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A Humbling Exploration of Bagh

A Humbling Exploration of  Bagh

When it comes to travel, anytime is good, but  January has its advantages . The heat is not a bother  and dust storms are replaced with a cool crisp breeze.

In the 12 years I have worked for India’s leading handcrafted textile retailer, I have visited block printing and weaving clusters all over the country. And my passion for the craft sector  and  the yearning to explore  and learn more  has only intensified with each visit.

I had the opportunity to visit Bagh (in the district of Dhar) in early January this year and  the privilege of  meeting  Sulemanji Khatri there who welcomed me to  his dyeing and printing units now run by his three sons Yusuf, Ismail and Mohammed Khatri, and an enterprising and net savvy grandson Bilal who was eager to show  me around.

Sulemanji Khatri- one of India’s finest craftsmen has been instrumental in creating some of the finest Bagh block prints. The printing technique involves nearly 15 processes of dyeing and washing of cotton fabrics and uses a combination of floral and geometric patterns.  Sometimes, for a bedcover  with an intricate design, as many as 1300 different impressions are used.

Suleimanji Khatri showed me his most prized possessions– two Zajams – magnificent floor coverings  where the community leaders would sit and arrive at important decisions. A Zajam is akin to a rug, but thinner than a carpet. It is created using multiple strips of broad pallas, which involve printing of smaller pieces with great amount of precision and imagination. These are then individually dyed and washed and finally sewn together to form the giant rug we see here.

It is by far one of the most elaborate pieces of Indian craftsmanship I have ever seen in the  traditional colors of the Bagh print – red, white and black. Khatri and his sons Yousuf  and Mohammed who carry forward their father’s legacy told me it took weeks to complete dyeing and block printing the Zajams. They used to be made for the royal darbars of yore. Sadly, there are no takers for these today. It would be wonderful if some textile collectors or museums found these noteworthy of making themselves into the private collections of textile afficianados.

Another treasured experience of Bagh was watching women block printers at work.  In my journeys to block printing clusters in Gujarat and Rajasthan I had never ever seen women printers. It was heartening to see them holding t heir own in a largely male bastion. Interacting with them, I find they are determined to be as good as their male counterparts. It is just a matter of time they will be skilled enough to earn as much as a male printer, Id say. In the midst of all their domestic commitments, to be able to move seamlessly from working in the fields during the season to taking to the printing table at other times it just seemed the most natural transition to make. More power to women!

Some of their men were printers themselves, or in the case of one of the women, her husband was a  wooden block carver who looked on proudly on as his wife moved with dexterity along the printing table.

The discordant and rather sad note in the world of this beautiful craft is that the printer has been forced to use chemical dyes in the traditional Bagh prints. This is to cater to market demand which seems to want hideous oranges and greens, having had enough of the traditional red, white and black.

I leave Bagh, but not before Bilaal has showed me the family’s collection of blocks, and not before I have bought myself somethings to remind me of the wonderful  time spent, learning, exploring and experiencing this outstanding craft form.

—-Shilpa Sharma (breakaway)


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