And god comes in my colors drowned in the million threads
Indigo are his eyes, Red tells that everywhere only it spreads
Blind silence of my feeble fingers weaves his smile in the quiet glitter
He stole my heart made me ecstatic when I feel he is peeping in the light of colors
He sits by my side to tell me in the whispering tone of my wooden loom
That in my fabrics I weave a map of meditation, not to cover the body but to uncover the soul
When I first looked at the colorful cotton cloth printed in the hand block print tradition of Bagh I found it amusing and unintelligible both at the same time. I tried to imagine the imagination of Rangrez (Persian term for traditional textile dyer) and this fixated my attention more on the colorfully vivid and intricate designs printed on the cloth. My curiosity to know the scintillating story of hand block printing and dyeing tradition of Bagh transformed my vision into a cartographic mould and the Bagh printed cloth turned into a map of coalescing points of the history, geography and the culture of a tradition. I decided to travel to the village of Bagh situated in the Malwa region of the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh.
I started the journey for Bagh with my wife from the holy city of Ujjain the abode of Lord Shiva. You cannot imagine the heat of a scorching Indian summer during the month of May. We were looking for a path which seemed to have melted and blurred with the watery horizon. The rumbling sound of heat laden winds and mute vast unending fields created an impression that the road towards Bagh is not easily approachable. After a four hour ride we reached our destination.
While entering Bagh we encountered the usual smell of goats and cows huddled at the corners of the road. Predominantly a Hindu majority area it is also home to Muslim families of traditional dyers. These dyers originally migrated from the Sindh region of present day Pakistan during the medieval period. In the course of their migration which occurred over centuries they settled in Gujarat, Rajasthan and other parts of Malwa. The tradition of cotton dyeing in south Asia has a long history going back to the Indus valley civilization which flourished during the second millennia B.C in the Sindh, Punjab and Rajasthan regions of south Asia. It was here in the Indus valley civilization where it is believed that cotton dyeing was done for the first time in the world. Thus the cultural roots of Bagh’s hand block printing and dyeing extended over vast areas of northern parts of South Asia between the two countries of India and Pakistan. But despite having a wider connection, present day Bagh hand block printing and dyeing nurtured its separate and independent identity unique to the region. Bagh got its name from the ancient Bageswari temple of the goddess Bageswari. A thin stream of Bagh river flows by the side of the village. The unique nature of this river water is one of the prime reasons for the settlement of dyers in Bagh as the high copper content in the river water increases the depth of colors.
We reached one of the workshops known as karkhana managed by a Muslim printer dyer family. In the Karkhana members of the family were supervising a group of around 9-10 workers who were involved in various activities of the hand block printing and dyeing process. One of the members of the family who was helping us tour the workshop explained that the whole process of dyeing and hand block printing is accomplished in different stages.
After procuring handspun cotton from the nearby market, the cloth is taken to the river where it is washed in running water and dried in sunlight on river stones. The dry cloth is then immersed in a water solution of castor oil and centura. This process generates internal heat which makes the fabric receptive to the dye. The cloth is then treated with myrobalan which also makes the fabric receptive to dyeing. Finally the cloth is left to dry on the pebbled ground of the workshop.
For printing two main elements are important; wooden blocks with intricate designs carved on them and vegetable dye made up of natural material such as native flowers. The wooden blocks are made by local carpenters. These carpenters are supplied with desired designs like floral motifs, floral net, nandana mango and tendu leaf (Ebony leaves). They also use designs from the creeper motif famous in old religious structures found in Bagh. For making colors they use different natural elements such as myrobalan and iron sulphate for making black. To make red they combined alum and dhawda flowers in water. The mixture is boiled and kept in a container for eight to ten days. After that a paste of tamarind seed is added and sits for two days. The designs are then hand printed on the dry cloth by trained craftsmen with the help of wooden blocks. The time taken depends upon the intricacy of design and pattern. After printing the fabric is kept in folded bundles for more than two week so that the cloth absorbs the color completely. The bundled cloth is then taken to the river where they wash it swiftly to remove any extra color. The fabric is kept under the sun for drying. The cloth is brought back to the workshop and dipped in a boiling solution kept in vat. The solution is made up of a mixture of dhawda flower (for shining and fixing) and alizarin (to fasten color). It is during the boiling process a color of printing develops. The cloth is rinsed in fresh water. After drying, the cloth is taken to the river again and sprayed with water to keep it moist. This helps to gradually set the colors permanently. The cloth is then dipped into the boiling solution at the workshop, washed once more and left to dry. After drying, the cloth is kept in bundles for sale.
For a very long time Bagh fabric in Malwa was produced to fulfill the local demands of predominantly tribal and rural populations of nearby areas. This led to the predominance of local motifs and colors in Bagh fabric. Even after increasing popularity in national and international markets Bagh fabrics have largely maintained their original hues and designs.
In the final moments of our visit, the bright sunlit day was transformed into honeydew colored evening. The village sky was dotted with the smoke of wood burning ovens and the dust of country roads. I was looking at the newly dyed cloth drying on the surface of the pebbled courtyard. The colorful reflection was coming to my eyes as an image of a thousand year’s history and I felt charmed by the fact that a simple thing like cotton fabric possesses such a long story hidden in its mute submissiveness.