Just beyond the high-walled old district prison, we strolled down the narrow alleys of Bhairavgarh or Behrugarh, a suburb of Ujjain. It could pass off as a nondescript township in the heart of India, but for its age-old legacy. Named after the powerful, alcohol-drinking God Kaal Bhairav, Behrugarh is renowned for a traditional wax-resist dyeing technique called dabu, known the world over as batik.

Mohammed Iqbal flaunts the beauty of Behrugarh’s bright batik printed bed sheets as they dry in the town’s narrow alleys
Mohammed Iqbal flaunts the beauty of Behrugarh’s bright batik printed bed sheets as they dry in the town’s narrow alleys

Bright bed sheets, in shades of flaming orange, brown, and green, with fine lacy crackled designs were left to dry on clotheslines. Strung outside humble homes, they fluttered gaily in the breeze. From behind them, goats peeked out with bored curiosity as batik artist Mohammed Iqbal Badawala led us down the cobbled alley to Sana Enterprises, his workshop.

Abhinandita Mathur
Behrugarh’s batik technique displays the freehand skill and creativity of craftsmen who deftly paint wax directly onto the fabric
Behrugarh’s batik technique displays the freehand skill and creativity of craftsmen who deftly paint wax directly onto the fabric

The Greek chronicler Ptolemy, who travelled to this region in the second century A.D., wrote that Behrugarh’s “mallow-tinted cotton” was shipped as far as Rome, and was a much-coveted export from “Ozene” (Ujjain), along with onyx, porcelain, and muslin. Believed to have originated in India 2,000 years ago, batik travelled to Indonesia, China, Japan and Africa where it gained popularity. Though local tribal communities have used basic batik printed fabric forever, the art was introduced in Behrugarh 400 years ago during Mughal rule, when craftsman from Rajasthan and Gujarat migrated to Madhya Pradesh,.

Inside a small room with smoky grey walls splattered with wax in tones of clotted blood, a huge vat of beeswax simmered on a gas burner. Behind it was a large table covered in sand, with a clean white cloth stretched over it. Master artist Mohammed Tahir dipped his stylus into hot molten wax, leaned over the cloth and applied fluid strokes like a mehndi artist. There were no tracings or pre-drawn lines; only continuous freehand work dictated entirely by his imagination. Flowers, creepers, mango motifs, dots, wavy lines, the design evolved in minutes, until the sheet was riddled with apparently whimsical flourishes. The wax (mome) worked like ink or paint and dried instantly. “Not all can draw using a wax pen” Iqbal explained. “It requires a steady hand, tremendous skill and practice.” Though they work with wood carved blocks too, the freehand style, using a stylus made with coconut husk tied to a stick, gives the artisan room for greater creative expression.

Tahir was a self-taught artist, but that’s not the case for most. “Everyone in Malwa is an artist. It’s an ancestral occupation. These crafts are an inherited tradition of our forefathers. My shop was started by my grandfather, Haji Moosaji many decades ago,” said Iqbal.

Abhinandita Mathur
An artisan strains out the wax released by boiling the fabric in vats, after the dyeing is completed
An artisan strains out the wax released by boiling the fabric in vats, after the dyeing is completed

After the wax drawing, the next stage was dyeing. We entered another godown lined with large vats filled with different coloured dyes. Freshly dyed fabric dripped colour onto the slick floor. A worker repeatedly dipped the fabric into a vat of deep green dye, as if it was a giant teabag. If the design was to be multi-coloured, after the fabric had dried, the green colour could be given another coat of wax design and dipped into a darker colour. Each subsequent colour is masked with wax to retain its hue, always working from light to dark shades.

After drying, the cloth is wrung or crumpled to achieve the delicate lacy veins of dye bleeds. This signature feature of batik differentiates it from other printing and dyeing techniques.

Finally, the whole fabric is immersed in boiling hot water to remove or melt the wax, which is collected and reused. The fabric is rinsed thoroughly, washed with soap, and dried, before being ironed and packaged for the market.

Abhinandita Mathur
A stack of freshly dyed batik products ready for packing
A stack of freshly dyed batik products ready for packing

About 500 homes in Behrugarh are involved in the batik craft and trade. Down the Kaliyadeh Maha Marg, small stores sell a wide range of rainbow-hued batik items. There is plenty of choice and the prices are attractive: handkerchiefs and napkins (₹30), shirt pieces (₹130), salwar sets, scarves, stoles and dupattas (₹450 upwards), saris, bed sheets and bedspreads (₹350 upwards).

In the past, natural dyes were popular with local batik artists, but today they have moved entirely to using chemical dyes. However they still tend to work mostly with shades of they got from natural dyes, such as red, ochre, maroon, orange, green, and blue. Virtually all the raw materials—fabric, dyes, even the wax—are sourced from elsewhere in India or abroad (mostly China); “Sirf talent yahan ka hai” (Only the talent is local), added Iqbal with a smile.

THE INFORMATION

 Getting there: Ujjain is 56 km/1 hr 30 min from Indore and Behrugarh lies in the town’s northern outskirts between the Kal Bhairav amd Mangalnath temples.

 Behrugarh Prints
Artists: Haji Sh & Haroon Gutti

Address: 119, Main Road, Behrugarh, Ujjain.
Tel: +91 98276 41290, 98276 37337

Sana Enterprises

Artists: Mehmood Hasan & Mohd Iqbal Badawala

Address: 18/1, Kalalpura Road, Kuwe ke Paas, Behrugarh, Ujjain.
Tel: +91 99075 16622, 98272 14700

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