Ram Kishore Derawala is proud to have inherited the skill of block printing.

He wears Padma Sri and other awards and honours with quiet pride. For Ram Kishore Derawala it is his craft of Dabu resist and Bagru block printing which is the winner every time. Each of his cotton and silk block printed sari is a canvas of perfection, a symphony of mellow vegetable colours, traditional motifs and conceptual harmony, carrying imprints of his pursuit for perfection. As indigo blue, leaf green, iron red and turmeric yellow saris greet us at the Earthwise exhibition, Ram Kishore Derawala takes us on a journey of their beginnings and his own, which as he puts it began in childhood.

As a child born into the Chippa community of Bagru village in Rajasthan his first toys were wooden printing block! With more than 40 per cent of the village practising block printing, observation alone was his training. He grew up ‘naturally' with the fragrance of flowers whose sap left imprints on textiles and where blocks built up a whole unique oeuvre.

And he makes it all sound so simple and almost poetic. “Our colours are extracted from boiling separately alum, myrobalan, pomegranate rind, turmeric, indigo, ‘daule' and ‘harsinghar' flowers. Out of this concoction we make a paste for our blocks. But our Dabu mud resist paste is made out of ‘kali mitti,' natural gum, lime and wheat husk. With the block we imprint this paste on silk and cotton, and now in a novel experiment on khadi and handloom as well. So we have two types of blocks; Dabu which creates spaces on the cloth and Bagru which fills up the spaces. Our black comes from soaking ‘gud' and iron filings for 15 days.”

Process of creation

Pointing to a superbly crafted and printed indigo sari, he explains the process of its creation which entails Dabu resist printing first followed by indigo dyeing and double printing with blocks. The ‘kairi' and ‘amri' motifs go back centuries although the play of geometrics and linear configurations cater to more contemporary tastes.

“Earlier,” says Shri Derawala, “we were confined to just 3-4 colours only used for women's lehengas. They were indigo blue or ‘neela,' yellow or ‘pili mein' and maroon, with each colour being worn exclusively of different castes. Today the craft has not only spread on saris, yardage and salwar kameez, but a new colour palette too has emerged based on experiments which have thrown up vibrant new vegetable dyes. Colour, usage and designs have changed in our craft, but the spirit remains the same.”

Derawala is upbeat that the craft is now going forward particularly in India with ecologically and culturally sensitive people. Roshan, his son, is an acknowledged and popular block printer. A cooperative society formed by Derawala and his associates has applied for the Geographic Indicator Seal for their craft, reflecting pride which he says is felt by all in the village. “It is time consuming craft” says the master craftsman “but is an expression of our heritage.”

A stunning spread of Derawalas Dabu resist block printed Bagru saris are on display at Earthwise, an exhibition celebrating nature's colours, brought together by Inko Centre , The Crafts Council on India and the Museum of Natural Dye Arts, Korea. The best of Korean and Indian natural dye traditions are on display at Earthwise. The Indian saris and textiles drawn from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Assam are for sale at Lalit Kala Akademi, Greames Road, Chennai, till November 29.

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