It had been three years since I last visited an artisan cluster. The last time I did I was mesmerized by the beauty of the fabric but overwhelmed with the human effort it involved and shocked at the state of this culture losing its value.
Last time it made me think of how we can promote the lost handwoven fabrics of India. An instant idea was to integrate it with a modern product. So we got fabric from an artisan cluster in Hyderabad and worked around stationery and accessory products with the artisans of Khwaab back in Delhi.
Over years the fabrics of Ikkat and Kalamkari became the USP of what we created at Khwaab. We constantly sourced from a skill development centre in Hyderabad. A year down the line many artisans stopped creating handprinted and handwoven fabrics and moved to screen printing. As a result we moved to middlemen.
A few months back I felt a deep disconnect with the arts we were so passionate about. I realized it was time to travel again in search of a lost inspiration. I and my co-founder Shruti quickly did a search to find clusters around Jaipur. A designer from NID connected us to Block Print House in Bagru and its Master Artisan Deepak. And off we went !!
We reached Jaipur and took a rickety auto to Bagru which was an hour and a half from Jaipur. The small village of Bagru didn’t look like an artisan cluster from the outside. There were no shops that sold block prints and no human carrying it on them. It made me question, what stopped the natives from wearing a fabric they created!
We kept going deeper into the village, passing homes made with old Rajasthani architecture. The lanes opened into agricultural land and soon we found ourselves lost.
Thankfully Deepak sent us a GPS location and we reached BLOCK PRINT HOUSE.
The first view of inspiration was seeing 10 meter long hand dyed fabrics lying side by side in the open fields to dry. As if they were sun bathing. Suddenly the fabrics had filled life to the dry fields with their color.
The second vision of inspiration was this old man dying fabric out in the open in a big aluminum vessel. He was so old that I wondered whether he was doing this out of need and necessity. Then he looked at me and gave me the biggest smile I haven’t received in ages. It was pure joy in what he was doing and the pride of knowing what he was doing which reflected on his face.
I soon reached the office to meet Deepak. He greeted us and took us for a visit. The cluster consisted of 100 artisans coming from approx. 15 families. Each family specialized in a certain skill. A family focused on making blocks, another on block printing, another on dying the fabric etc. We went from workshop to workshop seeing both men and women across age groups working together printing fabric. All colors were made a night before dying using natural materials like iron, sugarcane, wheat husk etc. They majorly used combinations of indigo, red, black and yellow.
My eyes kept looking at the hands of the artisans and how they moved just like a machine, without errors. I asked how did they get the precision and they laughed to tell how their families have been doing this for four generations and how they could do it with eyes closed.
There were fabrics that were block printed with natural colors and also mud. The art of resist dying with mud was stunning. It is called Dabu (on which I’ll write soon 😉 ). There were heaps of wooden blocks lying all around, each holding a design so intricate that it brought constant emotions of awe.
Post the visit we asked Deepak how has the journey been and what have been the challenges. To our surprise he said good times are here. Ecommerce and social media boom had opened up huge markets for them. Designers from all over the world and India were emailing them designs and they were creating hand dyed fabrics round the year.
As the evening set in we filled our rickety auto with as much fabric we could hold and set back home. The ride back home made me think of how the village of Bagru held so much art, tradition and culture. It made be bring back the belief in what we were doing and work around creating a value chain where we touched the creator and not the middlemen.
Taking back a story that we can tell !!
~ Pooja Chopra (Co-founder, Khwaab Welfare Trust)