In the late 1990’s when Craft Revival Trust started its explorations of the bylanes and corners of craft practice amongst the first traditions tracked were those of handblock printing and dying. The unearthing of the carved bust of the priest-king at Mohenjodaro draped in a shoulder cloth with trefoil motifs, references in ancient texts, visual and archaeological evidence all date the dyeing and patterning of textiles on the sub-continent back several millennia.
Of the many traditions of handblock printing that continue to be practiced in India from the celebrated to the relatively unknown, the tradition of Bagh in Madhya Pradesh holds its own.
This bustling small township known for its ancient Buddhist mural painted rock cut caves is home to the Khatri chippas the hereditary printing and dyeing community. The Khatris trace their ancestry to Larkana in Sind from where their long march eastwards began over 400 years ago.
Their wanderings led them to several places including Bagh where they settled near the mineral rich waters of the Baghini River, its flowing waters vital to the printing process. Catering to the textile needs of the regions tribal populace of Bhil and Bhilals the Khatris printed and dyed the lugada saris, ghagra full length gathered skirts, angocha shoulder cloth and odhni head mantles. This customary wear was worn for occasions like weddings and celebrations and ppurchased by tribal communities either with cash or bartered with forest produce during the lunar month of Kartik, around Diwali and at Phagun, the harvest period around the festival of Holi
With changing times and the availability of cheap mill made textiles the ties between the block-printer and their traditional tribal patrons diminished and the Khatris of Bagh began to explore new avenues to stay relevant. The patriarch of Bagh printers the late Hajji Ishmael Khatri, awarded by the President of India with the honorific of Shilpguru, was instrumental in placing Bagh on the handblock print map. In the late 1980’s he collected disused blocks from other printers, made new blocks from old and damaged ones, researched and single handedly collated and built up the Bagh motif directory. This design repertoire rooted in tribal culture extended from floral butis and vines to a vast range of jaal trelliswork and geometric patterns, all startlingly contemporary in look. Ishmael experimented with layouts and colors, created variations in shades and established Bagh as a block printing center to be reckoned with.
The printers in Bagh follow the mordant dye printing technique to create their striking deep red and iron black handblock printed textiles. This complex manual process requires patience, skill and dexterity with the printing of a sari, for instance, taking a minimum of three weeks to complete.
At the very core of the process is the block itself, with the quality of the print dependant on the skill of the block-maker. Intricately carved by specialist block-makers in Pethapur, Gujarat in long lasting teak wood, the block-makers follow the exact specification of the printers.
Even before the printer starts the process of stamping the first block several steps have to be completed to ready the fabric to accept the print and the color.
The cloth either cotton or silk is first washed to remove all impurities and then soaked overnight in a mixture of arandi-ka-tel/unrefined castor oil, alkaline mineral salts and goat dung. When this mixture is completely fused into the fabric it is then treated with harda/myrobalam nut powder. These processes soften the fabric making it receptive to the dye and ready for printing.
The printer lays the cloth onto a low table, dips the block, usually 6×6 inches in size, into the color tray ensuring that no extra color adheres to the block. He then carefully places the corner of the block on to the fabric setting its position before lowering the whole block down. With a firm, sure hand he thumps the block with his fist thus ensuring an even print. This process is then repeated again and again till the whole fabric is printed. Each print aligned and flush with the next. With experience a block printer can average about ten meters in a day.
The deep black color is extracted from rusted iron fermented with molasses or as is more common now from iron ferrous sulphate/ hara kasish. The shades of red emerge when the patterns printed with the mordant alum are dyed in the synthesized alizarin red dye bath. Boiled in huge copper vats set on wood fired furnaces, the yellow Dhavda/Axle wood tree flowers are added in to brighten the color. The fabrics are constantly shifted and turned in the vats with long wooden sticks as the mixture boils for over 4 hours, deepening the color.
The alum print ensures that when the fabric is dyed, only the alum printed areas retain the red color as it holds fast the dye, like a glue, to the areas it has been hand blocked on.
The fabric is then washed in the river Baghini, rich in copper and other minerals. It is from its waters that the dramatic blood-red and iron-black motifs associated with the Bagh handblock printed textiles emerge.
First published in Sunday Herald on 7th May, 2015.