Irresistible indigo

The vibrant blue of the imperial colour indigo has not only inspired poets from yore, but is also the mainstay of rural women in Rajasthan who weave its magic through Dabu prints, writes Rashmi Vasudeva

SAREE FOR A SOIREE Aavaran Savaan saree. Photos by author

In the dusty lanes of Akola, away from the bustle of the white city of Udaipur, thrives the midnight blue of indigo.

This little town has an almost secretive legacy of Dabu printing, an ancient mud-resist block-printing technique, the soul of which is indigo — a craft as much as it is a colour.

It is the colour the night sky prefers; it is the shade of sorrow, if you will; it is the liquid light of love in the arid desert. Artisans call it the forever colour.

indigo

 

Colour of passion, poetry

For the few remaining craftsmen of this forgotten town, indigo is passion, poetry, craft and heritage, all rolled into one.

They painstakingly extract the dye from plants and fruits and immerse the fabric in these richly deep organic dyes.

They carve intricate motifs and designs into wooden blocks, which are then used for printing on these fabrics. The result?

Sustainable and yet beautiful organic fabrics that are abundant in colour, bleed less and are infinitely more durable than all the ones dipped in synthetic dyes that have flooded the market today.

Alka Sharma grew up hearing tales about these artisans and seeing her grandmother, mother and aunts weave dhurries, blankets as well as eminently wearable clothes for themselves.

“Craft was a natural part of my growing up and I got my mother to teach me as well,” says the entrepreneur for whom, reviving and expanding Dabu-printed textiles is a passion like none other.

After her graduation from the prestigious Indian Institute of Craft and Design in Jaipur, Alka initially worked with rural craftsmen families all over Rajasthan to better-understand its many traditional crafts as well as the effort that goes behind such fine products.

But it was Dabu that tugged at her heart. “I had this intense desire to revive, sustain and take Dabu to the world,” the entrepreneur says.

“Dabu begins with the preparation of mud resist that’s made from a mixture of lime and gum,” Alka explains.

What’s doubly wonderful is that even the gum comes from plant sources, usually from acacia or babul seeds, Alka says.

The mud resist has to be prepared in this manner before every printing. Once prepared, it is applied on hand-dyed fabrics.

 

Craftsmanship

Evidently, Dabu-printed fabrics are certainly easy on the eye but not so simple to create. The ancient process demands intense labour as well as skilled craftsmanship.

Precisely why Alka first started a self-help group to support the artisans and eventually received some financial assistance from the Ministry of Textiles.

“I wanted to preserve the technique as well as empower the artisans economically,” she says. Thus was born Aavaran, Alka’s clothing label that hopes to not only preserve the printing technique but also contemporise it. Aavaran, which tentatively began its journey in 2008, became a full-fledged business in 2011 and today has a whole range of collections including home furnishings such as quilts, dhurries, bed linens and cushion covers as well as women’s wear such as sarees, kurtas, stoles, dupattas and skirts. It recently started a menswear line as well as a children’s range.

Encouraged by the response to the brand in Udaipur and Jaipur, Alka recently launched a new store in Bengaluru. Aavaran also regularly participates in exhibitions and showcases all over the country and abroad.

“The label supports over 200 women workers across four centres in Rajasthan. I am glad to say their lives are so much better today; they are paid well and are able to educate their children,” says Alka.

Platform for interaction

As part of the Aavaran effort, Alka and her team provide these rural women training in stitching and weaving. Since the brand also employs over 100 people for design and production, Alka believes it is emerging as a rather unique platform for learning and interaction between designers and craftspeople. “It is not often that designers get to teach and learn from artisans. But at Aavaran, both groups are close-knit and well-connected.”

Happily enough, Alka’s efforts in spreading the word about Dabu has resulted in raising the scope of the craft. Earlier, the artisans used a few blocks with oft-used motifs and only created traditional block-printed skirts. But with the label’s efforts, the motifs that are carved on the blocks have expanded in a range although Alka hesitates to call them more contemporary, not to mention the wide variety of clothes and furnishings the artisans are creating.

Alka hopes to take the craft further by increasing production capacities and selling on e-commerce platforms. “For me, it is not just important that the world understands the craft of Dabu — I want everyone to appreciate its value. Only then can such ancient crafts that are so environment-friendly be kept alive,” she says. One cannot but agree with her.

 

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