Creating poetry with dye

Creating poetry with dye

Batiks, the luring thematic designs printed on fabrics using natural dyes, are now appealing to the fashion senses worldwide. However, the meticulous process involved is akin to an art form itself, write Mukund V kirsur & Radhalakshmi Y C .

Bhairongarh — a tiny town near Ujjain, nestled on the banks of River Sipra in Madhya Pradesh, is famed for its elegant batik work with eloquent patterns/designs and contrasting colours. One can see the artists/printers busy attending to the different activities of this rare art in many houses.

Batik is a method of creating patterns/ designs on a fabric using wax resist technique. The word ‘batik’ originates from the Jawanese (tic - to dot). It is a method of decorating the fabric by covering parts of it with molten wax and then dyeing it. While the wax portion retains the background, the remaining fabric gets dyed, creating contrasting designs on the fabric. Batik is created in various ways. While the screen-printing method involves a stencil, hand drawing requires a special pen. The scratch-and-starch resist is another method.

In India, this resist method of printing was in prominence during the first century AD. Indians were well conversant with the method of printing designs on cotton much before any country knew about it. The colour contrasts, design vocabulary and the creativity of artists turn the characters from epics, poetry and nature into vibrant designs.

From India, this art form moved to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and gradually, to the West. With its mystic and ritualistic characters, Indonesia is considered the cradle of batiks. During the 20th century, the revival of batik began in India, thanks to Shantiniketan, the famous university in Kolkata. The batiks of Cholamandalam near Chennai are also known for their original and vibrant designs.
Earlier, batik was a free-time occupation for the ladies of aristocratic families, like quilt making and needle craft in the West. According to the famous fashion designer Dinesh Singhal, “The beauty of batik lies in simplicity and the fact that you don’t have to be an artist to achieve results.”

Bhairongarh printers use wax resist style of printing. There is ample scope for these artists to use their talents and creativity. Though batik mainly includes waxing, dyeing and dewaxing, the other minor processes like preparing the cloth for the process, tracing of designs, waxing the area of cloth, preparation of dyes, dipping the cloth in the dyes, boiling the cloth to remove the wax, do need utmost attention to attain perfect batik effects.

Precarious printing

The fabric used for batik should sustain the heat of the wax and boiling at high temperature. While synthetic fabrics are avoided, cotton and silk are generally used. However, silk demands extra care.

Batik printing begins by stretching a plain white cloth over the required frame filled with fine sand and drawing the first pattern. Then the selected areas of the fabric are covered with molten wax using a special pen. Waxing is a very important part of this art. The best mixture of wax is 30 per cent bees wax and 70 per cent paraffin wax. The chippa or printer dips the batik pen in molten wax which is kept heated and draws the pattern/designs on the fabric. The process is repeated by drawing another pattern till the entire fabric is covered with patterns of different colours. After the final dyeing, wax is removed using hot water.

The beauty of these batiks lies in the fine cracks that appear due to the seeping of dyes into the cracks of the wax. It is essential to achieve the right type of cracks for which the cloth needs to be crumpled correctly. Care should be taken not to overheat the wax to avoid fabric catching fire.

Now, the molten wax moves its way over the soft fabric of silk or cotton to create magic. Then, the cloth gets successively dipped into various cold dyes to give it vivacious designs and wonderful patterns.

The Bhairongarh batik prints are usually inspired by epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha and of course, from nature. But there is no hard and fast rule for a design. It all depends and the limits are usually set by how far and wide the imagination can reach.

Natural dyes

Since time immemorial, Indians have been using dyes made from barks of trees, leaves, flowers and minerals. While blue is obtained from indigo, yellow is from turmeric and lilac, mauve from logwood, orange and red from henna, and black from cochineal insects. “In earlier days, Bhairongarh was surrounded by aal plants from which alizarin dye was extracted. The natural aal and maddar roots were sold to the Chippas by Banjaras/nomads who usually brought them from a place near Ratlam. The indigo blue, which is the basic colour for batik, was one of the earliest dyes.

During 1947, the black sodium was quite popular. The industry was in good shape then. But once the German’s synthetic indigo was introduced, it replaced the natural indigo as the latter took around 15 days to mature,” recalls Md Unus, a reputed batik designer of Bhairongarh. For him, batik has been a way of life. His great grandfather, grandfather, father and now his sons — are all batik printers. Though azo-free and vat dyes are used now, the techniques like cold wax dyeing can be employed for better results.

Batik work is done throughout the year. According to Md Unus, in the recent years, the demand for batik is going up, thanks to the changing fashion trends and the demand for eco-friendly products, especially in the foreign market.

One of the earliest co-operative societies was set up in 1958, when the industry was facing bad days due to poor marketing in 1957. Though Bhairongarh joined the export market (1960-73), bad days were ahead again. The delicately nurtured batik art could not stand the competition from Rajasthan printing, especially Sanganeri and Bagru.
The market suddenly expanded from traditional lugdas, ghagra skirt lengths, odhni veils and jajam floor coverings, about 25 years ago, to a large scale production of cheap-running fabric that was sold through private traders across the country. In competition with screen and mill prints, the printing activities in the smaller centres like Bhairongarh almost came to a halt. Actually, what has kept this art alive is its local demand.

The traditional cloth for particular communities designated were Gujar-Chunnadi, Rajput-Badshaw, Lai lugda-Kumhar and Banjara Nayak, Bhil-Bootidar, Brahman and Baniya-Bhairongarh dhoti abothiya etc.

Expanding business

From a mere handicraft status, today, batik has acquired the status of an art form. And, for the creative printers of Bhairongarh even sky is not the limit. Though batik was made only on dress materials and garments earlier, now, the scope is much wider and encompasses murals, saris, dress materials, tops, short tops, gowns, shirts, sarongs, kaftans, aprons, bed spreads, furnishings, picture frames, wall hangings, household linen, scarves etc.

We could make batik printing a part of national culture, like in Malaysia. Though, the modern market/fashion world and the aesthetic sense of the elite class keep the demand of Bhairongarh products at their peak, it is not consistent throughout the year.
The materials used might have changed over the years, and the production on a wider utilisation range. But, a long heritage of batik adds an individual touch to the life of the producer and the consumer as well. Sure enough, with their versatile nature and aesthetic designs, this traditional art heritage of India is bound to flourish.

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