In a dark warehouse, on the outskirts of Bagh town, we are engulfed by reams of cloth, and shelves stacked with wooden blocks spilling onto the floor. A shaft of sunlight streams onto a beige sheet of cloth. Behind it, Mohammad Yusuf Khatri dips a wooden block into a tray of black dye, stamps the cloth with practised ease, meticulously creating a neat row of intricate mango motifs. The detail is precise, right down to the dots no bigger than full stops, without any bleeds, folds, or blurred lines. Yusuf continues this family tradition of block printing, much like his father did for several decades, using the same eco-friendly methods.
Bagh’s unique craft of thappa chappai or block printing with natural colours, has evolved from a rudimentary tribal art to an invaluable part of the heritage and cultural identity of Madhya Pradesh. According to Yusuf, some of the wooden blocks he still uses are two- to three-hundred years old. The traditional designs are inspired by nature, the ancient Bagh Cave paintings, and the jali (lattice) work of the Taj Mahal. Each block has a name: chameli (jasmine), maithir (mushroom), leheriya (waves), keri (mango), and jurvaria (small dots).
At the Bagh Prints workshop we are visiting, reams of coloured fabric in soft cotton and silk are stacked in tall rows, or thrown casually over a clothesline. A few items in deep blue, purple, and bottle-green break the sea of maroon, white, and black, that form the signature Bagh shades. We sit down on a rickety bench as Mohammad Yusuf, Rafik, Bilal, and rest of the Khatri family explain how they create these brilliant textiles. A tray full of bottles with strange looking roots, seeds, and powders is brought out, and we learn how it all began.
The Khatris were essentially printers who migrated to Gujarat and Rajasthan four centuries ago from the Larkana district of Sindh (now Pakistan), famed for ajrakh prints. Besides settling in Pali and the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, they settled at Manawar in Madhya Pradesh, and continued their traditional occupation of printing and selling fabric. Unlike other relatives who went back to Pakistan at Partition, Mohammed Yusuf’s father, master craftsman Ismail Suleimanji Khatri settled in Bagh in 1962. One reason he chose to settle in Bagh was because of its location on the banks of the Baghini River, a lifeline for the art.
A pioneer in textile printing, Ismailji and his five sons have earned national awards for their exclusive designs. He received a national award in 1984 for a masterpiece with 1230 geometric patterns that he created for the Festival of India in France.
Bagh printing, previously known as alizarin printing, is manual and laborious, involving several processes of repeated washing, dyeing, and printing. In the first process, called khara, the fabric is washed and beaten on river stones to rid it of impurities and starch. It is then sun-dried for hours. The fabric is then dunked in a vat filled with a mixture of castor oil (arandi ka tel), goat droppings (mengni), raw salt (sanchura), and water. After a thorough soak, it is taken to a special part of the river called the hodi, where it is swirled in the water for a few hours before being dried. This process is repeated thrice, and the fabric is stomped on to work up a frothy scum, which helps it become more absorbent and soft.
Peela or yellowing comes next. The fabric is soaked in a copper vat with a solution of harada powder (terminalia chebula), rinsed, and yellowed under controlled sunshine. Over-drying or drying in the shadow can lead to an undesirable discoloration of green.
Meanwhile, the dye paste is prepared. Natural and vegetable colours are extracted from fruits, flowers, roots, indigo leaves, and minerals. There are four basic natural colours—red, black, khaki, and indigo. Alum (fitkari) is boiled and stored in a pot and is used to make red colour, which at first imparts a bright fuchsia pink. This is then boiled like a starch glue, with powdered tamarind seed (chiyan), then cooled, and filtered. For black, iron sulphate (hirakasish) or rusted iron, jaggery, lime, wheat flour, and water are boiled, cooled and strained. Leaves of the dhawda plant (anogeissus latifolia) and pomegranate skin are used for making khaki.
The wooden dye tray is set with layers of felt or muslin, which act like a dye pad for the design block. After printing, the cloth is allowed to dry fully before being folded. It is then allowed to rest for a fortnight for the colour to set.
The next process bichalna (or vichalna) removes extra or residual dye. This is done by stretching and pushing the cloth into swiftly flowing river water before beating it on a stone.
Bhatti is the next stage. This is when the fabric is boiled and tossed around in a heated copper vat which has a mixture of floral and leaf extracts: dhawadi (woodfordia fruticosa), alizarin, made from the root bark of aal (morinda tinctoria or Indian mulberry). The concoction acts as a resist dye that enables shine, colour-fixing, and fastening; this is what allows the deep red, black, and stark white to finally emerge. The fabric is rinsed in clean water, sun-dried on river stones for natural bleaching, and washed three times in running water; a process called tarai. After further drying, the colours are finally set, and the finished printed fabric is ready for the market.
Bagh prints have embellished not just cotton and silk fabric, but cotton-silk, tussar, jute, and crepe as well. Attractive stoles, dupattas, elaborate saris, bed sheets, pillow covers, cushion covers, tablecloths, and rugs are some of the products created. Today, Bagh prints are sought after by top fashion designers. But for the efforts of the Khatris, who have trained and inspired over a thousand villagers to take up this craft, this unique block printing tradition could have been lost.
At the end of our visit, we still had a niggling doubt. “Doesn’t all the dye dirty the river?” we enquired. Yusuf bhai smiled. All their colours are natural, he pointed out. Adding that since they use alum, it cleans the river wherever they work,“Ekdum kaanch barabar (crystal clear)!” he said.
Getting there: Bagh is 97 km from Dhar and around 154 km from Indore. It is reachable via Rajgadh on NH47. Bagh Prints is to your left as you are about to enter the town.
BAGH PRINT ARTISTS
Artist: Mohammed Yusuf
Address: Village Bagh, Dist. Dhar 454221
Tel: +91 94254 86307, 90098 15786
Artist: Abdul Kadar Khatri
Tel: +91 94240 75965, 78692 35037
Artist: Mohammed Bilal Khatri
Tel: +91 97704 27777, 90744 47777
Artist: Mohammed Rafik
Tel: +91 94259 48227
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