Crafting the block
Artisan Sources: Razzaquebhai Khatri (Dhamadka), Khatri Musa TarMohammed (Ajrakhpur)
“My father was washing fabric at the river in Dhamadka, so we used to come here when we were young. I have also worked at the old rangchulis by the river. We did not understand design completely at that time but being here inspired us to create something. I remember that I once carved a very small block. My father liked it so much that he kept the block with him and told everyone that it was the first creation of his son.”
Block making itself is an art and demands high skill. In the old days, blocks were also made in mud. Today, blocks are made using teak wood (sag). Often metal wires are used for intricate designs. The quality of the block significantly affected the quality of printing.
“You can only learn this craft when you are 8-12 years old. if you try to learn when you are twenty your fingers would have already become tight and they are no longer flexible for block making. When I was 14 years I learned to carve a block. I never used to make designs on paper. When I thought of a design I would directly draw it on the wood and carve it out.”
Blocks in the past were made by the printers in their free time. Today block printers buy their blocks from block-makers in Pethapur near Gandhinagar, Kachchh.
We work in harmony with nature
Artisan sources: Dr. Ismail Khatri (Ajrakhpur), Hajibapa, Abdul Rahim Haji Sattar (Dhamadka), Shakil Ahmemad Khatri (Mundra)
There is a strong tradition of using natural colors in printing techniques in Kachchh. Indigo blue and madder red were often used together by printers. They enhance each other and have become the identity of the colors from this region.
“For red, we were using the roots of madder. Blue extract from the indigo plant mostly came from Shikarpur in Sindh, but it was also grown in Dhamadka. Women would help in preparing the dyes by grinding the indigo for its color. Various flowers, myrobalan fruit, pomegranate skin, natural soda ash were all obtained locally for preparing the dye. In the green fields, a farmer had to wear white to be seen. So they would wear white cloth and a red turban. The Maldharis (cattle herders) would wear bright colors like red and blue. These colors were decided over time, and given a lot of thought.”
Most Khatri block printers became so attuned to indigo color that they could dip their finger in a pot of indigo, taste it, and be able to tell the shade and quality.
“Our ancestor was given the name Gulabi (pink) by the King of Kachchh. This was because he made an ajrakh in a bright pink color. This was a natural color! No one knows how he made it! In recognition of this unique achievement, the King named him Mohammad Gulabi and presented him with a gold seal and a certificate. We have lost these things over the course of time, but we feel that piece must be in a museum now.”
Resist printing in Kachchh
The print artisan works in total harmony with his environment: the sun, animals, river, trees, and mud are all part of making the finished textile. Resist printing, a technique widely used in Kachchh, is a method of printing a fabric with a paste that prevents the dye from reaching that portion of the cloth, resulting in patterns. Several natural materials are used by the block printers as resist material. Wax is commonly used in Batik, while mud was used by printers in East Kachchh. Gum and lime are the most preferred resit materials today by the Ajrakh block printers.
“Traditionally we used piloo seeds from the jojoba tree instead of wax to make Batik. The Khatris would buy these seeds from merchants. The seeds had to be fed to animals and then collected from their dung, which was of better quality. The seeds would then be soaked in hot water and squeezed to extract the piloo oil. The piloo oil was called khakhan in the local language.”
The lost colors of West Kachchh
There is a lesser known style and body of work done by the printers of West Kachchh from villages of Abdasa and Nakhatrana and prominent towns like Naliya and Kothara. Known as Patthar printing in these areas, this genre closely resembles the stylized forms of the Sirakh. The communities known to print them were both Muslims and Hindus. The Hindus were settled mostly in the Nana and Mota Angiya villages of Nakhatrana.
These prints were popular dowries for daughters as well as daughters-in-law. They were mostly bold floral and geometrical designs that were resist printed and mordant dyed. By the 1900s, a healthy trade developed for this style as evidenced in the large cloths that have been well documented. The scale of these is quite breathtaking. They were most probably used as bed linen, floor coverings, and ceiling decorations. They were also used by the royal families with is indicated by the elephant print found on one of these cloths. Figurative prints of men on horses carrying swords and rifles suggest the popularity of these pieces among the Jadeja Rajput families.
