Birthed on the parched, yet enigmatic terrains of Rajasthan, dabu is a craft of the printing realm, which has been etched in the annals of time. Essentially a hand block printing technique, dabu has been revitalized over the years, making it as relevant to the world today as it was during the ancient times thanks to its fine-drawn allure and the intricate modus operandi of its production.
With its roots in the 675 AD, dabu printing is believed to have first made its way to Rajasthan in India from China. The name of the technique is said to have been derived from either the Gujarati word “dabu” or the Hindi word “dabaana”, both of which connote “to press.”
First and foremost, the cloth, which is commonly procured from mills, undergoes a thorough washing process in order to rid it of any kind of dust or grime. It is then laid out (usually on a table) and coated with skeletal motif prints using quick-drying dyes with hand blocks. The next step, i.e., mud-resist printing, is central to the entire process, and is precisely what distinguishes dabu from the rest of the printing techniques. A muddy mixture, prepared with gum, lime and beaten wheat chaff, is made just prior to printing. This preparation, which is commonly called “dabu paste”, is struck expertly on the cloth – where the skeletal motifs are – using a wooden block. So unique is the mixture that the desired result can only be achieved if done by hand, since machines cannot get the required consistency. Later on, a coat of sawdust is sprinkled across the cloth in order to facilitate quicker drying of the mud paste. The fabric is then put out to dry, after which it is dipped into a cauldron of natural dye (blue color is acquired from indigo, grey or brown shades from natural iron deposits and red hues from pomegranate.) This results in the fabric being dyed completely, with only the area coated with the mud-resist paste remaining untouched, or in other words, “resisting” the dye, hence exposing the original color of the fabric. In some cases, Indian madder and turmeric dyes are used too.
Even though sawdust prevents the dye from permeating the mud-enveloped portion, some amount of color may travel to the resist-dyed motifs due to the cracking of the dried mud paste. This however brings out the earthiness and beauty of the technique, as it delivers a slightly endearing veining effect on the cloth.
Under certain situations and based on certain demands, the same fabric undergoes the process twice or even thrice, which leads to more complex and detailed dabu prints, and they are known as double- and triple-dabu printing techniques respectively.
After the Independence of India, machine printing slowly started to take over. It not only sped up the whole process but also left a string of repercussions in its wake. This led to the technique dying out, before it was resurrected in the early 21 st century, this time with many innovations. For example, one can now choose from a broader range of colors. Due to the advent of synthetic dyes, the process no longer restricts itself to vegetable/natural dyes alone. During ancient times, the motifs that were predominantly used were those derived from nature – animals, plants, flowers, etc. In the present scenario, geometric motifs are also used to a significant extent.
While dabu printing was earlier done solely on fine cotton, today it is being carried out on a host of other fabrics such as silk, crepe and chiffon, among many others. This centuries-old printing technique has also transitioned beyond clothing over the years. Dabu prints are now found adorning home apparel and accessories too.
Dabu printing is a long-standing tradition, usually passed down through a lineage, and the practicing families are mostly concentrated in Akola, Rajasthan. Many however practice dabu printing in other parts of the state too, such as in Udaipur.
Given how laborious and detail-oriented process authentic hand block printing is, many artisans are jumping out of the craft. Not to mention the complexities (such as color variations, color fading, etc.) that come with natural dyes. However, in a bid to revitalize the technique and streamline it according to the industry today, many labels have been increasingly embracing it in their designs.