There are some traditions that are universal. Here, we highlight a single craft — and how it’s being adapted, rethought and remade for the 21st century.
Bagru, in Rajasthan, is still considered a village — and it is, in the ancient way its society is structured according to inherited roles and customs. But like many such Indian villages, it has been swallowed by encroaching urbanization. Straddling the highway to Jaipur, the town of 30,000 people is dense with two- and three-story concrete buildings that occlude any sense of the landscape. Cows and pigs eat the garbage that lines the road as teenagers in jeans zip by on scooters. But in home workshops scattered throughout, you can still find chippas, a caste of printers who continue day after day to stamp lengths of cotton fabric with color using hand-carved wood blocks. They were taught this trade by their parents, who were, in turn, taught by theirs — each generation working almost exactly as the one before, going back at least 300 years.
While printing designs onto fabric most likely originated in China about 4,500 years ago, it was on the Indian subcontinent where hand-blocked fabric reached its highest visual expression. Indians possessed unparalleled expertise in the secrets of natural plant dyes, particularly with mordants (metallic salts that both create color and allow it to adhere to fabric). A kind of mud resist-printing, called dabu, which allows areas of a design to be reserved from dye, also flourished here. A series of combinations of mordant and resist stamping and dyeing enabled Indian printers to create uniquely complex designs, coveted from Southeast Asia and palaces of Mughal emperors to the far-flung capitals of Western Europe. Between outside influences and the diversity of the subcontinent’s own indigenous communities and tribes, India has yielded one of the most magnificent pattern vocabularies ever. And yet for the past 200 years the industry has been on the precipice of extinction, doomed in part by the popularity that helped create it. Add technological advances, corruption, bungled policies and the greater income opportunities in India’s cities, and the picture looks bleak.
On a single road at the edge of Bagru, hereditary carvers, mostly fathers and sons, squat inside tiny open studios, chiseling designs traced onto teak. In the center of town, families of printers stand before long tables covered with fabric, dipping blocks into color and stamping them with a thump thump of the hand to ensure a strong print on the fabric. Each morning, the dabu printers, another specialized group, mix a batch of mud made from clay, lime and fermented wheat and sift it with their bare feet through muslin so their wives, and perhaps their children, can print it in patterns onto fabric before bringing it over to the indigo vats, operated by the men of yet another historical caste. Even the washing is done by a particular group, the dhobi, who stand all day waist-deep in water baths. All these activities, each part of the multistep process, center around a vast field, where fabrics — in indigo, madder, saffron and hot pink — are laid out to dry or hung from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. India’s caste system is less apparent in cities, but villages like this still operate according to it: Chippa, for instance, derives from a conflation of the Nepal Bhasa chhi (to dye) and pa (to leave something to bask in the sun) and chappana (“stamping” in Hindi); it also denotes one’s caste, one’s job, and is often also one’s last name.
An English rage in the 1700s for chic, cheap Indian floral cottons led to an enormous boom that coincided largely with the golden age of Mughal Empire patronage, when the Maharajah were outfitting their courts, themselves and their numerous women with finely printed diaphanous muslins. But the advent of mass production in England meant the end of this export market for India, and punishing colonial legislation forced the Indians to buy cheap imitations of their own work. In that moment, artistic knowledge, which had been passed down for possibly thousands of years, from one generation to the next, teetered on extinction.
Because Bagru always focused on the local market, catering to other rural tribes and communities instead of royal or British commissions, it didn’t suffer the boom and bust of wealthier producers. Still, by the 1970s, Bagru’s poverty worsened when its local base turned toward cheaply printed synthetics, and the industry was all but dead.
Around this same time, the Jaipur-based design company Anokhi began seeking out families with specialized knowledge to resuscitate traditional patterns and design new ones, helping to instill in craftsmen a sense of value in their work. Anokhi and others, along with a new wave of small, artisan-dedicated companies, such as the Los Angeles-based Block Shop, have helped keep both a village and a tradition relevant. Block Shop co-owner Lily Stockman moved to Jaipur in 2010 to study painting and eventually found her way to block printing; her sister Hopie, a textile designer, soon followed. Part of what distinguishes the pair from many foreign designers hiring artisans is that the two are craftspeople themselves, having studied and practiced the techniques they employ, allowing them to better understand the processes and possibilities, as well as the realities of the time and labor involved. The pair’s work is grounded in an appreciation of these ancient practices, while the simplified geometries of their designs come from Lily’s modernist aesthetic, and the pale saffrons and ochers of the California and Rajasthan deserts. Together, the pair offer good — not just fair — pay, and they support education, health care and clean water initiatives in the village.
Block prints are done by eye, and telltale signs of the human hand, even imperfections, are part of the ineffable humanity and beauty of the craft. But screen prints now have these mistakes designed into them: machines mimicking the imperfections of man. How, then, can craft survive in a world with so much stacked against it? Perhaps with the knowledge that it involves a culture built around a community, in which families and neighbors are working and living in tandem, often across religions, tribes and generations, from a shared history. It is not an easy life. But it is a necessary one. And finally, it may be that one doesn’t so much see craft, but actually, feels it.