By the 1960s, this craft died out as many of its users, like the Vaniyas, Bhatias, Memons, and Khojas migrated out of Kachchh and export suffered due to the onset of industrial goods.
The one piece we made for ourselves
Artisan sources: Faridaben, Jahangir Khatri (Dhamadka), Abdul Rehman Budda (Ajrakhpur)
The artistic Sirakh, a printed bedcover, uses a lesser known traditional style of hand block printing. It is made of bandhani or block print, and its design is believed to be a precursor to Ajrakh. The patterns used were very floral and free flowing.
“The Sirakh was made by our elders who gave it to their daughter as one of the items of dowry along with a bedsheet and pillows. Even we did the same for our son’s marriage. It is very useful during the winter season as it is very warm. It is now no more in use ad people are purchasing ready made items, It was a home based work so we were preparing the colors on our own and giving the piece to our daughters. it was a custom. I have one that was presented to me by my father in law. I keep it very safe.”
The Sirakh is the only printed cloth that the Khatris make for themselves. It was gifted to a newly married couple and was prepared specially for the wedding nights. The bright colors like the pink of Sapan wood and orange from the Keshuda flowers were printed directly onto the fabric. These colors were prepared even though people knew they were only last for a short time. The traditional red and black colors, however, were long lasting, made from madder and iron.
The block printed Sirakh bed cover is generally unavailable in the market today, but is still made by a handful of artisans.
The era of chemical dyes
The year 1956 was a difficult one for the Khatris. An earthquake shook the ground of Kachchh and the lives of many block printing families. The town of Anjar was completely destroyed, and many other villages were badly affected. Many Khatris lost their family members and working materials. But they did not give up. They continued their block printing practice and adapted to the changing situation.
“Indigo dyeing stopped because we lost all the tools for natural dyeing practice in the earthquake of 1956. Chemicals were already around at that time and they were much easier to adapt to after losing all of our materials and tools for natural dyes.”
By the early 1950s, synthetic dyes had replaced most of the natural color in the Indian textile market because of their cheapness and ease of use. Simultaneously, local printing workshops were being threatened by large industrial factories in Mumbai and Ahmedabad that could produce cloth faster.
“When Napthol color was introduced to Kachchh in 1945 it created a big change. Working was suddenly faster. We could easily prepare a cloth in a day! It used less water as well. Chemical colors are very bright whereas natural colors get bright after usage. So chemical dyed cloth was a big hit in the market.”
The Batik boom
Artisan sources: Khatri Kasam Haji Musa, Shakil Ahemad Khatri (Mundra)
Batik is a block printing technique where wax is used as a resist material. Legends say that Khatris were among the people who accompanied Lord Ram and Sita into the forest in the Ramayana. There, the Khatris experimented with art and created prints on textiles inspired by nature. It is said that wherever Lord Ram went, he left two artisans, a Khatri and a carpenter, because he believed that art should be shared. He traveled to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Kachchh.
Indonesia is believed to be the cradle of Batik, historical sources say that trade flourished between Gujarat and the cluster of islands. The strong admiration for Indian batik textiles overseas was because of their rich madder color, which would never fade.
The special look of Batik in Kachchh developed by coincidence when artisans started using paraffin wax. The character of paraffin wax was such that it would crack while dyeing and leave fine lines of colors on the cloth. Earlier, fabrics displaying these cracks were considered as poor quality, but over time it evolved as the identity of Batik textiles from the region. The main centers of Batik printing in Kachchh were Mundra and Bhujpur, though recently Mandvi has developed as an important center for production.
“In old times, batik was so labour intensive that ultimately, it wasn’t very profitable. chemical dyes have made a big difference in our craft. Natural dyes are extremely difficult to work with in combination with wax, and in the past a single piece could take anywhere between 4 and 12 days. Also, the humidity in the region does not allow the natural dyes to take their full effect. With chemical dyes, we can make a piece per day! Chemical dyes made it possible for Batik to flourish in areas like Mundra and Bhujpur.”
