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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.