Around 100 km from the district headquarters of Dhar is the town of Bagh in Madhya Pradesh. Known for the famous Bagh caves and its proximity to Mandu—a tourist hot spot—Bagh also has a little rivulet passing through the town, called the Baghini. The town has yet another rich cultural legacy synonymous with its name—a spectacular form of fabric prints called Bagh that provides for primary source of livelihood to people in this region.
These prints are eclectic and beautiful on silk and cotton. The most common bagh prints that resemble the Sanganeri prints of Rajasthan are the typical floral patterns of red and black (see pictures). Rupayan, a retail outlet on route to Mandu, is one of the most famous commercial outlets selling these fabrics and contributing to market linkages to self-help groups and individual entrepreneurs of the region, thereby, contributing immensely to rural livelihoods.
Multi-layered water intensive process
The process of printing and fabric treatment is a multi-layered process that includes colour treatment, fabric soaking, boiling, drying, washing and printing. These steps are usually repeated depending on the number of colours to be used on the fabric.
The process begins with soaking the fabric in raw salt, hot water and goat dung. The slight yellow colour which the fabric derives is owing to this stage. Next, the fabric is washed, spread out, and dried in the open. During this period, the typical Bagh red colour is extracted by soaking and boiling tamarind seeds and alum in a huge copper vessel. The immediate colour obtained is a rich fuchsia pink.
Once the fabric has been washed thoroughly to remove impurities from the preliminary treatment, the elaborate and symmetric process of printing begins. While Bagh is fully equipped with resources, it is this area where regional inter-dependence and specialisations come into play.
The blocks used by artists for printing are obtained from Pethapur in Gujarat, thus underscoring the relevance of regional trade that forms the basis of livelihoods to this native industry. The blocks are made with great precision to suit cotton, crepe, silk and other types of fabric; they have several small holes amidst the floral carvings on wood so as to prevent staining and smudging of colour impressions.
Next, the fabric to be printed is spread over a plank or table that has several layers of jute, chaff and cloth underneath to provide a flexible base for block printing, done skilfully by artisans. The tamarind extracted pink is then embossed through a variety of blocks. Flowers, leaves, traditional figurines, symmetrical patterns—there are a plethora of options to choose from. Unless dictated otherwise, the artist uses his imagination to bring the fabric to life painstakingly by embossing designs. Only symmetry is to be kept in mind.
Rural livelihood, ecology and nature
It is important to note the correlation of rural livelihoods and natural resources in this case. Since any fabric treatment is a water-intensive process, Bagh town was chosen by the Khatri community for this pursuit owing to the proximity of the town to the Baghini river. Additionally, the fabrics are treated with a host of natural ingredients. Dependence of rural livelihoods on natural and forest resources and the imperatives of resource optimisation through waste management, therefore, underpins this occupation.
Once the printing process is completed, the fabric is dried, treated once again in the flowing waters of Baghini and then finally boiled in a mixture containing alizarin (the chemical that transforms the fuchsia pink to the delightful red), dhavdi flowers (Woodfordia fruticosa or the fire flame bush flowers that act as natural dye while preventing the fabric from staining), and herbs such as harra (Terminalia shebula) and bahera (Terminalia bellirica). This process is locally called ‘bhatti-karna’, referring to the elaborate process of boiling around 30-40 fabrics in huge copper vessels containing at least 200 litres of water. The mixture has to be stirred constantly to avoid smudging of colours. This stage lasts for about three hours before the fabric is finally dried under the sun.
There are various interesting aspects to the art of Bagh printing. Since the printing process is so elaborate and depends heavily on water in all its stages– there is very little work in this industry during the monsoon. This highlights the seasonality of occupations in rural India, where rural livelihoods move from one occupation to the other, depending on the weather. For most part during the monsoon, therefore, cultivation of kharif crops like maize is the main occupation. Most artists return to this arduous and delicate art once monsoon replenishes their water sources.
Dependence on natural resources
Another significant aspect of this craft is the use of natural colours extracted from different plants and vegetables. It is interesting to note the cost efficiency in this process though prolonged stages of fabric treatments makes it equally laborious. Owing to its time inefficiency, artists and small entrepreneurs have forayed into synthetic colours, which are more diverse and cater to urban demands. Vegetable dyeing and use of natural colours, however, remains the unique selling point of this art.
Next, dependence on natural water sources is key to the survival of this art, which also raises questions pertaining to sustainability, ecological conservation and environmental threats. This is both an opportunity and a threat. Government administrations could, therefore, put more emphasis on recycling waste water of Baghini and minimise environmental degradation. Rain water harvesting so as to replenish the stock of water sources needed by the communities for their daily chores could also be introduced in hamlets in and around Bagh.
Finally, lack of participation from women in this highly creative art form highlights the gender skewed nature of this occupation. While women are believed to be more aesthetically inclined, the Bagh print industry usually sees participation from men of the Khatri community.
Socio-economic factors such as traditional legacies of occupations, inheritance of customs, and resistance from community towards women engaging in this art form are a few reasons cited. An opportunity area for the district administration could be to form and consolidate women self-help groups in block carving as demand for wooden blocks is huge but enough markets don’t exist locally and are thus imported from Pethapur in Gujarat. This could be an interesting area for women enterprise development.
There is high demand for Bagh print fabrics in urban markets and among tourists. Advancement of indigenous skills and talents of artists is therefore important. The district and government administrations have extended support to groups native to Bagh under various schemes such as Swarnajayanti Grameen Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY). An interesting case in point is that Radheshyam Chauhan, an artist specialising in different patterns of printing with 17 years of experience. Chauhan, 36, resident of Bagh village, was recently assisted by a training centre supported by SGSY in order to provide an impetus to his self-help group members belonging to Saras Swasahayata Samooh. He fondly remembers his first lessons from one of the oldest artisans in the district who migrated from Sindh area and eventually created a legacy of art, contributing to cultural capital of Bagh, an art that plays a key role in providing rural livelihood.
Feature: Natural dye-yielding plants and indigenous knowledge of dye preparation in Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve, Central India