Printed textiles with ethnic designs and ecofriendly natural dyes were one of India’s earliest important exports and achieved great popularity in Europe in the 18th Century. Bagru and Sanganer, the two suburbs within 10-30 kms of Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, are well known for block printing industry all over India and even abroad. Till two decades or so ago, both Bagru and Sanganer were the hubs of hand-block printing with natural dyes. Bagru is renowned still for its typical red and black hand-block print in natural dyes. In Sanganer, however, for variety of reasons the traditional hand-block- printing is increasingly disappearing giving way to screen printing and digital printing. According to a rough estimate provided by some people in the industry, only about 30-35 hand-block printing enterprises exist in Sanganer today whereas the count for screen printing enterprises comes to around 150.
The State of The Art of Hand Block- printing
Traditionally block-prints on textiles are created by stamping the wooden block on dyed fabrics which leaves behind the design carved on the block. Carving the design on a wooden block itself is a skill. Only an accomplished artist can do so. Mehmood Ali, 48, an award winning block maker from Bhatta colony of Jaipur has been carving beautiful designs on wooden blocks for last 32 years. He possesses a wealth of information about block making. ‘These wooden blocks are made of trees called Rohera commonly found in Sanganer’, he said. Those who do not have an idea about the art of block making must see it for themselves to know how difficult, tiring and highly skilled work it is. The work demands undivided attention and clinical precision by the artists who sit in certain postures continuously for long hours to emboss those intricate designs and beautiful patterns on wooden blocks. It is not surprising therefore to know from Ali bhai when he said – ’32 years of engagement in this work has taken its toll on my back, eyes and knees.’
Ali’s eyes became moist when he recalled that unfortunate communal outbreak in 1992 which ruined his self-established block making business and forced him to seek employment elsewhere in hand-block printing enterprises. Since then he has been associated with many hand-block printing enterprises. What he earns today is inadequate to provide him a decent living. In the present times when Mehmood Ali, the dextrous block maker receives a meagre amount rupees 3000 a month, it is not difficult to imagine the economic condition of other block makers. It is an easy surmise for anybody why Mehmood Ali’s children did not go to school after standard six and why didn’t they learn the art of block making from their father. They chose to work as colour-mixer instead in block printing industry which uses chemical dyes.Block-making is not sufficiently remunerating nowadays and younger generation is conspicuous by its absence in this field. Ali bhai confirmed the apprehension saying that most probably the coming generation will not inherit or learn this skill as this may no longer be required since the advent of screen printing. Not that colour mixing requires more advanced skill or it is free from hazardous impact on health; in fact, on both accounts the worker is worse- off. By switching to colour mixing, he is actually de-skilled and also more prone to skin diseases including some deadly diseases in the long run.This is tragic indeed that the insane logic of modern market is attracting children of Mehmood Ali and alike with more money and they are willing to be de-skilled and exposed to health hazards. The short-sighted view of modern business is clearly endangering the sustainability element in modern ways of livelihoods, living and life.Perils of Mehmood Ali are just the tip of the iceberg. As you dwell deep you find that the current development paradigm placing tremendous emphasis on industrial development is shockingly contemptuous to human hands and handmade products. Ask Dhananjay of Ojjas, the craft shop in Jaipur on Sirsi road and he will tell you “it is increasingly becoming difficult to compete against the onslaught of mechanised printing.” Ojjas, the craft shop is into a range of activities such as manufacturing, wholesale and retail, believes that crafts are a way of life which narrates stories of human hands. Hand block printing not only describes a unique technique but the product also embodies the pride, labour, skill and the expression of human spirit. For instance, to print a sari with a combination of six-seven design in four-five colours, a craftsman handles 30 to 35 blocks, stamping 2000 times with perfect placement and precision.
Competition from Screen Printing
When you turn at the Agricultural mandi, the wholesale market at Muhana mode in Sanganer, you will easily notice a few cyclists with the pillion holding a huge 6 by 4 feet iron-framed screen. Welcome to the world of screen block printing! Mostly in Sanganer, ramazole is used as colour for the screen printing. In screen block printing, the dyed fabric is tightly fixed on the table using wax. Two people across the table hold the screen, pour the processed colour and spread it on the designed screen. The colour passes through the porous screen and prints the design on the fabric. The process is much quicker in printing and appears mechanical in contrast to the hand-block printing where the careful and involved craftsperson appears to be creating poetry on cloth. The “wet process” involved in the screen block printing is highly water intensive as it requires 6 wash; one each at every stage of de-sizing, caustic, peroxide, neutral, detergent and fresh wash.It may be impossible for a lay person to make a distinction between hand-block and screen-block printed textiles. Only a close scrutiny can reveal those inconsistencies and breaks at the joints of designs and patterns in hand-block prints owing to human factor in delivering accuracy in precision every time in every stamp. Screen printing on the other hand will look relatively more uniform all over. It was interesting to see that screen printers are also mastering the art of giving impression of hand-block prints through screen printing. Only a highly specialised person can catch this. This sort of imitation, fake production and sales are increasingly inhibiting the growth prospects of hand-block prints.
