needed rooms to stay. While the Biharis were allowed by farmers to make huts on the fields. Many Kaladera villagers make money now selling provisions to these migrants. Even a small cinema hall came up with ten rupee tickets, but is having a difficult time sustaining itself as the competition from VCD’s is unbeatable. The day the movie is released in Jaipur; same evening its VCD’s are available in Kaladera.
The ground water was dropping in Kaladera before we came. Raghunath told us that it was five feet when he was young. It was thirty five when we arrived. Farmers who with tractors and boring wells could do wheat farming and grow much higher acreages now, as compared to earlier when they would grow rain fed crops like bajra,jowar, barley and chana. We heard of bore wells being deepened every year we were there. As the soil is sandy the wheat crop needs up to nine waterings compared to four or five in Haryana.
The present sarpanch of the village, a harijan, won the elections with the biggest margin against the Coca Cola nominee. He has recently bought a second hand Maruti Esteem from Maharashtra. He has been helped by the anti Coca Cola activist brigade who landed in Kaladera from all over Rajasthan to scare Coca Cola into creating good cement roads in the village, water recharging wells and scholarships in village schools. In Kerala they shut down the plant, in Rajasthan they decide to make them work for the village and at the same time heavily line some pockets of power. As half the village is not farm owning, they also blame the farmers for the decreasing water levels. Socially and politically the traditional farming dominant castes like Jats and Ahirs are not well liked by the many minority caste groups. They usually laugh at them and say they sit at the chai shops all day while women and children take care of weeding, of feeding the cattle. Milk provides the cash liquidity to farmers as they grow their own fodder, which has become expensive for non farming castes to buy. Now farmers are known to give bigger dowries than the Banias!
Raghunath became very successful with the innovations we did with mud-resist on expensive fabrics like tussar and georgette. He has bought a flat and shop in Jaipur.His two grand-daughters go to swanky DPS school in Jaipur, and he goes up and down to Kaladera in his Maruti Gypsy. We had a dance party in his home in Kaladera a couple of years ago and invited his neighborhood children, both boys and girls. Also all the women printers were invited and male printers were only allowed in if they would dance! It was a rollicking success. Men and women, girls and boys grooving to “Dhoom Macha le”.Since then it has become common for girls to have such parties in the Gangaur month, boys mostly yet not allowed.
In traditional village life in Rajasthan, women did not speak out loud, in fact they whispered in front of elder males and the ghoonghat was almost waist long. With no freedom movement, or social reform or NGO spreading awareness change still comes. Regular electricity and TV has done its job. Women were not taken to the movie hall ten kilometers away in Chomu.With TV the world came to them, also soon MTV and music channels, saas bahu serials also had no women in ghoonghat. Now one can see many women without ghoonghat and young unmarried girls in jeans too. There are fashions of the season even in the three hundred rupee sari range and a five rupee copy of the latest nail polish colors is available within a month in the village. Young men in the village say that they now feel neither of the village, nor of the city.
Changing tastes, changing crops, even changing tastes in entertainment. There used to be a few stone houses and havelis made for Banias and Bagras, a caste of landed Brahmins who were the hereditary Patels or headmen of the village, who have recently allowed widow remarriage as many males in their caste cannot find women to marry, an increasing phenomenon in Rajasthan among many castes due to the skewed male-female ratio. Now almost the whole village has stone or brick houses, with the SC’s, Chippas and other emerging OBC’s having the most urban looking houses, some with the white fluffy Pomeranian pet dog!
It depends who you talk to, but rarely someone other than the Rajputs and Brahmins says that times earlier were better. As a village elder says “today everybody is a Raja”.

This year one of the latest bhajans which you hear above the competing ‘decks’ or audio-systems blaring early in the morning to compete whose is the loudest, was “Bum-Chik-Bum”, guess which god-our very own Bum-chum, Bum Bum Bhole Shivji!

Slowly but surely feudalism moves into entrepreneurship, mass media moves into homes, but jhad-phook (broomstick village magic) ,caste marriages and political alignments remain strong and durable.

One has always felt that there is so much interesting change which is neither covered by the metro based English press nor the upper-caste dominated Hindi press which sometimes subtly sometimes visibly pushes the grand Hindutva agenda. One feels media savvy and resource heavy upper castes and classes are going to be continuously challenged by a continuing upsurge in social, economic and political aspirations
of the emerging castes. They have the desire to take over whatever the elites have done, so we are in for what the Chinese call “interesting times” and as the famous BBC anchor Mark Tully says” No full stops in India”

First published in First City Magazine, May 2007

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