In the 1960s, the demand for Batik increased because international fashion designers began to incorporate the textile into their designs. This was part of a global movement for new expression and was embraced by hippie culture. The boom of the Batik industry only lasted for so long. More and more artisans began using chemical dyes, producing textiles of lower quality. Eventually, people began making screen printed textiles which mimicked the intricate irregularities of real Batik, threatening the presence of the original craft in Kachchh. The pioneering work done by Vivekanand Gramodyog Society (VGS) since 1988 has given a lift to this craft and created work opportunities for men and women from the villages in the area.
From a block to a screen
Artisan sources: Abdul Rahim, Haji Abdul Satar, Mobin Khatri (Dhamadka), Ibrahim Isa (Ajrakhpur
“A merchant showed me samples of our old Jimahardi Pado (skirt design) and asked me to print the same designs in different colors. I made five or six new colors in the same design and he liked it! So, we sent him orders in parcel after parcel. It did so well that later, screen printers began imitating it. It did well in the market for years.”
Gujarat underwent a period of major industrialization in the 1960s. As a result, Khatris had to compete with printing factories that were introducing cheaper fabric in the market. Nomadic pastoralists started purchasing these cheap imitations of their traditional clothes. This development drastically changed the relationship between Khatris and their former clientes.
Infrastructure in Kachchh was very poor until the 1960s. A better transportation and communication system was introduced during the Indo-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971. The new roads initiated new trade possibilities for the block printers. Instead of using camel carts they could now transport the material by buses and have easy access to bigger cities.
Growing competition with factories pushed artisans to embrace changing technologies. Instead of the elaborate hand block print, artisans started shifting to mass production in screen print. The new screen printed fabrics were lighter, brighter, and cheaper than block printed fabrics.
“Our family shifted to screen prints but we have adapted natural colors as pigments for screen printing. It is a technique that we have developed specially. In hand block printing, one person may print 100 to 150 meters in one day but in screen printing two people can print up to 600 meters in a day. The main difference in screen and block printing is the speed of the work. You can use a screen for 10 years if it is kept in good condition. If you want to use a screen, you will require a big table and a big space. With block printing you can work on a small table in a 10x10 room. For screen printing, you also need large orders. This technology does not really support small producers."
Anjar today has become a major center for screen printing. There are a few screen printing workshops in Dhamadka as well. The alert eye can easily spot the difference between screen printed and block printed cloth. Screen printing produces a flat, even color, while block printed textiles have inconsistencies and small breaks at the joints of a motif.
Back to the roots
Artisan sources: Razzaquebhai Khatri, Jabbar Khatri (Dhamadka)
“I was born around the time of the earthquake of 1956. People were only using chemical dyes after the earthquake, so we did not know about vegetable colors at all. Or father, Khatri Mohammadbhai told us that he had used vegetable colors in the past. he feared that one day the factories would stop making chemical dyes. Then, the knowledge of natural dyes would be useful. So he taught us about natural dyeing and we made a few pieces together, to learn. We made a sample of each to explore all the colors - yellow, green, red, indigo, and black. We feel so fortunate to have learned this art that is helping us so much today."
The rise of factories had nearly buried the value of handicraft. In the 1970s a period of reflection started. The Gandhian idea of India as a “craft nation” became popular again and many states in India initiated programs to support traditional craft artisans in finding new markets. In 1973, the state of Gujarat established the Gujarat State Handloom and Handicrafts Development Corporation and its retail outlet, Gurjari. They brought together professional designers, staff from the National Institute of Design (NID) at Ahmedabad, and artisans from across Gujarat. In Kachchh, printing and the use of natural colors became popular again. Khatri Mohammed Siddique, Khatri Yakub Siddique, and Haji Abdul Sattar from Dhamadka were among the early pioneers in reviving the knowledge of natural dyes.
“In 1981, our father Khatri Mohammad Siddik received a national award for a natural dyed bedsheet. After that, the Government of Gujarat as well as the NGOs helped us, trained us to adapt to changing times. Designers from the National Institute of Design also helped us in costing, design, color combinations, and sampling. In 1984, we made a bigger work shed with longer tables and work was done by standing. Soon we started making cloth for emporiums in Delhi and Mumbai.”
New markets created new demands. Traders and designers raised the bar for extraordinary design and quality. In response, the Khatris adopted new techniques like the user of taller tables. This made it easier to control the quality of the pieces. Also, standing while printing increased speed and ensured neatness of work.