The kaleidoscopic construct of diverse economic and cultural identities (‘eco-cultural’) across India offers a deeply entrenched connection between a social group’s cultural tradition and the source of its economic livelihood.
For communities engaged in the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge, involving the production of rich, complex handmade products, their own lifestyle, means of livelihood and economic independence is moulded from their cultural communion.
One such practice of hand block printing has been part of a long-standing tradition in the rural and semi-urban landscapes of Rajasthan, especially in areas of Bagru, Ajmer, and Sanganer. Traditionally practiced by a ‘caste’ of printers known to be belonging to the ‘Chhipa’ community, they would pass on their skill to their children as a proud marker of their identity.
However, in the face of rising demands for cheap, mechanised textile products, surfacing from the forces of hyper-globalisation and rapid commodification, this traditional (handmade) craft and its vocational value is no longer embedded in any one community as it once was. The craft is also losing its traditional indigenous value under the clutches of a neo-liberal market order for mechanised textile products.
Over the past few months, field researchers as part of an ethnographic project undertaken by the Centre for New Economics Studies’ visual storyboard team, O.P. Jindal Global University, made an attempt to speak to many traders, business(wo)men, workers engaged in the production of handmade block printed products across Rajasthan. Most traders suggested that this is “the last generation of artisans” engaged in the work of producing authentic handmade block printing. This photo essay attempts to bring out the complexities involved in the process of the craft’s production and the stories of those engaged in the process.
Bagru, a village 40 kilometres west of Jaipur city, is home to around a hundred Chhipa families. It is here where most of the authentic hand block printing work is undertaken.
The life of community members is invested in the craft of printing with most discussions situated around its work too.
While dhobis would wash the cloth, the Chhipas would imprint them with designs carved out of sheesham wood.
As the craft’s production process has become more commercialised, mechanised capital has substituted the hands of workers with ‘screen printing’ becoming more prevalent as a method of production to meet the fast-paced, increasing demands of the block-printing market.
Although the use of mechanised capital and machines have helped scale of production, many, including the artisans engaged in the handicraft, feel a loss of ownership and agency over their designs, while suffering from the loss of an economically rich trade. The industrialised process has deterred the next generation of hand block printers from taking up the vocation too.
Newer generations of workers (and their children) see less utility in keeping up with traditions, and in the wake of the needs and form of the modern education curricula, the knowledge systems of embedded arts and crafts have lost their vital importance. Government programmes too are minimal in supporting the craft and its workers.
The focus has been more on making the crafts industry more profitable – even if through mechanised forms – as opposed to conserving what was authentic to the craft’s natural identity.
As one of the largest employing sectors of India, the textile sector struggles to keep its worker employed in a rapidly transforming (and mechanised) global economic landscape. Those engaged in the craft of hand block printing lament at the fading authenticity of their art and the tradition of producing its craft.
While there is a strong desire to preserve traditions, block printers wish for a more lucrative future for their children to enable them to pick up the trade from their own generation. This is the only way they think hand block printing can survive its natural form and the historically embedded eco-cultural identity.
Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts, OP Jindal Global University. Jignesh Mistry is a senior research analyst and the Visual Storyboard team lead with CNES. Tavleen Kaur is a Research Assistant (CNES) and Apremeya Sudarshan is a research intern with CNES. Advaita Singh, Vanshika Mittal are senior research analysts with CNES and Ada Nagar is a senior research assistant with CNES.
The authors would like to sincerely acknowledge and thank Raj Kanwarji, Dilip Singh Shekhawat and Namrata Singh from Ojjas, Bagru-Jaipur; Amit Kacholiya and Teerath Kacholiya from Indus Art & Emporium, Jaipur; Tarachand Saini, Amer-Jaipur Mahesh and Harsh Badaya from Riddhi Siddhi textiles, Jaipur; Narendra Kumar, Sanganer, Jaipur; Suraj Narayan Titanwala and Deepak Kumar Titanwala, Titanwala Museum, Bagru, Jaipur, and Navratan Dosaya, Bagru, Jaipur for all their efforts and invaluable help in this project. Without their assistance, this project would not have been possible.
Most names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondent.