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It is important to try and understand something about the Caste system in India when looking at art and craft, as it is the reason why a person practices their specific area of expertise. Caste remains an influential social structure in this sector, determining to a great extent the transmission of knowledge and skill. The area of block printing is no exception and is dominated by two castes – the Chhipas and Khatris, the name Chhipa or Chhipi is derived from the Hindi word meaning ‘to print’. People tend to marry within their caste and first cousin marriage is common in the Khatris clan, often securing the alliance of two dynasties.
Despite the bonds of caste there were no formal guild or collective organization formed for many years and it was down to the individual clan to be entrepreneurs, this was particularly the case under British rule which secured the free exercise of individual energy and initiative, but marked a relaxation of any type of organisational protection.
After independence new government agencies were set up to aid the growth in the craft area and the revival of block printing gathered momentum from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Organisations such as the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Corporation (GSHHDC) and Rajasthli (Government of Rajastan Handicrafts Emporium) helped to aid the fruitful collaborations between hereditary block printers and professional designers, several from the National Institute of Design. What blossomed from this was the transition of block printed textiles from caste dress to cat-walk, and saw it being developed to suit the needs of city dwellers.
Ajrakh block printing is one of the most complex styles of block printing in India, undergoing over 14/16 stages of work to create the finished product. The cloth contains many meanings, the most popular story is that Ajrakh means ‘keep it today’. It is also linked to the Arabic word for indigo –Azrakh. Indigo dyed products are produced world over, with variations from continent to continent and it has mostly grown around the places where climates have the ability to produce the natural plant of indigo. Whether it is in Japan or India, the dyeing of cloth with indigo is very laborious, with many vats of dye and water required. The decreasing water table in Gujarat is proving to become a problem for those needing water for this work, so all efforts are being made to recharge and stabilize the area since it was affected by the earthquake.
The block printing style of Ajrakh is another skilled craft coming from the area of Kutch/Katchchh, practiced mostly by men in communities like the Rabaris, Maldharis and Ahirs where they wear the printed cloth as turbans, lungis and stoles. The many stages of dyeing and printing are required to keep the dye fast and even, prepared in lengths the finished product is, like the embroideries of these people, identifiable to the worker and area. Each Ajrakh artisan uses his own process and they can recognise each others work quite easily. When worn it is also a symbol of identity about their caste, gender, age, religious affiliation, marital status and economic standing.
This highly skilled craft of ajrakh block printing came to Kutch from Sind with the Khatris (artisans who ‘apply colour to cloth’). After the devastation of the earthquake a new village was formed aptly named Ajrakhpur (place of Ajrakh) and today there are Khatris living and working here. Almost the whole village is involved in the practice, now stimulated by government initiatives it looks like the younger generation of block printers are able to sustain their parents trade. They are full of new ideas for designs while also being sensitive to their own families’ traditions.
So the process itself goes roughly as follows; first the cloth is washed in water to remove any finish or starch that may be present. It is important to remove any trace for the dye to fix to the cloth. The cloth is soaked in castor oil, soda ash and camel dung overnight, left to dry in the sun and when partly dried the process is repeated 7 to 9 times until the cloth foams when rubbed. It is then rinsed in plain water.
The cloth is then dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (powdered nut of the harde tree). This stage is known as kasanu. The Myrobalan turns the cloth a yellow colour and works as a mordant, helping to fix the dyes.
After drying in the sun, a ‘resist’ stage is then applied. A mixture of lime and gum arabic is printed on the cloth to define the outline of the design, if the cloth is to be double sided it is repeated on the other side as well.
Next a paste is made by fermenting scrap iron, raw cane sugar and gram flour. The fermenting takes about a week or two depending on the weather and when a yellow scum appears it is ready. The liquid is drained off and added to tamarind seed powder, then boiled. The resulting paste ‘iron paste’ is printed on the cloth and gives the black part of the design. Similarly a red colour is produced when tamarind seed powder is mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate). The next stage is a combined one where a paste of alum, flour, clay and gum is printed where there are to be large areas of red and at the same time a resist of lime and gum Arabic. This stage is known as gach. Sawdust is sprinkled on the printed areas to protect the design from smudging.
The seventh stage is that of indigo. The preparing of an indigo vat is a skill in itself, it has to become established over a period of time. Here the dye bath contains natural indigo, sagikhar salt, lime, casiatora seed and water, this is mixed in a clay vessel, plastic barrel or concrete vat. Sometimes jaggery is added to aid fermentation.
The cloth is dyed in the indigo vat and after is washed in running water and laid flat to dry.
The next part of the journey for this cloth is the ninth one of either madder or al dyeing, depending on the availability of the dye stuffs it is boiled in a solution of tamarix and either madder or al root powder. Then washed and sun dried. By this stage the red and black areas of the design develop and the resist areas are revealed as white.
Alum printing is now repeated and then left for several days. After this another round of indigo dyeing and then sun drying. Then it is washed in running water and dried again. Stages 13 and onwards are repeats of earlier processes, more dyeing, variations for colours like green and resist printing for white areas of design. By around the eleventh process the cloth is dried in the sun and sprayed with a liquid made from pomegranate skins, this is repeated and then done with a turmeric and lime spray. Finally the cloth is washed again.
The Ajrakh block printed fabric is a valued fabric and worn by Muslim and Dalit cattle herders in the villages of northern Kutch. It is also worn at weddings with designs similar to those on Persian carpets – a central motif surrounded by several borders.
It is not surprising then that chemical dyes are used by some producers to speed up the process. Vegetable dye is susceptible to climatic changes but some find that the distinctive look is all part of its charm, and of course it is less harmful to the environment.
Another type of decorated cotton cloth is that of Bandhani, a tie-dye craft. Bandhna gave its name to the old bandana pocket handkerchiefs and the word originates from the Sanskrit word for ‘to tie’.
Bandhani relies on indigo dyeing with the pattern being formed by the ‘resist’ part of the design. The white ‘resisted’ areas are created by binding parts of the cloth with cotton thread and making small stitches. To knot the undyed silk or cotton, the cloth is sent to a draughtsman, or chitarnar, who divides the whole surface into one-inch squares. Then it goes to the knotter, or handnari, generally a woman or girl who picks up a little cloth at each corner of the squares and ties it into a knot with pack thread. This would be for a quite basic design and for something more intricate there will be more ties and stitches made in the places were the dye should not touch. Thus forming a resist for the dye.
After being knotted all over, the cloth is sent to the dyer, who dips it into the colour required for the ground of the pattern; after which the knots are all untied. For the simplest of patterns only one dye will be undertaken, but if more than one colour is desired it will continue to be knotted and dipped. Different colour combinations are popular in the north and south of Gujarat.
A wide variety of Bandhani has evolved over the centuries because of its close links with the religious and social customs of different people. The main colours used are yellow, red, green and black. After the process of stitching and dyeing is complete a variety of patterns emerge, including, dots, squares, waves and stripes.
Rajasthan is one of the most important centers of the tie and dye textile. Each area, each caste and each tribe has its special designs as we have seen with the other crafts of Kutch. The simple pattern bandhani textiles are inexpensive and allow the women of poorer communities to dress colourfully. Generally speaking the more dots on the work the more expensive it is.
Usually men do the dyeing while women do the tying and stitching, with each dot being as tiny as a pin-head. The cloth is first washed and bleached to prepare it for absorbing the dyes. After this, it is then sent to the women who do the tying, who lift small portions of the fabric and tightly tie a thread around it. The more minuscule the raised stitch the finer the bandhana. The tied textile is then dipped in a light colour first while the tied areas retain the original ground colour. If a second dye is required, the areas to be retained in the first dye are tied for resist and the cloth dipped in a darker dye. This process is repeated, if several colours are to be combined.
The areas of Gujarat that have become the main centres for tie and dye fabrics are Jamnagar (where the water brings out a bright red), and Ahmedabad. It can also be found in Patola and Morvi, which have a unique history of fine fabric production.
Roghan Gold Printing
Evidence of Roghan or Khadi gold printing dates back to 1411 and some fabrics from the medieval period still exist. Now it is worked in Nakhatrana Taluka of Kutch where cloth decorated using this method is used as skirt lengths and for wall hangings
To apply the gold design to the cloth a paste is made from boiling castor oil, titanium dioxide and turpentine. This is printed onto the fabric with the use of a printing implement called a sancha, a brass stencil into which a wooden plunger is inserted pushing the paste through the holes and onto the fabric. After this the gold or silver leaf or glitter is applied giving the appearance of brocade.
Roghan printing is not indigenous to India, it is a craft from Persia and came to India during the Mughal domination of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a quick and simple method for gold printing and can be applied to many different fabrics, including velvet.
There are two types of printing called Rogan/Roghan, the other being the printing of colour patterns by hand with a thick oil based paint. The colour work and gold work share a lot in common, including the use of the Sancha brass stencil.
In the Nirona village of Kutch there are three families practicing this craft but producing it in two very different ways. In one method the Rogan paste is made from castor oil and natural dyes (like mud, leaves and plants), pounded and heated on a slow fire then the coloured paste is kept in pots until required. The printer dips a thin rod into the pot of paste and the fine ribbon of sticky slow oil paint is skillfully painted onto the cloth. The cloth is folded over to blot the paint and thus a mirror image is produced.
Another variation is the same as for the gold printing. A thick residue called Khadi is made from hot safflower, (castor or linseed oil and cold water, it is then mixed with chalk powder and colour pigment and added to a binder agent to form a thick dye. Here again the metal stencil block (with plunger) is used to push the thick dye through the holes and pressed onto the fabric. Design motifs generally are of floral, paisley, geometric, birds and animals. This type of work can be more intricate and fine looking than the hand work as the stencil gives more control over the finished pattern.
Kalamkari is the name for pen work in printing onto fabric and like Rogan work, can be produced in two ways, one by hand-drawing the other with a block. It uses more subtle colours in its process than other printing as it only uses natural dyes. The word Ghalam means pen and Ghalamkar is drawing with a pen.
In ancient times groups of singers, musicians and painters, called chitrakattis moved from village to village to tell the great stories of Hindu mythology. They illustrated the historical stories onto large bolts of canvas, painting on the spot with dyes extracted from plants. This was the start for the Kalamkari artisan (or Qualamkars as they were called then) who notated the stories into picture form and illustrations onto cloth.
The more intricate version of Kalamkari work is the Srikalahasti style – using pen alone to paint designs freehand and to fill in the colour also. Using only natural dyes and colours the entire process requires 17 steps to complete.
In this craft the colours follow themes, women figures are yellow, gods in blue, and demons in red and green. The backgrounds are generally red with motifs of lotus. Generally the tradition of telling religious stories continues as the most common theme, Kalamkari designs are of sun chariots, famous deities and scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabarata.
The Ramayana and Mahabrata are both Sanskrit epics of ancient India, both discussing the Gods and morals to live life by, the later being the longest poem every written. These works are compared in importance to that of the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, Greek drama or Qur’an.
Kalamkari work can be said to be truly unique as no two pieces are the same, it is also incredibly eco-friendly and as people all over the world now understand the harmful effects of chemicals in the water, the taste for natural dyed fabrics is growing. Some of the items used to make the colours are mango bark, madder root, pomegranate seed and the myrobalam fruit.