26.8093° N, 75.5417° E
Rajasthan. A kaleidoscope where the ubiquitous turban changes colours every few kilometers. The cultural heart of the state lies in Jaipur, with arts like hand block printing, soulful music, grand architecture, and above all, the quintessential chaotic order synonymous with India.
Founded in 1727 by the Kacchwaha rulers as a center of trade and crafts, the Pink City is known for a rich gamut of traditional handicrafts and artistic heritage. Whether you’ve had your share of palaces, elephant rides, and pyaaz kachoris or are a novice to the city, there’s a gem hiding under the hood of Jaipur that deserves a spot on your itinerary – Bagru.
The land of the art of hand block printing, Bagru lies on the Jaipur-Ajmer road, 32 kms from the Pink City. If you’re an art aficionado, this town is a treat; and if not, this town will turn you into one! Offering a glimpse into the life of Chhipas (the community of block printers), a typical day in Bagru is spent interacting with the chhipa folk, gorging on lentil kachoris, sipping masala chai from a local thadi (roadside stall), and exploring the art of block printing firsthand. If you’re looking beyond the beaten track, this proves to be an an unadulterated and rewarding experience.
Bagru is dotted with numerous family undertakings dedicated to block printing. While few still subscribe to the traditional method of printing with hands and using natural dyes, most have switched to the time and labour efficient screen printing process. Notwithstanding the format of printing, the creations born out of this town have inspired and intrigued many fashion designers and fashion enthusiasts. Block printing made its international fashion debut in the West by marking its presence in the fashion bible, Vogue (UK), in 1971. The art soon became a sensation across the world, its USP being the handcrafted approach, eco-friendly natural dyes, and the intricate floral and geometric designs. The art dates back to around 300 years in Bagru, where an entire neighbourhood called the Chhipon ka Mohalla is dedicated to preserving and practicing this indigenous art form.
This laborious art form requires a skill set whose crucial prerequisites include patience, creativity, and eagle-eye precision. A host of artisans come together to weave this glorious piece of Indian textile – the kharaodi (block carver), rangrez (dyer), chhipa, (block printer), and dhobi (washer). Different blocks make up a particular print depending upon the complexity of design and number of colours it bears. The luxury of this textile dwells in the intricacy and precision of handwork. Traditionally, certain colours and motifs also demarcated caste, marital status, profession etc. of the wearer and these norms were strictly adhered to in the villages. While these rules are not followed anymore, and motifs are chosen purely on the basis of aesthetics, there are many prints which are no longer seen today because of the lack of experts required to carve such intricate blocks and the patience and precision required to print them.
This art form is usually mastered by generation after generation and one such family is of the Titanwalas, who have devoted themselves to the art for the past four generations. Presently, the father (Suraj Narayan Titanwala) and son (Deepak Titanwala) actively devote every waking hour to the practice. A national awardee, Titanwala senior often has royalty (Prince Charles in 2003) and political leaders (Narendra Modi in 2017) as audience.
The Titanwalas subscribe to the traditional approach of block printing, maintaining the quality and exclusivity of the product. Some of their raw materials include an interesting array of jaggery, pomegranate rind, scrap horseshoe, madder root, indigo, and turmeric. A typical day in the Titanwala household often looks like this – yarns of fabric sun drying in their huge open field, two buffaloes chewing hay and mooing furiously at new faces, dhobis busy washing textiles using their feet in their huge cemented open roofed compartments, indigo or red dye bubbling away in massive copper vats, a few block printers dexterously stamping fabric with hand carved blocks and women applying mud resist paste on textiles for the famous dabu (mud resist) print among other things.
It’s evidently a humdrum of activities but not without a sense of meditative quality. The repetitive nature of the aforementioned activities instill a sense of calm in an urban observer.
Labour issues and scarcity of fresh running water have dissuaded many to abandon this traditional art, but not the Titanwalas. They are in fact on their way to building a museum (scheduled to open in mid 2018) within the same complex. The space will showcase their comprehensive collection of wooden blocks (dating back to over 200 years), fabrics printed with historic blocks, traditional utensils, tools and raw materials used in making the blocks and dyes, and hand written books documenting the practice in the 1980s. The father and son duo have demonstrated the art form in various parts of the world and are on a quest to preserve and promote their heritage.
They also offer workshops where you get a guided tour of the space and its activities, followed by a hands-on experience of the same. One can also buy signature Bagru prints (250 INR onwards) from them. It is a half day experience and is definitely worth extending your trip in Rajasthan, whether you are interested in fashion, art, history or simply keen on experiencing the life of a rural artist.
It’s not over yet: Did you know change in water impacts the shade of the colour on the textile. So, a colour made from the same raw materials will look different in different parts of the world, or even within Rajasthan.
Map it to: Bagru is a rural town, located at a distance of 32 kms from Jaipur, on the Jaipur-Ajmer road (NH8)
Getting there: Private taxi- Can be booked through apps like Uber, Ola or through a travel agency; Bus- The Titanwalas can provide a pick up from the bus stop
Pick up the phone: Suraj Narayan Titanwala: +91 9414204408; Deepak Kumar Titanwala: +91 9460634605
Workshop fee: INR 500 for 3 to 5 hours (depending on the interest levels of the learner; inclusive of the raw materials for the workshop, water, and tea)
Best time to visit: November to March. It tends to get a little balmy in the day so a hat or a scarf to keep your head covered works well