Preserving The Art Of Natural Block Printing In Bagru, India

Image: Block printing in progress at Dheeraj’s workshop, Photography: Shine Bhola

In the town of Bagru, India, the art of block printing with natural colour has been passed down through generations. Yet with commercialisation of the craft a continued threat to their livelihoods, the artisans are being forced to adapt the inherently sustainable nature of their craft to fit in. Shubhangi Kothari finds out more.

I have seen and consumed block prints throughout my life – from walking through crowded bazaars lined with shops selling block prints, to being awe inspired by the intricate motifs in Jaipur City Palace’s textile gallery.

Yet the magic that I never understood was how artisan families of various skilled traditions make the process possible together. It’s truly amazing how block makers, dhobis (launderers), rangrez (dyers) and chippa (printers) all come together as one to create a single piece of hand block printed textile. So, when the opportunity to visit Bagru, a town at the outskirts of Jaipur, cropped up – I was very excited. 

Over 400 years old, Bagru was originally an island in the Sanjharia river. The village became famous for its natural block (Bagru) and resist (Dabu) printing techniques after receiving patronage from the then local ruler who invited master craftsmen from Isarda to customize clothes for the community. A craft totally dependent on water, it flourished in Bagru due to its proximity to the water source and abundant sunlight. The river has disappeared since then, but the craft has been passed through generations and today the town is now marked as a Geographical Indication (GI) – a relatively new form of Intellectual Property that seeks to address the issue of indigenous rights and traditional knowledges. I was lucky to be invited into the workshop of a family who have been practicing this craft for decades. 

Image: Raw materials used for making dye, Photography: Shine Bhola

To reach the Dheeraj Chippa’s printing unit in Chippa ka Mahaulla, a small town in Rajasthan,we navigated narrow roads dominated by pedestrians and animals alike before turning into an even narrower gali– an extremely narrow road – bordered by open drains stained with dyes. The usually crowded road was surprisingly quiet and I could hear the persistent ‘thak-thak’ emanating from his home, which also doubles up as his printing unit. 

An 8th generation block printer and owner of the eponymous company, Dheeraj Chippa walked me through the labour-intensive process of natural dye printing, how he considers it to be sustainable, the challenges of commercialization, his tryst with the craft and how he has been responding to the current pandemic crisis.

As I took a single flight of stairs to Dheeraj’s workshop, I was struck by the pungent smell of dyes being used by a handful of artisans who were busy printing on a 6ft long table. We crisscrossed though printing tables and small heaps of wooden shavings to a small room where Dheeraj showed us dried pomegranate, rusted iron, gud (jaggery), fitkari (alum), gond (gum), meengni (goat faeces) and other intriguing materials which are used to get the characteristic black, red and beige colour of Bagru and Dabu print. He explained that all the dyeing and mordanting ingredients are derived from nature and are therefore harmless to the environment. It is not the materials or processes of traditional printing process which makes it harmful to the environment but the excess which comes with commercializing the craft.

Image: Metal block used for fine printing, Photography: Shine Bhola

A design and craft school graduate, Dheeraj Chippa established his firm in 2016 after successful revival of the traditional phadat print- a unique combination of block and resist printing techniques which had almost disappeared from Bagru and his family’s workshop. After successfully emulating the traditional process he convinced some of the leading Indian designers and fashion houses to include phadat print in their luxury collection owing to its rarity and sheer skill the technique requires. Lack of material resources, rarity of high calibre karigars(Workers typically associated with handicraft industry), increasing material and labour cost has made naturally dyed and printed block print cloth a luxury. 

Today, the market for pure block prints has changed. “The prints which were first introduced 400 years ago for people of Bagru and surrounding areas is now beyond the reach of those very people” lamented Dheeraj. Instead of the locals, it has found a place in the metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai where people have more purchasing power to pay for the luxury of hand block printing. 

Pointing at my digitally printed kurta, he also complained that “not even 1% of Indians use traditional textiles in their day-to-day life – if they would, they have the capability to support villages who strive on traditional crafts.” While some of us are indeed guilty of failing our traditional handicrafts and craftsmen by buying clothes for their cost and not for their ethical value and longevity, others are simply ignorant and find it difficult to differentiate between real block prints and screen copies.

Image: Block on wood shaving used to create paste for Dabu (resist) printing, Photography: Shine Bhola

Currently his business, along with most of India’s artisan communities, has taken a hit. As the Indian government announced its first phase of lockdown to curb the spread of COVID pandemic many orders have been cancelled while others have been stalled indefinitely. The supply chain lies broken and the major markets are shut. With no support from any quarter, the situation for artisan families in Bagru has reached a level of desperation as many are unable to absorb the financial shock which the pandemic has put them in.

Even before the pandemic hit the world, Bagru’s printing techniques have been facing challenges from different directions. A craft which had not only survived but prospered in the 1990s is now in crisis. As water intensive activities – Bagru and Dabu have become victims of changing climate, inconsistent monsoons and depleting water table. While some new generation artisans have relinquished their traditional livelihood as one that has become too erratic and more and more unprofitable, others are turning towards screen and digital prints.

Image: Wooden block dipped in syahi (black) dye made from fermented iron, Photography: Shine Bhola

The entry of big factories is also slowly commercializing the traditional printing process. The long and laborious art of printing with natural colours is the very anti-thesis of productivity for them as it makes the printed fabrics expensive and less profitable. To bring the price down and cater to the prevalent market demand of bright colours, Bagru is witnessing an insurgence of pigment dyeing, which uses less water as well as being inexpensive and fast. 

As with most of the artisans in Bagru, Dheeraj had aimed to produce only naturally dyed and printed yardages on pure silk and cotton fabrics. Gradually, albeit grudgingly, he had to embrace pigment printing as it defined the survival of his very livelihood. But pigment dyes create trouble of their own. While the wastewater discharge from natural dyeing process could be used as-is in farming, toxic pigment dyes when absorbed by the soil harm its composition and eventually the health of the people living there.

Image: Bagru print, Photography: Shine Bhola

In an era where sustainability has become consumers’ motto, Bagru and Dabu print are considered to be crafts with low carbon footprint. But we shouldn’t forget that with depleting water resources, only a limited few who have access to expensive water filtration and recycling systems can practice the craft in a sustainable way. 

This has also resulted in gradual decline in the families for whom this craft, in its most sustainable form, is not only their livelihood but their very identity. Though the craft has, and will survive, what is its identity, if it becomes disembodied from the communities and families who created this knowledge over hundreds of years? 

An activity which brought together communities will just be another industrial process controlled by a handful of big players. We should consider the challenges of our artisan communities and a need to treat them sensitively so that they can be equal participators in the sustainability revolution and not its victim.

Image: Dheeraj Chippa at his workshop in Bagru, Photography: Shine Bhola