Value Not Price
The price of the handmade products is higher than the mechanised products for two obvious reasons. One, higher human component into the production process also means high labour cost which pushes up price of the products. Second, it is the scale factor as supply constraint. Most of the hand-block printing enterprises are small scale and hence for a demand-supply situation in today’s time-bound market, it may not be possible for small scale producers to cater to a big demand. In such a scenario, screen printers and digital printers outcompete hand-block printing.Higher price of hand-block-printed products against the mechanised printing should not be an undermining factor. As Oscar wild says, ”who wants a cynic who knows the price of everything but value of nothing.” Hand-block printing reflects the value -added and the creativity which is a unique product of a culture.According to Dhananjay, the entrepreneur with the modern training in design and textile management, there is a silver-lining. He feels that there exists a niche market for hand-block printed products which is growing bigger. Due to increasing awareness about health and growing consciousness about the fair trade, more and more people are demanding hand-block printed products.
Bagru Hand-block Print
Braving the onslaught of mechanised printing, Bagru has by and large managed to retain, so far, its traditional Bagru hand-block natural dye prints, thanks to the determination and perseverance of people like Titanwale and Ganesh of Varsha textiles in Bagru. It was enlivening to learn from Deepak Kumar Titanwale the process followed to make the black and red colour. For black colour, iron is kept with gur (jaggery) in a big-deep container for about a month. The iron rust thus formed is then mixed with tamarind seed flour and boiled in an aluminium utensil till it foams. This is how the black colour (locally called syahi) is formed. For red colour, a mixture (begur) of geru (a type of red coloured soil), fitkari/alum and gum is boiled. Before printing, harda (a yellowish myrobalan herb of medicinal quality) is used as a basic dye. Then the red-black hand-printing is done through wooden design blocks. Once printed, it is washed and then again dyed in Alizerine which fixes the colours more firmly. Besides the typical red-black Bagru print, other dye colours such as green, blue are also prepared with pomegranate peel and indigo respectively. Bagru is also known for its Dabu technique of resist dying. Here a mixture containing moth-eaten wheat flour (called beedan in local dialect), limestone powder, gum powder, and black soil is prepared and pressed on the fabric. The pressed part remains non-dyed. The other prints are then hand blocked as desired on the non-dyed portion followed first by hot wash in a copper utensil with Sakura flowers and later fresh water wash.The traditional Bagru print is very much in demand but situation is deteriorating fast on the supply side. According to Deepak Titanwale, whose ancestors have worked in Bagru on Dabu, Rapid and traditional prints in vegetable dye for centuries, the water problem is becoming worse by each passing year. So far they have been doing fine and felt no need for any support from the government. But now, his father has applied for artisan credit card because he needs money to set up a tube well.The passion exhibited by Titanwale to keep the tradition and skill alive is not commonly shared by the people in Bagru as the machines continue to attract the new generation workers. While it is true that machines demand less labour and enhance the scale of production, it cannot be overlooked that traditional Bagru print in vegetable dye causes less harm to workers’ health, environment and creates less amount of wastes. In fact the used water after multiple washes are useful for the fields because if the used water is used for irrigation, it has been observed that the productivity of the farm increases.
Value and Reward to Artisans
Exports of hand printed textiles from India, between 1990 and 1997, grew almost four times in dollar times (Libel & Roy, 2000). The growth trend continues but the artisans, the lifelines of Hand-block print industry; continue to be poor, diseased, malnourished, illiterate, untrained and ill-paid. Perhaps the biggest irony lies in the fact that the hand-block printing industry is seeking value for its artefacts but does not value its artisans. How does it help the workers in block printing if the demand for hand-block products pick up? Would they be better off? Would they earn more? Would their socio-economic conditions improve? A large number of workers in hand-block printing are migrants from Farukhabad in Uttar Pradesh. They are not gainfully employed throughout the year. Particularly the rainy season is a lean period. In rainy season natural dyes tend to spread out because of the moisture in the air and also the printed clothes take a lot of time to dry. Both these factor impact the quality and scale of hand-block printing. Consequently, only a small number of workers can be seen working in this season with pigment colours. Most of the workers who go home for Rakshabandhan come back only after sowing season is over. Perhaps like most of the other migrant workers, block-printers too find it more remunerative to work as agricultural labourers in this season. The industry must ponder over these critical issues should it want to be valued and rewarded.All tall claims of the government appear absolutely hollow. Hardly any artisan is being able to get any scheme support from the government. Below the master-craftworkers level and even at the master craftsman level in the villages, most of the artisans are unaware of the schemes. Those who are aware know so vaguely that they do not know how to claim those benefits. Very few who make an attempt end up running around several offices, trapped in the opaque and corrupt bureaucratic procedures. They get nothing but actually end up wasting their days and in turn forgoing their income. Not surprising to know that increasingly workers have begun to abandon the hand block printing work as it also requires hard labour but hardly any real support to improve their livelihoods. The implementation of the schemes therefore must improve substantially. In fact the nature of the schemes should change. Doling out charity in the name of subsidy may not be the right approach.
