It was a sunny morning in April as we drove into Bagru, a small Rajasthani town famous for its centuries-old-tradition of natural dyeing and hand block printing. Against the arid landscape and dusty buildings, what struck us right away were the bright colors dotting the streets. The mood in the air was festive. It was Vaisakhi and the local women dressed in traditional ghagras, cholis and odhnis and men in angarakhas, dhotis and pagris thronged the provincial fair organized for the occasion. It was a treat for the eyes and a bubbly child-like feeling came over us as we ambled excitedly through the large sandy field, where camels chewed lazily on green shoots, a merry-go-round issued screams of delight, ironsmiths strained their vocal chords and a dance troupe performed the fabled Kalbeliya. Rural craftsmen, nomads and tribals had flocked here to sell earthy handmade products like utensils, bright fabrics, silver jewelry, children’s toys and iron accessories.
A big smile beamed from a copiously wrinkled face and invited us for some khullar chai and chhena malpua. We huddled together in the shade and delightedly partook in the festivities. It was especially fascinating to observe the character on the faces of the local people – crystallized by sun and sand, delineated by hardship and tenderized by rural simplicity and innocence. That innocence could not but touch a responsive heart – no airs, no stiffness, no self-importance. And this holds true not only for Bagru, but also for all rural areas of India where life still goes about at an easy, laid-back pace. The people are hard working, simple and forthcoming. They go about their work with dedicated passion, but without rushing or stressing for the future. They keep the old traditions alive and remind us of a time when life was down-to-earth, uncomplicated and sumptuously slow.
The sun was rising higher. It was getting hotter by the minute. We thanked the old man and headed for the Chippa Mohalla – the old hub for natural dyeing and hand-block printing in Bagru. We drove through the small, sleepy town searching for our destination - the workshop of Virender Chippa, a 5th generation master block-printer. On the way we were amused to see cows with big horns lazing on the streets, an array of indigo and vegetable dyed fabrics hanging from terraces, and textiles treated with Fuller’s earth left to dry in the dusty fields.
Virender Chippa’s wife welcomed us to their home cum workshop. Virender was busy conducting a block-printing workshop for some Western students. We relaxed and looked through the samples of printed textiles on display in the waiting room. An hour later, Virender was with us. He was on the task and had already got our Buna custom-made blocks ready. Our natural Khadi fabrics were dipped in a natural solution and left to dry, for color fastness by a dyer. In the meanwhile, we worked on producing some natural shades for the block printing – pastel greys, greens and reds.
The atmosphere in the workshop was mellow and unhurried. Old Kishore Kumar songs on the radio made it all the more soothing. If one could for a moment forget the time we live in, it would be easy to imagine that it was not 2017, but 1977.
The fabric was finally ready and so were the colors. For our Resort’ 17 collection we had decided to go for a minimalistic and understated palette. Virender was with us, ready to show his ancestral block printing skills. He spread the fabric on the big printing table, dipped the block in the natural dye and pressed it on the fabric, tapping it twice for a saturated imprint. His hands moved with poise and clinical precision. As he kept working the fabrics transformed and started coming alive as we had imagined. It was so beautiful to see the process and to revel in the idea that it was organic, natural and chemical-free.
The April sky had turned a deeper blue. The birds were chirping with the setting sun. A nice cool breeze had picked up. It was time to go, to return soon for another day of natural dyeing and block printing. We thanked Virender and his wife and took their leave with genuine smiles on our faces. As we sat in the car and drove past the Chippa Mohalla, a group of street children ran after our car bidding us goodbye. We waved back at them and soon arrived on the highway. Stopping by at a dhaba for a cup of tea, we let the heady experiences of the day to sink in.