About eleven years ago, there was a show on The Sundance Channel that ran for two seasons called Man Shops Globe that I was in love with. It followed Anthropologie’s buyer-at-large Keith Johnson around the globe in search of home goods and decorative items to retail in their stores. Johnson would find the most off-the-beaten path artisans and help bring their goods to a global market. If there were ever a job more perfectly suited to me, this was it. If only I could find a store to pay me to travel the world and shop, I’d be set. Cut to my recent my trip to India this past March; during one of the day excursions in Rajasthan planned by our tour guide, I actually felt like I was living this dream.
Our destination? A tour of Bagru Textiles, a cloth dying and printing business in Bagru, Rajasthan where we’ll also do some block printing of our own. As with all the activities that I signed up for on this trip (and I signed up for every single one), I didn’t research anything beforehand. I didn’t want any pre-conceived ideas about what I was getting into. I just wanted to experience everything unfettered. We were told to meet up at the bus at the early hour of 7 a.m. in front of our Jaipur hotel to be taken to the block printing studio in Bagru. After about a 40-minute drive, our tour bus enters into a quiet dirt paved village that is just waking up to the day. The night before, Bagru was hit with a downpour of rain and puddles of muddy water were still accumulated along roads and piles of garbage that offered a social pop-up for groups of pigs, emaciated cows and the occasional wild dog to chill at. Children, women and men – some barefoot, some in thongs – stood in the doorways watching our curious group of international women descend into their reality.
Once the bus came to a stand-still, we were met by Vijendra Chhipa, the boss man of Bagru Textiles. Since 2007, “Viju” as he’s often referred to, has been running this family-owned business after this father passed away. The art of Indian block printing is a skill that is handed down from generation to generation and is a tradition that been around for three centuries when the Mughals ruled India in the 17th century. Vijendra is a fifth generation block printer. His surname “Chhipa” literally means “to stamp or print.”
Within the town of Bagru, around 400 families are responsible for creating the beautiful dyed and stamped fabrics that are sold to brands throughout the world. Bagru Textiles employs sixteen of these families. The profits create a living wage for these men and women who do everything from carving the block patterns, printing the fabric, dying the fabric, washing the fabric, etc. Families often work together, husband and wife, and even their children get in on the action. That’s exactly how Vijendra started, following his father’s footsteps when he was just a teenage boy.
At the beginning of the tour, our group of 10 women are led around the corner to learn how the intricate patterns are created onto blocks of wood. Nothing is mass produced in this town. This is old world artistry. India may be one of the largest textile producers, but here in Bagru, everything is done one by one, by hand. The process of drawing a design on a piece of paper and then hand carving it into a hard block of wood is extremely tedious and time consuming – it takes about one to two full days – to create each design, which are inspired from surrounding nature…flowers, plants, birds and even elephants.
We are then taken into a building where Vijendra and his workers demo the printing technique. First, they dip the block into a handmade dye before carefully aligning it onto a long stretch of cotton and quickly pound it with their fist…they repeat this hypnotic dance over and over again till the reach the end of the fabric. Then they start another row.
Viju offers a detailed demonstration of how the dyes are made and I feel like a student in chemistry class. Utilizing indigenous minerals such as indigo, amla, limestone and black clay, the dyers and the printers whip up a spectrum of shades that make these Indian textiles so deliciously vibrant.
Bagru Textiles’ main office is surrounded by what seems like five football fields of flat, open land. Once the fabric is dyed, each swath gets stretched out along the grounds of the village compound and allowed to bake in the sun. On a warm day, the landscape can resemble a painting; yards and yards of red, blue, yellow, green, and Rajasthan pink for as long as the eye can see. But again, because it rained the night before, the grounds were wet and not suitable for drying dyed fabric.
The best part of this visit was finally being unleashed to create our own designs. We were all given plain scarves and allowed to rummage through a heap of blocks from which to choose our own unique patterns. I chose to replicate a design displayed on the wall of the work room – a tiger peering through the grass. While, I don’t think it’s going to win any design awards, it’s mine and I wear it with pride!
Pre-covid, Viju relied on the continual flow of foreign travelers visiting the workshop, an experience I’m forever grateful to have. Now, the studio has come to a complete halt and the families that make their living from Bagru Textiles are in need of help. Just another example of how coronavirus can bite it.
I recently reached out to Vijendra to see how he’s doing. He graciously shared these photos of masks and cotton fabric bolts that are available for sale. Masks are only $2 each and the fabrics are $7 per meter (just under one yard). The easiest way to purchase these items is to email Vijendra at Bagrutextiles@gmail.com or contact him on WhatsApp (+91 94149 22944).