Chip off an ancient block: How a Bagru artisan family stamped out Covid blues | Meta Stories of Strength 2022 News,The Indian Express

2022-06-15 23:41:50 By : Mr. Hank Xu

Meera Devi Titanwala knew they would have to carry on with their Bagru family business, if only for the sake of artisans dependent on them. That is when she turned to WhatsApp to reach out to the ‘community’ of their long-time customers.

In a small town in Rajasthan, the afternoon sun is beating down on the yard of a house. Water gurgles in several cement tanks. In a corner, three women bend over a sloshing pot, chattering. Over all of this is a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, sharp, evenly spaced.

This thump-thump is the reason why the name of the town is familiar to many, though not always as a geographical location. If you like block-printed fabrics, you have probably come across the word Bagru, in the description box of kurtas you look up online. The centuries-old hand-block printing technique — which roughly involves carving wood blocks into intricate patterns, daubing them with colour and stamping them on fabric – takes its name from the town Bagru, some 30 km from Jaipur.

In the past few decades, the artisans of Bagru have weathered several storms: the onset of machine-printing, dwindling interest among youngsters to carry on with a labour-intensive craft, falling water table in and around Jaipur – the traditional process needs a lot of water – and then, Covid-19.

“Covid was a calamity like none other,” says Meera Devi Titanwala, the owner of the house. “My own family, my in-laws, have all been Bagru artisans for generations. But never before had our earnings come to a standstill. For months, we couldn’t create or sell a single fabric,” Meera Devi narrates.

The Titanwalas are prominent Bagru artistes. Meera Devi’s husband, Suraj Narain Titanwala, won the National Award in 2011 for his craft. Their son Deepak is in the same business. On their property, apart from their home, workshop, and shop, they also have the Titanwala Museum, dedicated to this art form, which was inaugurated by then Union textile minister Smriti Irani in 2019. Meera Devi says usually, the yard is teeming with activity. “Covid brought everything to a stop. One piece of Bagru fabric of 3-4 metres, from raw cloth to finished product, takes up to 20 days and at least five people to prepare. In the lockdown, we could not call in workers,” Meera Devi says.

The major sources of income for Bagru artistes are the export of their fabric, and tourists, specially foreigners. Covid took away both, but the family received some money every month from a major fabric chain they supply clothes to a Delhi-based retailer.

Even after the lockdown was eased and Covid cases started falling, difficulties in restarting work remained. Some workers had left for their villages, some were sick, everyone was scared. At one point, says Suraj Narain, they contemplated folding up indefinitely and waiting the pandemic out. “Money was tight, but thanks to the fabric chain, there was some income. The challenges in resuming seemed insurmountable,” he says.

This was when Meera Devi stepped in. “Craftspeople like us don’t have offices or factories, we have communities. If we stopped, what would happen to those who work for us? We decided we would continue to sell, through our phones. Most of our loyal or bigger customers are connected to us on WhatsApp. We decided to send them product pictures and collect orders. Those who knew our work would not even need pictures. They could tell us what they wanted. Very slowly, we resumed. We started calling workers in small batches. Everyone was trained on social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitising.”

The Titanwalas employ around 50 workers. It takes a village to create one perfect Bagru piece, quite literally. The elaborate process requires many specific skill sets and traditionally, these skills were divided along caste-lines. Thus, the Titanwalas are chippas, or printers. Those who carve the wood – into tiny, intricate patterns – are from the Kharaodi community. The patterns are often decided by the chippas, and the bigger houses have designs they claim ownership on. The fabric has to be dyed and washed several times, for which there are washermen. The tools used by the Kharaodis, the colours, everything is made from scratch, by hand.

“In this bleak post-Covid market, orders are mainly from people who have known our work for years and know what we can provide. This is where the bigger families like ours become important, to ensure income for all workers,” says Suraj Narain.

Once a cloth has been printed by stamping the wooden block on it over and over again – at exactly the same distance from each other — another type of wooden block is used to apply a sand paste, called dabu, over the pattern, to keep it covered when the cloth is dyed. There are several rounds of dying, washing, drying (which is why the need for water). The methods used are indigenous, the ingredients natural.

For instance, for the colour green, a combination of pomegranate rind and turmeric is used; indigo for blue; myrobalan fruit for yellow; horseshoe fermented in water for black; dabu is made by ‘cooking’ sand and wheat germ over a fire, adding powdered wood to it and sieving it through a muslin cloth; soap nut is used to remove starch from the cloth; alum fixes the dye to the cloth and tree gum is used as a binding agent for the alum; dhwadiya (anogeissus latifolia) flowers are used to stablise the pH level of water.

Meera Devi says this wealth of knowledge is one reason she could not contemplate stopping work. “Bagru is in no danger of dying out. But the more we rely on machines, the more we discontinue a certain practice, the more traditional wisdom we lose forever. Our methods and experiences are not stored in computer files, they are passed down generations. The only way to keep our craft alive is to keep practising it.”

The block patterns and colours are about more than beauty; they have a language of their own. Small bootis on red cloth is for a bride. Traditionally, green colour was for the maali community, black for meenas, red for jaats, geru for Rajputs. Similarly, different castes wore different patterns.

Himanshu Verma, Jaipur-based art curator and director of Red Earth, an online store dedicated to Indian crafts, says Bagru is an intrinsic part of Rajasthan’s heritage in more ways than one. “The blocks have a very exciting vocabulary. To those who know, the colour and pattern of the dress can reveal the caste, community and marital status of the wearer. Also, Bagru is a testament to Rajasthan’s unique aesthetic sense. Both men and women wear bright colours with delicate patters, showing how beauty is interwoven in the everyday life of people here. Covid has been very hard on craftspeople. It is only now that export orders are reviving.”

As Meera Devi says, a craft needs practitioners to keep it thriving. “But the economic hardships brought in by Covid will mean more people leaving the traditional methods to go for machine-printing. Each practitioner giving up the fight means the art form dying a little bit. Throughout the long months of the pandemic, when we had to cut down even on the tea and vegetables we were consuming, I knew we had to keep the flame of our craft burning,” she says.

Her husband and son say Meera Devi has been their driving force in the leanest of months. “In 2019, when we invited Smriti Iraniji for the inauguration of our museum, she did not take the chief guest’s chair. She sat on a plastic chair, saying it was my mother who deserved the seat of honour,” says Deepak Titanwala. “During Covid, mother proved Irani right.”

The family says government support post the pandemic has been disappointing. “No major initiative has been taken up to help artisans. The government, both state and Centre, come to us when they want to shoot documentaries. But now, no official has approached us to offer any relief. I wish they realised Bagru, or any art form, is not another business. We are a part of the country’s history and heritage, the original Make in India,” Suraj says.

However, Jaya Jaitly, president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, says not everything can be left to the government. “Craftspeople need to be proactive, they can’t depend on the government alone. The artisans should make efforts to keep the younger generation involved. Many big designers are interested in heritage Indian crafts, tie-ups can be explored for revenue. While sticking to the traditional process, contemporary motifs can be fashioned. India has one of the richest handicraft traditions in the world, where we produce everything from idea to raw material, rooted in local culture and history. It has a virility of its own, which has allowed it to flourish for so long,” Jaitly says.

Meanwhile, back in the Titanwala museum in Bagru, the exhibits – centuries-old blocks, tools – twinkle behind glass panels. In the yard, people stamp, dye, wash.

“What our ancestors left us was both inheritance and command,” Meera Devi says. “Covid or no Covid, we have to preserve and pass it on.”