The Work of the Khatris of Dhamadka

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal

The Work of the Khatris of Dhamadka: Block-Printed and Resist -Dyed Textiles

Edwards, Eiluned


The Khatris are a caste of fabric printers and dyers who live chiefly in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in north-west India. There are also communities in the adjoining province of Sindh which was ceded to Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1947. The greatest concentration of Khatris is to be found in Kachchh district in the extreme west of Gujarat where they settled after migrating from Sindh about 400 years ago. The district is famous for the variety and quality of its textiles. The ex-pertise of the Khatris who make resist-dyed fabrics using a wax resist (batik), or a tied resist (bandhani), and print cottons by hand with engraved-wooden blocks, has helped to establish Kachchh as a major centre for handmade textiles. While the craft skills of the Khatri caste as a whole are well-known throughout India, one community in particular has achieved international renown: the village of Dhamadka in the north-east of Kachchh. The Khatris of Dhamadka are famous for the production of high quality block-printed and resist-dyed textiles. In the last three decades they have also become known for their expertise in the use of natural dyes, thanks largely to the efforts of a single family, that of the late Khatri Mohammad Siddik. Today, handmade textiles from Dhamadka, dyed and printed with natural colours are sold worldwide and are represented in museum collections across the globe.

The Khatris of Kachchh migrated to the district during the reign of Rao Bharmalji I (1586-1631) and the village of Dhamadka was established during that period. The Rao gave the Khatris gifts of land and Dhamadka was selected because of the River Suran, which provided them with the running water they needed for dyeing cloth.
Apart from enjoying the patronage of the court, the Khatris also established a regular trade with the farming and herding castes of Kachchh: each community produced a range of textiles that served the specific sartorial needs of their client castes. The Khatris of Dhamadka made key items of caste dress for Hindu herders such as Rabaris and their
neighbours the Ahirs who are farmers. They also provided textiles for the Muslim herders of Banni, Asia’s largest grassland in the north of Kachchh. For Rabaris and Ahirs they made tie-dyed veilcloths, skirt lengths and turban cloths; for the Muslim herding clans such as Jat, Mutwa and Node, they made a variety of veilcloths, turban pieces, and
dhotis (wrapped lower garment worn by men), including
ajrakh, a prestige cloth dyed with indigo and madder, that is printed on both sides of the cotton fabric. The name has a number of possible derivations: it may be from the Arabic for blue –
azrak– especially in the light of the long-established trade between Gujarat and the countries of the Gulf, although Kachchhis say that it means ‘keep today’ in the local dialect.Ajrakh is believed to be protective of health: indigo is widely credited in Asia with antiseptic properties, beyond that, the
maldharis (herders) say that
ajrakh is both cooling and warming, useful attributes in a desert area where the temperature regularly reaches 48ºC in the hot season but plummets to around 10ºC in the cold season. The cloth also embodies a certain spirituality, perhaps because of its links with the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, to whom pieces of ajrakh were traditionally given as gifts. Indeed, the Sufis have had a profound influence upon the Khatris: a majority of the community in Kachchh converted to Islam in the late 17th century swayed by the oratory of a Sufi saint.DYEING AND PRINTING TECHNIQUES
Ajrakh is the most complex cloth produced by the Khatris. It involves between fourteen and sixteen different stages of printing and dyeing, and uses up to twenty-two individual printing blocks to achieve the sophisticated floral and geometrical designs.
The practice of dyeing cloth with vegetable and mineral colours that are permanently fixed with mordants goes back over four thousand years on the Indian sub-continent. Strands of cotton apparently dyed with madder were found during the excavation of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro, an Indus Valley site dated to about 2500 BCE. India led the world in this respect for over four millennia, until the development of artificial dyes. Trade accounts from antiquity onward confirm the proficiency of the Indian dyers, although the perishable nature of textiles has meant that the material evidence of this is scanty. The earliest surviving textiles from India are the so-called ‘Fustat textiles’, some of which have been carbon-dated to the eleventh century CE. These were excavated at the site of Fustat in Egypt in the early nineteenth century. Fustat, the capital of Egypt from 641-969 CE, was the main entrepôt for between the countries of Asia to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west, until it was destroyed by fire in 1168-69 and largely abandoned thereafter. The Fustat textiles, of which the largest collection of fragments is held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, are typically resist-printed and mordant-dyed with madder and indigo. A number of the designs evident in these archaeological finds are still being printed today in Dhamadka, using a technology that has changed little since the time of Indus Valley civilisation.
The pre-eminence of Indian dyers was unassailed until the development of artificial dyes derived from aniline. Aniline, a coal tar derivative, was discovered in 1856 by the British chemist William Perkin. It took the German chemist, Adolf van Baeyer a further 37 years of research, at a cost of 18 million gold marks to BASF (Badische Anilin und Sodafabrik-BASF), before reliable artificial dyes, notably indigo, were viable commercially. It took a further 40-50 years before they became widely available in India.
However, by the early 1950s, synthetic dyes which were cheap, easy-to-use and reliable had all but eradicated the use of natural dyes on the subcontinent. By that time, too, the traditional, local system of printing cloth by hand using engraved wooden blocks was in decline, superceded by high-speed industrial production in the factories of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Surat It seemed that the ancient skills of the Indian dyers and printers had become redundant.

