It is no secret that India has always been a treasure chest of prints and fabrics – rummage through your grandmama’s wardrobe and you’re likely to come across an ajrakh print sari. So maybe between our shopping trips to H&M this year, we make a detour and rediscover some of these traditional prints too?
This style goes back to the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Born in Sindh, Ajrakh migrated to Kutch and survived with the Khatri community. The production of Ajrakh comprises a long drawn out process of block-printing, resist dyeing and washing. It takes several days just to complete a single piece of ajrakh print fabric. The primary colours seen in Ajrakh prints come from the natural dyes of indigo (blue) and madder (red), and the most identifiable motif is the trefoil or three-lobed leaf. The intricacy and symmetry of conventional Ajrakh patterns make for stunning sarees and kurtas.
Associated mainly with Rajasthan and Gujarat, Bandhani Indian tie dye technique or Bandhej continues to be one of the more popular prints in the country and can even be spotted on the murals of the Ajanta caves. The process involves tying the cloth in tight little knots and dyeing in different colours to create patterns. Two of the most common variants are Leheriya and Ekdali. Because of its vibrant and varied colours, just a couple of bright Bandhani odhnis can make a major difference in your summer wardrobe.
Also hailing from Rajasthan, the Dabu print was close to extinction because of cheaper machine-printed cloth taking over the market in previous decades. The USP of Dabu lies in the method of using a mud-resist paste, which also lends it its name. Artisans use this paste – usually made of mud, lime, gum and wheat chaff – to cover parts of the cloth which resist colour during the dyeing process. Dabu print fabric is great for both apparel and home decor due its remarkable hand-printed patterns in earthy understated palettes made of deep blues, reds, greys and browns.
An evergreen art form, Kalamkari products can be found in markets across the country. The two main centres of Kalamkari practitioners are in Srikalahasti (where the designs are drawn with a literal “kalam” or bamboo pen) and in Machhilipatnam (where the designs are printed by hand using wooden blocks. Kalamkari work is often washed in milk before and after the printing process, which is how customers are often guaranteed of the “authenticity” of the fabrics. Kalamkari can be stitched into shirts, dresses and kurtas, and easily incorporated into daily wear.
Bagh is a regional style of block printing from Madhya Pradesh. It is also a labour intensive and time-consuming process, comprising repeated stages of manual washing, printing, dyeing and sun-drying. The colours for dyeing are all organic, obtained from flowers, seeds and minerals like iron. The motifs used in Bagh printing are usually derived from nature, and even inspired by the Bagh cave paintings. Interestingly, the wooden blocks used are also named after the motifs carved on them. From summery cottons to heavier silks – the versatile Bagh works on all sorts of fabric.
Image credit: Gaatha
Patola is a precious double ikat print, usually woven into sarees. The style is primarily practised in Patan, Gujarat. The process of producing Patola sarees is a painstaking one, with the tying of the yarn in minute measurements and the repeated and careful stages of tying, dyeing and arranging the yarns. It is very interesting to note how the motifs in Patola sarees vary across religious or regional groups. The Patola loom has a unique design too. It takes two people and over 6 months to make one saree, which explains why an original Patola piece can be pretty pricey.
Locally known as “bandha kala”, the resist tie-and-dye method of Sambalpuri is also a form of ikat. Belonging to Odisha, Sambalpuri prints can be differentiated from the precise and geometrical Patola by its indigenous motifs and blurry outlines. Sambalpuri fabrics are woven in a way that the design is printed on both sides identically. The craft is practiced by several small weaver communities in Odisha. Although Sambalpuri fabrics have been distinguished for ceremonial purposes throughout history, they are best worn as silk or cotton sarees now.
This one is a rather rare and delicate art of printing on fabric with gold or silver leaf, called varak or varq. The process of Varak printing or “chaandi ki chhapai” involves producing paper-thin sheets of the precious metals, applying them to cloth by hand, and painting them over with a protective layer to resist oxidation. The style dates back to the eras of the Nawabs and Rajput royals, where it was traditionally used for coats of arm and flags. Today, Varak work can be found on some of the finest sarees and odhnis.
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