The art of block-printing on cotton cloth has been practised for over 5,000 years. Excavations at the Indus Valley sites (Kutch has over 26 Harappan sites, Dholavira being one) provide evidence that block-printing on cotton cloth in geometric patterns was practised during that period.
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has more than a thousand pieces of resist-printed and mordant-dyed fabrics, dyed in madder and indigo from the 11th century. These were found at Al Fustat near Cairo. The designs have a basic geometric pattern similar to the prints from Kutch.
Kutch is known for the resist printed Ajrakh prints, worn only by men, the Maldhari communities of Banni and Pachcham. The unique feature of Ajrakh is that the fabric piece is block-printed on both sides, with the block impression matching exactly, making it a reversible cloth. This requires exceptional skill. The fabric goes through some 16 stages and it can take three to four weeks to complete the process of creating an Ajrakh.
|Maldhari wearing Ajrakh|
This multipurpose cloth, greatly cherished by the pastoral Maldharis of Kutch and Sindh, is wrapped around the head as a safa, worn around the waist as a lungi, or used as a shoulder cloth. When it gets old and worn out, it is commonly used as backing for patchwork quilts. Apart from the Ajrakh, the block-printers of this region printed and dyed fabrics for the women of various communities living in Kutch.
In 1977, I had an opportunity of working with an Ajrakh artisan, Khatri Mohammad Siddik. NID was offered a design project by the Gujarat State Handloom and Handicraft Corporation, which had started a chain of retail stores called Gurjari.
The brief was to design a collection of printed surfaces using the traditional printing techniques from Dhamadka, a village known for its ancient art of Ajrakh printing. I was sent to Dhamadka with Sulekha to learn from this experience. We were to stay for a fortnight with Mohammad Siddik and his family to study their printing technique, work with them and design the collection.
Sulekha and I were the first outsiders to have ever come to this village to produce a collection of textile products for an urban market. No one from Dhamadka had ever visited an urban centre or interacted much with people from the city. Having two young unescorted city women in their midst was a source of great curiosity. The people of the village were initially apprehensive about our living with a Muslim family. Luckily, Mohammad bhai, a well-respected man, was able to pacify the local people.
At that time, the village had no electricity, so the day started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Mohammad bhai’s workshop was across the road from his home. Early morning, he would go there to start preparing the colours for the day’s production. Through the day we worked at the workshop, gaining practical knowledge about the printing process and after dinner, Mohammad bhai would tell us stories about their history, his work and life in the village. Through these storytelling sessions, we also gathered a wealth of information about the process of block-printing, the preparation of vegetable and natural dyes, and their traditional designs.
Living with Mohammad bhai’s family at Dhamadka was a great learning experience and it became the foundation for a lot of my future work, an association that continues even today.
Over the years, Mohammad bhai was invited by many museums to demonstrate his craft and received my honours. His three sons, Abdul Razak, Ismail and Jabbar, continue the tradition. They have mastered the art of natural dyeing and have taken the craft to new heights of excellence.
It is very hearting and a great honour that Mohammad bhai's son Ismail, who is not educated in the conventional sense, was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts by the De Montfort University, UK, for deep understanding and knowledge of his traditional craft of dyeing and printing.
Three years later, the same university honoured Amitabh Bachan.
Bandhani, or Bandhej, derived from the Sanskrit word bandh, to tie, is a resist-dyeing process of creating a dot pattern. The tie-dye method is a simple technique, which ensures that the dye is prevented from reaching certain portions of the fabric which is tied, stitched or crumpled. This is one of the most basic of all textile arts and, for centuries, different forms of tie-dyeing have been practised in many parts of the world, including India, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and the various African countries.
The processes involved in tie-dyeing in India are basically the same today as those that have been practised since ancient times, with the exception of chemical dyes and bleaching, introduced in the late 19th century.
The most widely used element in bandhani fabrics is the simple dot or ring. Complex dot patterns are created by pinching and tying the fabric following a prescribed pattern before dyeing. Bandhanis are considered auspicious and worn by both Muslim and Hindu brides. An intricately patterned saree can take over eight to ten months to tie before dyeing, requiring great patience and skill.
