Read Below for an excerpt from a Scholarly essay written by Kushagr
Most craft forms in India focus on stories- whether they are local/ tribal tales as found in Maharashtra’s Warli paintings or the country’s great epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, they all have a plot... meaning.
For Ex.- Orissa’s Machlipatnam fabric paintings tell stories of Machcher Biye- The fish Wedding, whilst Karnataka’s Kalamkari fabric paintings often depict scenes from The Ramayana.
Bagru and most Northwestern block printing styles do not tell stories, in contrast to all other styles. Bagru focuses on repeated motifs that transgress the cloth in net-like crisscrossing patterns. Another distinctive feature is the use of the Daboo resist technique that creates the sister style Daboo.
To investigate the patterns that are often found in Bagru, we asked Mahesh Chhipa, the craftsman we visited- he replied that the patterns have always been as such and have been passed down over centuries.
This is another phenomenon I would like to discuss briefly. India works on tradition- Parampara- the way things have been done, it is common if not standard to find artisans knowing their craft but not knowing of their craft, and this is primarily tied into religion and literacy and caste.
Most craftsmen in India are Hindus- a religion who’s most ancient text are based on shrti and smrti- what is heard and what is remembered- the histories of craft are not written down- the development of textile technology in India is scattered across geographical distances from contemporary Afghanistan to Southern India.
Another impediment to any formal, written codex was the fact that, historically, most craftsmen belonged to either the Vaishya or Shudra level of the caste system- these two castes were deemed the bottom two- unimportant enough to be illiterate and ignorant.
As such most of my discussion with Mahesh Chhipa and his family were useful, in moderation- we understood a lot about the methodology of the craft and the its current circumstances, but most of our knowledge of why Bagru is the way it is, due to our more formal sources- Museums and books- the efforts of scholars who have compiled a million paramparas- connecting the dots between the craft, the environment around it and other crafts around it. We slowly realised that craftsmen know one piece of a far more complex puzzle- they know their own craft but not how it fits into the world and its history-the bigger picture.
Architecture and the environment inspired the earliest Bagru/Daboo prints. Many Bagru prints have geometric patterns as seen in “Jaalis”- Mesh structures of Rajput architecture. Some also mimic columns and jharokhas. With time patterns were inspired by religion and yet others by consumer demand- as The Mughal Empire came to power, patterns included traditionally Islamic motifs, as Arab trade increased so did Arab inspired patterns and as The British Raj began so did the artform’s catering to the European market. As such, the patterns of Bagru/Daboo can be used to map the history of this subcontinent.
It is also essential to delineate the patterns of Bagru from those of its Subset style- Daboo, which whilst inspired by similar sources- architecture, religion and the environment... are still notably different. As photos used to have negatives, Bagru has Daboo. In ordinary Bagru, dyes are printed using wooden blocks... in Daboo a mixture of mud (Daboo mud) is printed; instead, the entire fabric is then dyed. This results in the printed areas remaining white- an inverse.
But whilst this results in the location of colours changing... Why are Daboo’s patterns different?
The Daboo mud mixture is not as viscous as dyes- this means it spreads when applied to the fabric. Daboo blocks have few details, are comparatively large and have distinct space between designs to account for this. However, further detail is added by a series of dyeing and resisting that creates lighter and darker shades of the same colour; this process will be discussed later.
The patterns of Bagru are complex and hard to categorise, so many of the patterns are diluted versions of other forms whilst the informality of the art results in millions of patterns that are found with a million variations. And yet the style is unmistakably distinguishable from the rabble.
The Bagru patterns are defined by a certain simplicity and casualness that is not present in similar styles like Ajrakh or Sanganeri. They feature broad swathes of earthy, natural colour rather than thin outlines, whilst also featuring the overlapping of repetitive blocks and a certain disregard for perfection. A difference noted when the incredibly intricate Ajrakh is comparatively seen. And this style- of imperfect shapes and muted colours make the fabric, to me, seem approachable and open...purer than the showy gold imbibed polyester that saturates the Indian market. The fabric contains the earth, and when one wears it and sees it, one feels connected to the ground, one walks upon.
The motifs that genuinely speak to the heritage of this craft, according to me, are those inspired by the environment. These are elementary motifs of “Jadi/ Buti” (herbs and roots) found in India. And they have particular connect to Indians as these are elements we use every day. I hear stories from my Grandparents of playing with Neem Berries, and so Bagru has a Neemboli print. As Indians, herbal remedies surround us, we use cloves when we have a toothache or turmeric to soothe swellings, and for me, there is a particular fascination when something so quintessential to my lifestyle is portrayed in this form.
This use of facets of ordinary, Indian life and ordinary, pure, natural colours and imperfect lines makes Bagru a pattern of the people, not the aristocracy and we prefer the simplicity and innocence and lack of gravitas it begets.
