Indian hand block floral cottons were once coveted from Mughal courts to European capitals. The fine Muslins with small floral prints were much in demand till the British brought mass production, forcing Indians to buy cheap imitations of their hand-crafted designs, all but killing the industry.
Bagru is a small crowded town about 30 km from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Though considered a desert state, there is no dearth of colour in Rajasthan which is much evident in the clothes.
In the 1970s, the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad commissioned a study on the printing and dyeing tradition of Bagru.
The narrow streets in Bagru are lined with small printing and dyeing units. In home after home, one can see Chippas or printers hard at work. Cloth is laid out on tables and printers dip the wooden blocks into ink and stamp the fabric forcefully to ensure the design is printed properly.
These exquisite designs fetch high prices in tony stores in India and abroad. But the craftsmen and the hand block printing industry are teetering on the edge of extinction.
Commercialisation and demands of a mass market, technological advances, mechanisation and cheap synthetics that have flooded the market have devalued the handiwork that has sustained an entire ecosystem for generations.
Traditionally the Bagru prints were used on the clothes worn by the locals such as ghaghras, odhnis and safas. However, some individuals made efforts to preserve the Bagru print and gave it a more contemporary canvas – today the print is done not only on Indian and western garments but also on home furnishings, linen and accessories.
India is among the largest producers of textiles in the world. The domestic textiles and apparel industry stood at $103 bn in 2020-21, according to government figures.
The textile and apparel industry contributes 2 percent to the country’s GDP. The industry provides employment to around 4.5 crore workers including 35.22 lakh handloom workers.
The magic of handiwork
Block printing has been practised for several centuries in Rajasthan. According to accounts, block printing was done here since the 12th century when the art received royal patronage from the kings of the era.
“My forefathers used to design garments for Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur. We have dressed the royalty,” says the national award-winning artisan.
Titanwala, 62, recalls a time when hand block printing involved an entire ecosystem of communities.
In earlier times, he says, not only was the work cut out according to caste but the motifs and colours were also worn accordingly.
The Chippas were the ones who imprinted the designs on the fabric. The Kharaudi community made the design blocks carved from Sheesham wood. The Dhobi community washed the fabric and the Rangrez were the dyers who used natural dyes to create a vibrant palette from bright greens and yellows to earthy saffron, hot pinks, and vibrant reds and blues.
Titanwala started working along with his father when he was around 12 years old. He helped in the dyeing and printing process.
In the late 1970s, as his family’s printing business dwindled, Titanwala got a job in a bank. His two brothers also got government jobs. But in 1981, Titanwala decided to quit his job and return to his family business.
In 1990, he shifted from Jaipur to Bagru and set up his hand block printing and dyeing unit there.
A Japanese lady, Hiroko Iwatate, who used to buy fabric from his father introduced Titanwala to Faith Singh who founded the retail store, Anokhi. Since then, Titanwala has been providing fabric to Anokhi and a few retail stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. He also has a few buyers from Japan.
His production varies from 3000 to 5000 metres per month, depending on the designs.
Titanwala ‘s son Deepak says they earn around Rs20-30 lakh per annum from sales but Rs10-12 lakh goes back into the business. “Costs of electricity, water, artisans, all have gone up.”
“Since the entire process of printing and dyeing is by hand, it is hard labour. There are no machines involved,” says Deepak who learnt the trade watching his father.
Another problem the hand block printers face is that of markets, says Deepak. “Our product is more expensive than the machine-made fabric. We need guidance on access to new markets and marketing,” he says.
Screen printing also is killing the business. While hand block printing ranges from Rs75-400 per metre, screen printing is available at Rs20-50 per metre and one can create up to 5,000 metres of fabric per day.
Others have moved to the easier and more lucrative screen printing that can be done on computers.
Saving a tradition
In 1990, Titanwala went to Japan at Hiroko’s invitation. He visited several cities including Tokyo and gave presentations on Bagru printing and dyeing techniques. He also visited a textile museum in Tokyo.
That visit prompted him to think about setting up a museum in Bagru. He began work in 2014 and the Bagru textile museum was inaugurated by Union Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani in 2019.
The Titanwala family has displayed fragments of very old textiles dating back 200-300 years. The museum showcases the entire printing process, from the Dhobi, Kharaudi, Rangrez, Neelgar to the Chippa. Entry to the museum is priced at Rs100 but Titanwala has barred entry to his Chippa community as he fears they will steal his designs and screen print them.
Titanwala, who has also written a book on the art of Bagru printing, was conferred the President’s Award in 2011.
The beauty of hand block printing
The hand block printing process begins with the creation of wooden blocks. Traditionally made by the Kharaudi community, the artisans use small hammers and chisels to carve the elaborate patterns onto the blocks made from Sheesham wood.
After the carving is complete, the blocks are dipped in mustard oil and left for a week to strengthen the wood. This ‘oiling’ ensures the wood will not split and crack in the dry heat of Rajasthan. Small holes are also made into the blocks to allow the wood to breathe.
The cost of a single-coloured block measuring 5cm x 9cm is between Rs 350 and Rs 800, depending on the complexity of the design. One block lasts for up to 800 to 1000 metres of fabric.
After drying, the fabric is stretched onto long, flat tables. The wooden block is then dipped into the ink and firmly pressed onto the fabric. Printing is done from left to right and the design is applied repeatedly along the length of the fabric with the block.
Once the process is complete, the printers sprinkle some sawdust to prevent the colour from smudging. The fabric is then dried in the sun.
The main red and black shades are created through an interesting process.
To make the characteristic black colour, Titanwala says they use old iron horseshoes that are put in water and fermented in a cauldron or tank. Then jaggery or molasses is added. The mixture is left for 15 days. After that, the water is strained and the colour is used for printing.
For the red colour, a paste is made from gum arabica and kept in water overnight. It is then sieved through a fine cotton cloth. Some alum is then boiled in water and added to the gum paste. When applied to the fabric it is brown in colour but after being put in the furnace, it changes to a deep red.
The Dabu technique of resist-dyeing is also native to Bagru. In this, a mixture of spoiled wheat flour, limestone, clay and acacia gum is made into a paste. This paste is applied onto the fabric on parts where colour is to be blocked. When the colour is applied, the parts with the paste do not get coloured and get resist-dyed.
Despite spending a lifetime on his craft, Titanwala sees several challenges ahead for the Bagru hand block printing.
The lengthy and laborious process of hand block printing is not attracting the younger generation. Skilled woodblock carvers and printers are not easy to come by.
“Our biggest problem is water scarcity. I need about 5,000 litres of water daily. We have dug a borewell and we recycle and reuse water which is how we are managing to survive,” says Deepak.
“I have lived my life doing this work. Despite the difficulties, I have enjoyed it. But in the present scenario, I think hand block printing might disappear in the next 10-15 years,” says Titanwala, sounding a warning note.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)