Bagh is the name of a block printing technique unique to a small village called Bagh in Madhya Pradesh. The craft as well as the village derive their names from the River ‘Baghini’ that flows through the village and serves as a spine for the craft. Bagh printing is an array of dynamic floral and geometrical prints made using finely cut wooden blocks and vegetable dyes.
Bagh print has a cultural and religious importance in the tribal communities of Dhar. The traditional Bagh prints with their characteristic red, black, white colours and religious motifs are used by the ‘Adivasis’ (tribes) for important festivals and special events like marriages. In their marriages the groom’s family gives the bride’s family a dowry consisting of 60 kg Jaggery, 4 quintal Grains, Garments made of Bagh prints like the ‘Lugda’ (head draping garment), ‘Ghaghra’ (long skirt), along with silver jewelry like necklaces, armlets and bracelets.
Bagh was also used by the local tribes in their religious ceremonies. This led to the inclusion of religious animal motif like cows and elephants in their prints.
Headed by their founding father and guide – Ismail Khatri, the printers innovated and developed the craft to gain popularity and versatility. ‘Bagh’ printed fabric which was traditionally worn by women in the form of ‘Lehngas’ and ‘Ghagras’ (forms of skirts) with time included ‘Sarees’, ‘Salwars'(pants), ‘Dupattas’ (unstitched fabric to be worn as a drape over your clothes), scarves and even t-shirts being stitched today. However, as compared to tradition men’s wear, where Bagh was printed over turbans, ‘Lungis’ (drape to cover waist below), there are almost no options for contemporary men apart from scarves and kerchiefs. The fabric was also a common feature of a traditional household, where it was used as bed-covers and cradle lining due to its light and cooling touch. Today, its uses have also blended into products like curtains, lampshades, screens, cushion covers and wall pieces.
Bagh prints, earlier known as ‘Thappa Chapai’ or ‘Alizarine Print’ are created using natural dyes, which are eco-friendly and non- hazardous. The wooden blocks used for printing consist of 200 to 300 year old blocks based on traditional motifs, inspired by 1500-year-old paintings found in the caves of the region. Another characteristic feature of the Bagh textiles is their extremely soft texture, which is achieved through repeated washes in the Baghini River. The high content of lime and iron in river water acts as cleansing and fastening agent. This prevents the loss of colour even after successive washes, especially in the red and grey tones. In fact, it is this specific chemical composition of river water that makes the vibrance of bagh prints so unique.
In summers when the river dries up, craftsmen go to the Narmada River bed and wash their textiles.
There are specific block makers for this craft, who have honed their skills in Bagh designs through years of practice. They are unique to the craft and preserve the designs. The three-dimensional effect that they create in the prints is yet to be replicated by any machine printing process. These fabrics have traveled far and wide with their traditional as well as new innovative designs and are much in demand in the contemporary Indian and international markets. As a pioneering craft from the state, Bagh has also featured in the Madhya Pradesh state tableau as part of the Indian Republic day procession in 2011.
Myths & Legends:
There are various stories about how the term ‘Bagh’ originated. This craft was practiced by the early tribes. It is believed to have taken its name from ‘Bagh Gupha’, the Buddhist caves that were first discovered in 1818 AD. With the extinction of Buddhism in central India by the 10th century A.D. these caves seem to have been wiped off from human memory. As dense forests grew around them, tigers also known as ‘Bagh’ in Hindi often inhabited the caves. This association of tigers with the caves gave them their present name. The village situated at a distance of about 8 km and the river flowing nearby the cave came to be known as ‘Bagh’ village and ‘Baghini’ River respectively. Many are of the opinion that it was the river and the village, which lent its name to the caves and subsequently to the craft.
Another story suggests that the Khatris of Bagh and Kutch share common lineage, descending from the lands of Sindh. While a few settled in Dhamadka and later in Ajrakhpur and continued doing Ajrakh printing, a few moved further towards the central part of the Deccan to settle in Bagh, Madhya Pradesh. The resemblances in the crafts, in terms of the process followed and the materials used also prove the same.
Block printing in India is an ancient craft, dating as far back as 3000 BC. It can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization and some historians are of the opinion, that India may have been the original home of textile printing. Archaeological evidences collected from â€˜Mohenjedaro’ establish that the complex technology of mordant dyeing had been known in the subcontinent from the second millennium BC. Block printing was practiced in places like ‘Kukshi’, ‘Dharampuri’ and ‘Thikri’ by a group of people known as ‘Chhipas’ or ‘Bhavsars’.
The ‘Khatris’ a textile community from Sindh migrated to Gautampura and later on to Manavar. From Manavar a part of the community moved to Bagh, a nearby village in search of good quality water for their craft and also to avoid octroi taxes. The remaining Khatri clan settled towards the Kutch regions of Gujarat.
In 1960 AD, the Khatris of Bagh of whom Ismail Suleman Khatri is considered to be a pioneer, settled on the riverbanks of Baghini when it was discovered that the high copper content in these waters increases the depth of color. This was the turning point in the history of Bagh. Young Ismail was inquisitive by nature; he compared the crafts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and realized that people in the central India had a liking for brighter colors. With the right resources available, he decided to include bright vibrant colors in Bagh, compared to the erstwhile traditional colors of black and red. This increased the beauty of the craft with many colored floral prints being used now. The versatility and beauty of the fabric soon became well known and this threw the market wide open.
Apart from what is known to be modern Bagh, Ismail Suleman Khatri has also been instrumental in developing the traditional ‘adivasi’ prints to include tribal motifs of religious significance. These motifs made primarily in black and red often include animals like elephants and cows.
Mr. Khatri for his significant contributions to the development of the craft has received several accolades on national and international level. In 1977-78 and in 1984 he was honored with the Indian National Award. A passionate craftsman and a charitable man, Mr Khatri has furthered the craft by providing self-sponsored training and livelihood to at least 2500 ‘Harijans’ and ‘Adivasi’ living under the poverty line. Many of these trained artisans practicing the craft have gone to establish their own businesses and several have won important prizes nationally and internationally.
The Bagh prints of Madhya Pradesh have small abstract floral designs that are more intricate as compared to the ones found in Rajasthan. Even more intricate are the ‘Saudagari’ prints of ‘Pethapur’, from which the block making art is believed to have originated.
‘Bagh’ prints are characterized by multiple rows of tiny geometric patterns mostly done in red and black color. Today, the red color is obtained by using alizarin and fermenting iron fillings in jaggery makes black.
The traditional motifs used are ‘Nandana’ mango motif, ‘Tendu’ plant motif, ‘Mung Ki Phali’ motif, ‘Khirali Keri’ motif, ‘Leheria’ motif, ‘Jowaria’ motif and the ‘Phool Buta’ motif. The fabric borders usually printed in Bagh and the stone carvings of the Bagh Caves share a common design inspired by the climbing creeper plant known in Hindi as ‘Bel’. This craft gives great flexibility for developing innumerable surface designs through permutations and combinations of borders, ‘Buti’(motif) and ‘Jaal’ (floral net) blocks.
Nowadays, the natives wear industrially produced fabric for regular wear and buy Bagh prints only for major festivals or ceremonies. With increasing appreciation for hand block printed fabrics in global market, Bagh artisans have moved on to printing fabric for contemporary market, bringing more colors and patterns into their prints.
A generation before, the printers were catering to the demands of local market, with the increasing demand for Bagh printed fabrics in urban areas; the printers are finding it difficult to maintain the quality of the prints. Also, when in summers the village river dries-up, the artisans have to move to far off lands to wash the fabrics after dyeing, this is a big problem as the river water is essential to bring out brighter colors on the fabrics.