In the early 1970s, there were the first stirrings of a craft revival in India: the Gandhian idea of India as a ‘craft nation’ had re-surfaced and many states initiated programmes to regenerate a viable role for artisans and handcrafted objects in a world increasingly dominated by industrial production. In 1973, the state of Gujarat established the Gujarat Handicrafts Development Corporation (GSHDC) and its retail outlet ‘Gurjari’. The state agency was proactive in bringing together professional designers, staff from the National Institute of Design (NID) at Ahmedabad, and crucially, artisans from the rural areas of Gujarat. The idea was to generate a new range of goods aimed at urban and international markets that used the age-old craft techniques but for products that were relevant to 20th century urban living. To this end, cutting edge designers were to collaborate with traditional craftspeople. Naturally conservative, many of the artisans, however, were apprehensive of the programme: they knew their traditional, local market but had no experience of developing new products nor did they understand the demands of urban consumers. But there were craftspeople who recognised that to survive they had to find new markets and were bold enough to take a step into the unknown. Of those few, one of the most notable in Kachchh was the late Khatri Mohammad Siddik of Dhamadka.

In common with other Khatris, most of Mohammad Siddik’s work prior to 1973 was with chemical dyes. But he had retained an interest in natural dyes and had started to pass on his knowledge of vegetable and mineral dyes to his three teenage sons. Liaison with designers from GSHDC and NID enabled him to develop products that filled a specific market niche: textiles for soft furnishings and fashion dyed and printed with natural colours. Demand for the textiles made by Mohammad Siddik and his sons grew steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s their business was the largest block-printing concern in Kachchh. The business now supports the burgeoning family – 22 members at present – and has created employment for fourteen other workers besides. Indeed; the community as a whole has benefited from the international recognition of the village as a centre for high quality block-printed textiles.

The role of Mohammad Siddik in crafts revival and the regeneration of natural dyes was acknowledged by the Indian government who honoured him with a National Crafts Award in 1983. His sons have been similarly lauded: Abdul Razzak received a National Crafts Award in 2001; Ismail is a National Merit Award winner and has been conferred with an Hon D’Art by De Montfort University in the UK; Jabbar is also a National Merit Award winner. Razzak’s son, Abdul Rauf is a National Youth Award winner and so the story continues…
Traditionally peopled by herders, farmers and artisans, Kachchh has experienced substantial change since Indian Independence. The policy of aggressive industrialisation pursued by successive governments over the last fifty years has eroded local markets for handmade artefacts and has fractured the traditional relationship that existed between the artisans and their clients. The old patterns of trade have been replaced by the anonymity of a market-driven economy, and handmade goods have been superceded by plastic and synthetic substitutes transported to the district from the factories of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Surat. But textile traditions that have existed for several millennia have been revived and saved from the threat of extinction by state intervention in the craft sector and effective collaboration between professional designers and traditional craftspeople. A leading figure in craft revival in Kachchh, the late Mohammad Siddik of Dhamadka has endowed his heirs with a sustainable future for their ancient craft.


First published in Textile Forum, 3/2003 September

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