Deep in the heart of Rajasthan lies the town of Bagru, which has been widely regarded as the focal point of the beguiling Bagru hand block prints.
Not too far from Jaipur, the town is the homeland of the Chhipas, a community practicing Bagru printing. The word “chhipa” is believed to have been derived from the Gujarati word “chhaap”, meaning “print”. Another theory suggests that the root of the word lies in Nepali language, wherein the word “chhi” translates to “to dye”, and “pa” implies drying something in the sun.
Here, Chhipa Moholla is a particularly intriguing place – it is the community quarter and the center of Bagru printing activity. On any given day, the moholla is flooded in a mélange of hand- dyed fabrics in vibrant hues of pink, blue, and red, which embody the spirit of the state.
Legend has it that the art of Bagru printing was born nearly 500 years ago, when the Chhipas first settled along the banks of Sanjariya River, whose clay was believed to have been an ideal component for hand block printing.
Bagru printing is based on a model of fine craftsmanship and impeccable attention to detail. So it comes as no surprise that the process of creation is strenuous, to say the least. The printing procedure requires multiple hand blocks – it is up to the printer to calculate and decide the number of blocks, depending on the color variations and patterns that are implemented in the later stage. These blocks are seasonally carved from different kinds of wood such as sheesham (Indian rosewood) and rohida (Marwar teak). Each of these kinds of wood has an innate quality of its own, which helps the printer to yield varied designs and textures by alternating between them.
The fabric to be printed first goes through the process of natural dyeing – blue is procured from the indigo plant, grey from alum, black from either iron scrap or old horseshoes and red from Indian madder. Later, this fabric is soaked in a solution of clay, water and non-toxic chemicals to achieve a certain amount of softness, after which it is dried and finally laid out for printing. The wooden blocks also are dunked in oil overnight and then washed thoroughly before use.
The printing process demands a great amount of precision, as one gauges, aligns and measures the motif distance and other intricacies with nothing but their skillful hands and experienced eyes. The method involves the printer dipping the wooden block into a dye and then placing it expertly on the fabric, which results in an eye-pleasing spread of synchronized motifs and colors. Although Bagru prints are usually characterized by nature-inspired motifs, there is also a sizeable usage of geometric patterns such as checks, triangles and grids, which is why they are often likened to Dabu prints. Today with innovation seeping in, the range of colors has widened, and so has the scope of the patterns.
However, what sets Bagru printing apart is that it is done on a light-shaded background (often in shades of cream, ivory and off-white) with motifs in darker, deeper shades (contrary to Dabu prints, where the background is dyed dark, with motifs generally remaining white due to the mud-resist technique).
While many Chhipa families have moved into cities away from the profession, there still remains a close-knit community which has withstood the test of time, having wholly dedicated itself to the art. A great example is Vijendra Chhipa, a fifth-generation master printer who has built on his family's legacy. Along with a friend he founded Bagru Textiles, a socially, economically and environmentally conscious organization, which employs close to 16 families of master printers, in a bid to expand the market for this Rajasthani art of printing.
The Titanwala family have also been practicing this art for generations, with Suraj Narain Titanwala, the family's torchbearer, having won a national award and gained a clientele that includes Prince Charles and other dignitaries. The family has also established a museum which provides insights into the Bagru printing tradition, from its history to technical aspects of the art.
In order to keep up with increasing demand and difference in taste, many printers however turn to synthetic dyes to develop brighter colors on fabric. There is however a silver lining to these dark clouds, as many organizations and individuals have lately been waking up to the clarion call of preserving, reviving and reinventing age-old textile traditions, with Bagru being no exception.