During my trip to Mandavi in 1976, while walking through the old market area, I first discovered the fascinating bandhani technique. It was at a narrow, crowded lane, full of shoppers from various local communities, each wearing a different bandhani odhana, a head covering. As we made our way along the road, we chanced upon an elderly man tying knots on a white fabric as he sat waiting for customers outside his shop.
This seemed rather unusual and we paused to see what he was doing. Khatri Alimamad Hasan Nironawala welcomed us to his small shop and showed us many odhanis and chundadis used by the local communities.
As we were curious, he explained the process of making bandhani fabric and added that, though the women of all communities wore chundadis in the same combination of red and black, the designs and the colour distribution was unique to each community.
From the odhani worn by a woman, one could identify her community, while the colour and style of her clothing revealed much more, such as her marital status and age. Noticing our keen interest, Alimamad bhai invited us to visit his house where his son, Ismail, demonstrated the process of creating bandhanis.
We were amazed to see how very basic tools were used to produce the most precious bandhani fabrics. The tying of the knots is done using a pointed thimble and the tip is used to push the fabric, which is pinched and tied. The cotton thread is passed through a fine glass tube, in order to prevent the thread from getting entangled.
In the Khatri community, a young girl contributes to the family income from the time she is nine or ten by tying the bandhani dots. In most cases, the family does not use her earnings, but puts it aside for her wedding expenses. The birth of a girl or boy child is equally celebrated by the Khatri community. It was heartening to hear a Khatri, Haroon bhai, say, ‘Amari chhokri koi divas bhare na pade.’ (Our daughters are never a burden.)
More than 25,000 people in Kutch today earn from bandhani. Seeing the potential for earning a livelihood while working within the comfort of one’s home, women of other communities have also started learning these skills.
With the traders demanding cheaper and cheaper goods, the quality of bandhani production has, unfortunately, deteriorated. There are a few hundred artisans who continue doing very fine work. With an urban patron willing to pay high prices for exceptional quality, there is hope that the craft will survive.
I was so inspired by all that I saw in Kutch and particularly the bandhani technique, that in the early 1980s, when I started my company to design and manufacture handcrafted clothing, I named it Bandhej – which celebrates my ties and bonds with this region. I incorporated some of the clothing styles that I had seen in Kutch into my designs, which continue to be popular.
Collaborating with craftspeople has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life and I have learnt as much about human relationships as about craft processes and techniques. It has become the base for my design vocabulary and has had an immense impact on my visual language and design practice.
|Meghwal-woman with godadi|
Over the years I have strove hard to work with artisans towards improving their crafts, building upon their skills and knowledge by suggesting contemporary design directions and providing a market for their produce. In the process, Bandhej has played a modest role in rejuvenating many dying traditional crafts. I personally take it as a challenge to innovate and find new design directions for the same craft, season after season, year after year and we continue to work with artisans we once start interacting with, an association that in many cased has continued for over 30 years. Our efforts have had a rolling effect. Seeing the economic viability, many young artisans are encouraged to continue working with their tradition skills.
Apart from the beauty, craft offers a sustainable livelihood to many, next only to agriculture. A little intervention, support and exposure can revive crafts while offering a meaningful and dignified livelihood to many million. Over the years when great craftsmanship prospered, there was a patronage to support such production. Local communities used the artefacts produced by local artisans. The royalty and wealthy clients commissioned the production of high quality textiles. There was an appreciation and a market to support craftsmanship. With the disappearance of these traditional patrons, for the crafts to flourish today, the artisan needs new consumers.
|Bhujodi - weaving|
The European Union has a new slogan: The future is handmade. To make this a reality, and for craft skills to survive and blossom, apart from a massive commitment from the government to support such initiatives, it would require innovative and sustained design and marketing intervention by professionals who understand the needs of this new, ever-changing market while respecting the skills and labour of the artisans. India has a wealth of rich craft skills but it needs a new direction, a new application and a new patron.
|Bhujodi - weaving|
Archana Shah is a graduate of NID. Inspired by all that she saw in Kutch and particularly the bandhani technique, in the early 1980s, when she started her company to design and manufacture handcrafted clothing, she named it Bandhej – thus celebrating her ties and bonds with the Kutch region.
She has also written a visually sumptuous book on Kutch titled ‘Shifting Sands’ published by Bandhej. To buy the book at a special discount, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org