In handloom heaven for a day

The reverse printing method that gives you a classic blue-and-white indigo design, is achieved by imprinting the cloth with dabu. Photo: Susanna Myrtle Lazarus  

It’s the middle of summer, and we’re driving into Bagru, about 30 km from Jaipur. From the highway, we’ve turned off into some narrow bumpy roads; we also cross a fort that has fallen into disrepair, on our way to the outskirts of town. Ram Kishore Derawala greets us as we drive into a large compound, where he lives and runs one of the region’s most profitable indigo dyeing units. Freshly-dyed and sun-dried saris flap in the late morning breeze: the day starts early, and so most of the work is already done.

He is enthusiastic about showing us (along with me are two other journalists) around the place.But first, he wants us to see the end result. Deep blues, sunshine yellows, dusty pinks and verdant greens on saris, running material and dupattas: it’s no wonder we spend the next hour in handloom heaven. Every design is better than the previous one, and as we ooh and aah our way through each stack, Derawala takes us through the 18-step process that goes into creating a simple design in Bagru print.

You read that right: 18 steps. It all starts with a plain, raw cloth that is first washed in a mixture of cow dung, soda ash and sesame oil, and then sun-bleached. This improves the strength of the material. It is then treated with harde (a type of plant) to make it more amenable to fix the dye. Then there are various concoctions through which it is put, depending on the number of blocks and colours being used for the design, and then the base colour of the cloth.

The reverse printing method that gives you a classic blue-and-white indigo design, is achieved by imprinting the cloth with dabu. It’s a mixture of lime, sand, black soil and natural gum, which is used to create the print using wooden blocks. The clay is then covered with sawdust and left to dry, before it is dipped in 14-foot-deep indigo dye-filled vats.

“The dye comes in the form of cakes, and we get it from Andhra Pradesh,” says one of the workers, as he sits down to show how a dabu-printed cloth is dyed. “We never clear the water from these vats as the dye will stain the ground. Now watch carefully,” he says. And so we don’t take our eyes off the cloth, don’t blink even, and we see a dark green cloth emerge. In the twinkling of an eye, as the dye reacts with the air and sunlight, it turns into that familiar indigo blue. “The more intense the sunlight, the deeper the blue,” we recall Derawala’s explanation earlier in the day.

There are no machines; only hardworking craftspeople who make the wonderfully-complex designs that we pick up off the rack in air-conditioned malls. With painstaking accuracy developed over years of practice, they work rhythmically — dip the block gently in dye, place it accurately on the cloth and slam a fist down to transfer the print.

Sunlight streams in, illuminating the large, high-ceilinged workshops. The shelves set into the walls are piled high with wooden blocks; with so many, it’s not impossible to create an infinite number of unique designs.

Derawala, who was awarded a Padma Shri for his work with crafts, works largely with ethnic brand FabIndia. With the launch of their latest Indigo Diaries collection, his work, along with several other craftspeople, is in focus commercially. Prableen Sabhaney, head — communications and public affairs, says that this is one of their main priorities. “We want to create sustainable employment for craftspeople, and in so doing, keep the craft itself alive as a viable livelihood option. There is a demand for these products, in terms of both clothing and home decor. We work with the artisans to create designs that will be popular in the contemporary market.”

This kind of association has the potential to create jobs and increase economic power in rural areas. Take, for example, Prahlad, who lives in a small village called Jhak, a few kilometres from Bagru. A few dogs loll playfully in front of a neat white house. We enter a small courtyard and climb up a very narrow staircase to his workshop: there are only three tables. It is here that he creates ajrakh, a design that is originally done in Gujarat. “My grandfather knew it, and he taught both my father and me,” he says.

Ajrakh is similar to Bagru in the way that the design printed on the cloth is similar. But in this method, the dye is brushed on, instead of the whole cloth being immersed in a vat of dye. “It helps hold the dye better; the colour won’t run as much as indigo,” explains Prahlad. He’s got 400 metres of red ajrakh ready for delivery. And that’s just part of a larger order; last year, his turnover was Rs. 1 crore, and he is now the proud owner of a sedan.

While indigo and similar handcrafted materials are now sought after for their uniqueness, and perhaps more for their posh quotient, you won’t find anyone in the villages wearing it. Traditionally, each caste wore a particular colour; it’s obvious then, that segregation would be more rampant, as it was easy to identify a person by their clothing. Now, this is no longer prevalent.

The women still wear brightly-coloured lehengas: the only difference is that these are mill-made, ready-to-wear ones. Handcrafted cloth is seen only as a means of livelihood, and not as their own heritage that can quite literally be worn on their sleeve.

(The writer was at the workshop at the invitation of FabIndia )

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 2:41:12 AM |

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