Keeping alive the rural art of dyeing

textile/tradition


It is, therefore, unsurprising that the state is renowned for its various dyeing techniques, with different regions specialising in different methods, whether it is ‘bandhej’ (tie and dye) or a special type of ‘bandhej’, ‘lehariya’ (ripple effect). And, of course, women play a major role in the age-old industry, as dyers and as consumers of the finished products.

Observing dyers at work during a visit to the markets of Jaipur’s walled city in the 1930s, a British writer, Rosita Forbes, commented that “on a busy morning, when the dyers have been particularly successful, the streets of Jaipur look as if all the Impressionists had upset their paint boxes.” During the same period, as my 82-year-old maternal grandmother recalls, while growing up in strict ‘purdah’ as a young girl and even following her marriage at age of 15 in Jodhpur, if cloth had to be dyed, women dyers would visit homes, take the order and return with the dyed cloth the next day.

One such women dyer is Noor Jehan Rangrez, who learnt the art of dyeing 55 years ago and continues to practice the skill to this day. Sitting outside her shop in the crammed bylanes of old Jodhpur city, draped in a yellow-and-pink ‘lehariya dupatta,’ Noor Jehan has been running her five-decade-old business with the assistance of her daughter, Shenaz, and son, Mohammed Rafiq.

“I began to learn dyeing at a store in Rai ka Bagh (approx. four kilometres from old Jodhpur city centre). Initially, I used to make a lot of mistakes but I persevered and learnt with time,” she chuckles. “I also visited the homes of aristocratic ladies and took away bundles of cloth to be dyed.”

Fortunately, even after marriage, Noor Jehan continued her work. “Our family has been involved in dyeing since my great-grandfather’s time. We used to dye the royal courtiers’ turbans, for instance,” Mohammed pipes in, while proffering their family business card. They dye the famous Jodhpuri ‘safa’ (turban) and Rajput ‘poshak’ (the traditional Rajput ladies’ garments consisting of ‘lengha’, waist-length blouse, and ‘odhni’).

Reveals the veteran business woman, “In earlier times, it was all ‘kacche’ (non permanent) colours like saffron, pink and crimson; today, it’s all about matching the ‘dupatta’ with the ‘salwar’ suit or ‘poshak’. Also, earlier material was thicker and coarser; now, we apply colour depending on the fabric used.”

Noor Jehan clearly manages her show, albeit with support from Mohammed and Shenaz, the latter is married and has two daughters. While the scenario ostensibly appears to be the passing down of knowledge and skills from generation to generation, there is also an inescapable economic reality concealed within it. “We educated our children and yet they did not get employment — ultimately they had to turn to this,” Noor Jehan says.

The family enjoys both word-of-mouth publicity and patronage of clientele dating back from the period when Noor Jehan used to conduct home visits. If the present generation appears to have eschewed the traditional ‘poshak’ for jeans and T-shirt, Noor Jehan says they also dye jeans, for instance.

Nearby, in vicinity of Girdhikot, the clock-tower in old Jodhpur, that forms the nucleus around which a busy market thrives, Salma and her husband are patiently drying freshly dyed crimson ‘bandhej’ cloth across the road from their shop, while their daughter, Farzana, pulls out a ‘chunni’ dyed in royal purple from a bucket.
“We have been involved in this business for over 200 years; we were around even before the Girdhikot was built,” remarks Farzana’s brother, Ahmed, as he prepares dye in a medium-sized blackened vat.

While we talk, several women appear at the shop to give orders — one girl leaves behind a tiny cloth square of rose pink and a bolt of chiffon, while another woman wearing a ‘lehariya odhni’ gives a sari to be starched. Both of them are asked to return within 20 minutes. “People give the material and we dye it,” says Salma, adding that they charge between Rs 10-20 for their efforts. They dye and starch ‘dupattas’ and saris. And that’s how most dyers function — generally they take individual orders and supply to shops every now and then.

Judging from the number of women who flocked into the shop in the short duration that I was there, the urban Jodhpuri woman still continues to wear traditional season-specific dyed ‘odhnis’ and ‘dupattas’ with pride. “We still get a lot of customers, even girls wearing T-shirts and jeans. And we send dyed material to faraway Delhi,” says Salma. “Traditions are still traditions, after all.”

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