Fadat- A unique distinction
Within the non-Daboo variant of Bagru also exists a special category of prints- Fadat- named after the traditional skirts they originally adorned, Fadat is a pattern style now seen elsewhere. Fadat, as a pattern, truly broke our hearts. Fadat patterns are minute and extremely intricate designs, each motif no more than a centimetre in width, and Mahesh Chhipa told us it can take up to a month to print a metre. Fadat, a particular pride of his, is awe- summoning not just for the motif itself, but for the sheer beauty of a thousand motif together, for the unity, unity that stopped my breath when I first beheld it. It was and is inconceivable for me the sheer amount of dedication and patience it takes for this craft to come together, the months to make the dyes and carve the blocks and weave the fabric and print and print and print, for but a metre of fabric. And every drop of that labour, of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into this craft hit me when I beheld this fabric, a style that now holds a special place in my heart.
The patterns of fabric are not just a single colour or a single layer of print. Most contain at least three colours and thus three layers- the main pattern block, a background block which is the inverse of the main block and an outline block that adds details upon the main block.
Fadat, for all artistry, doesn’t beget any attention from the royal history of Rajasthan and remains the woeful embellishment of the garb of the labouring class. My visit to the Maharaja Sawai Mann Singh 2 Museum in Jaipur revealed that Sanganeri was much preferred over Bagru (Fadat was the only pattern of the style seen) for its bright, floral design and Bagru was most often seen on undergarments or gifts (which were never used) to the royals from the working classes.
And in the contemporary age, Fadat occupies a rather dismal space in the commercial market. At approximately £25/ Rs. 2500/- per meter for cotton fabric, it sits comfortably in company with good quality silks, a price too high for the low/middle classes for a fabric too dull for the upper class to appreciate and too time-consuming to mass manufacture results in Fadat- a case study on how traditions die.
The Ever Popular Daboo aka Indigo
On a less saddening note, handlooms still hold some allure for consumers. Daboo (commonly known as Indigo- the colour its found most often in) is now ubiquitous in the niche block printing market.
Bagru prints that use Daboo- A mud resist agent made of the unique “Daboo” mud, molasses and tamarind flour- are cheap, their designs are far simpler, monochromatic and quickly made.
It is important, to note the properties of the mud mixture, to understand the style that Daboo is known for. The mixture can resist up to six-seven consecutive dyeings and is considerably less dense than the dyes themselves.
The properties of the Daboo mixture allow, only, for a limited number of patterns to be made. They must be large and thick, as the mud cannot pick up fine details, and these details will blot when put upon the fabric. This results in large geometric patterns inspired by architecture (like jaalis, jharokhas and other embellishments), large religious motifs or the omnipresent nature-inspired (albeit larger and less detailed) ones.
The ability of Daboo to hold fast for up to seven dye cycles leads to quite an exciting pattern style. A print of Daboo could be applied directly on white fabric or after a succession of dyeing cycles, and as each dyeing cycle renders the colour darker, a monochromatic progression of shades can be seen. Thus, an Indigo Daboo print could feature white prints, light blue prints, and medium blue prints on a dark blue background.
The typical process would be-
Block print mud (on plain fabric)> first dye cycle> dry> retain original mud prints add mud prints in other areas> final dye cycle> dry> wash.
This would create a 3-colour pattern- white, light blue and the dark blue background.
Another unique feature of Daboo that is not seen in ordinary Bagru or even other block printing styles like Madhya Pradesh’s Bagh, Gujarat’s Ajrakh or even Rajasthan’s own Sanganeri is that Daboo is able to retain pure whites.
Dyes will always spread on fabric and to counter this, Craftsmen prime fabric with Halda (Dried “Amla” or the Indian Gooseberry powder) which colours the fabric off white and also acts as a mordant allowing colours to hold fast even after washing. And while the mud mixture also spreads, Halda has no effect on it, and as Daboo fabrics are dyed as a whole and not selectively, it is not required. Indigo has become eponymous with Daboo due to its extensive use in the style as it requires no mordant.
Daboo, as a style, has something quite eccentric about it- experimental and abstract. The slight ombre in colour when the dye doesn’t soak evenly across the entire fabric or the spider webs of blue that flit across the white in places where the dried mud cracked all implies a certain nonchalance, an irreverence for the perfect- light and free and frivolous enough to say that slight smudges, slight imperfections and mistakes only add to the beauty rather than take away from it. Even the colour its most often seen in- Indigo- suggests the open vastness of the sky or sea and the white or shaded blue patterns that traverse it are akin to foaming waves or billowing clouds. Moreover, light, diaphanous cotton only lends to the style an impish freedom.
To conclude, the patterns of Bagru have evolved to showcase the Indian subcontinent’s history. Starting with prints inspired by the environment and architecture, moving on to religious motifs then as trade increased by the cultures of the primary consumers whether it be the nearby Mughals or distant Arabs, Egyptians or even the Europeans and in the contemporary age they evolve yet again to account for India and the world’s increasing westernisation showing glimpses into more quirky modern prints.
The patterns of Bagru were not established or planned but grew, higgledy-piggledy around the environment around them- whether it was the people or the other styles around them- and there will probably exist a multitude I have not listed here, only for the difficulty and probable impossibility of mustering together such a database.
And ultimately, I would like to note the two distinct techniques used in the Bagru style- Direct printing and resist print/dyeing, and while resist dyeing is found elsewhere in India, they use mainly sap from the Gum Arabic tree, not mud like in Bagru.