The famed block printing craft is kept alive by the award winning family of Ismail Suleimanji Khatri

Ismail Sulemanji Khatri’s family is unique. For all the adults are National Award winners for craft excellence, perhaps the only family in the country to boast of such a distinction. The septuagenarian Sulemanji Khatri gave a new meaning to the rustic block printing craft of Bagh, by transforming it into a elegant, much sought after print today. His wife Hajjanni Jetun Bi, also a National Awardee, is an expert in vegetable dye making and has trained many women in Bagh printing. Khatri’s his five sons, Umar Farukh, Mohammad Yusuf, Mohammed Rafiq, Mohammed Daud and Abdul Kadir, And his 17-year old grandson Bilal pursue the craft with the same dedication.

From a near forgotten tribal art in a small village in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, today Bagh prints have left an imprint in the textile and art world. Originally used only on lehengas and ghagras, today the prints adorn saris, dress materials and bed covers. Umar Farukh speaks about the unique block print, its history, the processes involved and its soaring popularity. Excerpts:

The history of Bagh prints…

My father Ismail Suleiman moved to Bagh village in the 1950s and began practising and giving new dimensions to the block printing. The art was already being practised by 80 per cent of the Adivasi population. In the 1960s, due to the lure of synthetics, many artisans left the craft but my father stuck to his vocation and began to redefine its concept, process and look. He got 200 and 300-year-old blocks based on traditional motifs inspired by the 1,500-year-old paintings found in caves in the region. These motifs include chameli or jasmine, maithir or mushroom, leheriya and jurvaria or small dots on the field. My father also got blocks made which were based on the jaali work found in the Taj Mahal and local forts. He streamlined the processing of the two important colours -- red from Alzarin and black from iron filings. He also discovered new vegetable dyes such as yellow and green. But his single biggest contribution was imprinting the Bagh print on on bed sheets, saris and fabrics. In 1982 he won the National Award for a bed cover in which he used 1,400 different blocks, many of them depicting his own reinvented designs. Also, his saris were being appreciated all over India. The unique Bagh print had arrived!

Its speciality…

Apart from the different moods and landscapes the motifs evoke, the prints have a distinctive muted loveliness which mimic the best and most sophisticated screen printing. Also the Bagh textiles are extremely soft which is attributed to the repeated washes they get in the Bhagini river. Once the Begum of Bhopal asked my father to make his craft in Bhopal, but the colours were not the same charm and the fabric was not as soft.

The process involved…

We buy materials such as cotton, tussar, silk and crepe from the market and soak them overnight. Then they’re dried. In a cement tub, a paste is made of goat’s droppings, raw salt or sanchiri, castor oil and water. The fabric is soaked in this paste by stamping it. The fabric is dried in layers on a sloped surface to allow the water to drain. Then it is once again washed, bleached and dried. It is now ready for printing.

For printing, a small sized plastic tray is prepared with a bamboo jaali fitted in on which black or red paste is applied. Over this, layers of thick wet cloth are placed which soak in the colours. The block is then dipped into it and placed with a light touch on the fabric which is stretched on a table with a stone slab covered with seven layers of jute. Once the printing is done, the sari is dried and kept aside for eight days. The final stage is to hold it in running water of the Bhagini. Thereafter, it is dried again and put in the bhatti mixed with dhawala flowers and alzarin. Bleaching and drying follow. And finally, a beautiful Bagh textile is ready.

The future of the print…

I think it has a secure future. At a workshop in Greece, people were fascinated with the print. My brother’s work was exhibited in Korea. We are experimenting with block prints on bamboo chiks. Yes, there are problems of scarcity of water and wood, and the younger generation is not too keen on pursuing the craft. But there are many educated people like me who want to continue the tradition. My father has trained nearly 2,000 people in this craft over the decades.

At the Bagh Utsav, one can see a wealth of creations by Ismail Suleiman Khatri and Umar Farukh. Saris, salwar kurta sets and yardage in cotton, crepe, tussar and silk are on display with unique motifs, formats and colour combinations. Bagh Utsav is on at Mrignayanee, TNHB complex, 180, Luz Church Road, Mylapore, till October 25.