Environment, Health and Safety Issues
The block printing industry is plagued enormously by the environment, health and safety issues. The unsafe handling of chemical colours, health hazards in dying process, intensive use of water and its wastage, the effluent contamination with land and water and its impacts on community health and livelihoods are burning issues demanding urgent attention.Use of pigment and chemical colours are common in block-printing industry today. Usually, the pigment colours are treated with a binder, M.T.oil, emulsifier and fixer to enhance their long lasting characteristic. ‘They are easier to handle’ said Amitabh Patni of Surabhi exports based in c-scheme area of Jaipur. The pigment colours are used to avoid any hassles of processing. These pigments can cause skin allergies for which gloves can be used but only a handful of workers are fortunate enough to avail this facility. Like any other industry, the concerns about workers’ health, hygiene and safety are not taken sincerely by the employers.If a worker gets old he becomes unfit for the job since block-printing requires stretching his body forward over the 4 feet by 3 feet table to hit the block firmly with his palm with perfect placement and precision. The work becomes even more difficult for a bespectacled long-sighted old person. Some enterprises have attached a raised bar to the tables to solve the problem but this hardly helps the old fellows at work.The cacophony of the numerous digital machines at work crossing the dangerous decibel levels may harm the supervisors hearing abilities. The supervisors monitoring the machines and putting in the threads when they break in between (mostly Chinese threads) are used to speaking in abnormally raised voice. The issue of noise pollution needs to be tackled. When inquired, most of the companies did not have any medical history-record of its employees. None of the companies visited has been organising any regular medical check-ups.
What was conspicuously missing is the arrangement for discharge-drainage. All the heavy filth was carelessly discharged into municipality drain compounding the already pathetic water-pollution situation in the city.
Making the Difference
In the midst of all these apprehensions, some initiatives have certainly brought good news for the industry. Sanganer handblock print was recently registered as ‘Geographical Indication (GI)’ under the GI ACT-1999 and efforts are on to procure a GI for Bagru handprint. It is hoped that an effective post-GI mechanism would be put in place to harness the gains in national and international market. Also, a Jaipur Texcraft park approved by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India under its SITP scheme appears to be a step in the right direction. The park covering 9.4 hectare (around 24 acre) is expected to begin production by the middle of this year. This park with its state of the art facilities, comprising mainly of block printing enterprises aims to adequately address the environment, Health and Safety issues. A common effluent treatment plant is also proposed for the purpose. Aware of the fact that we are all living in the era of climate change and organic products are a niche in the export market, strong emphasis has been placed on sustainability. ‘Sustainable textiles for sustainable development’ is the new mantra.The hand-block printing industries need to modernise itself to overcome its age old problems. The young tech-savvy entrepreneurs who are well -trained and think green have begun making the difference. Anokhi is the lead runner with its state-of-the-art production technique, environment and health friendly equipments and processes. They have also set up an effluent treatment plant capable of making about 65% of the treated water reusable. The dry sludge is transported to Udaipur where it is treated and put to appropriate use. Ojjas has set up a diesel run automatic Italian burner which sufficiently take care of the drying up and steaming.
Efforts should be made to ensure that traditional Bagru print flourish with its essence intact. The role of business partners such Anokhi, Aravali exports, FabIndia and others assumes enormous significance in supporting the Bagru hand-block print industry in many ways. Not only do they provide them with the necessary information about the changing tastes and preferences of the consumers at the global level, but they also keep the traditional artists on their toes by continuously throwing challenges at them in terms of quality of the deliverables such as the production process, product development, Full and timely supply of orders etc. The need of the hour is to be innovative in approach and ways to ensure that the traditional art is also a commercial success. The business houses must see beyond their short-term profit motive and should think of ways to benefit the artisans and craftsperson at the grassroots level.
Sustainability needs to become a rule rather an exception. What this industry needs is the capacity building in multiple ways. Increasing their competitiveness is the key to their success, survival and commercial viability. Bagru should not become another Sanganer where business has grown but the environment, culture, health and human spirit of the place has decayed.
Note: This article was written based on inputs during a recent field-trip to Rajasthan. Views expressed here are personal.
Libel ,Maureen & Roy,Tirthankar,2000; “Handmade in India :Preliminary Analysis of Craft producers and craft production in India”, World Bank Report.