The monsoon isn’t Mohammed Yaseen Chhipa’s friend. In fact, when it rains, the fabric dyer declares a day off at his factory. “Without sunlight, we can’t get any work done since neither the prints nor the dyed cloth will dry. And until that happens, we can’t really proceed with our work,” says the 52-year-old. Such is the life of a block printer.
Yaseen and his brothers — Farooq and Elias — are the only family left in Pipar City (about 60 km from Jodhpur, Rajasthan) who are still practising the art of hand block printing on textiles using natural dyes. “Sixty years ago, there were 105 houses (families) that were involved in this art, today it’s just us,” says the master craftsman. “But this is because we were lucky enough to find people who wanted and appreciated our craft.”
Legend has it that Fabindia owner William Bissel stumbled upon the family about 20 years ago and gave them a small consignment to print. Since then, there has been no looking back. From working out of a tiny kuchcha home, Yaseen and his brothers have now graduated to a large bungalow each, lined together on the main road.
Each of them owns a car and has a stake in their factory, a stone’s throw from their respective homes. Now, they have sent off their children to study for an MBA or a Masters in computer application, though they will also learn the family’s traditional craft.
As third generation block printers, Yaseen’s family has been involved in this traditional craft for over 200 years. But it was only in the late 20th century that they actually felt the pinch of the craft’s dying appeal. “My father believed we must learn the art of our forefathers. So despite going to school, we were taught the techniques of printing and dyeing,” says Farooq, the second brother, who looks after the workers in the factory.
Yaseen’s family does not use artificial dyes, which makes sure that none of the workers are exposed to toxic dyes. Turmeric, alum and indigo mixed with various other natural material is what makes their process so much more labourious. In fact, the water in the pot of indigo in their factory has remained unchanged for over 60 years.
“Look, all indigo has to run. But being mixed in the same water for sixty years is what gives our indigo such a dark and relatively pucca shade. This is what our father taught us.”
A labour-intensive job, block printing involves a very skilled set of people with brilliant hand-eye coordination. Which is why the brothers say, despite paying competitive wages, they find it very hard to hire skilled workmen who will stay for a while.
“When work is slow, especially during the monsoons, they often find a reason not to return,” says the youngest brother Elias. “We have to lure them with at least 10 per cent extra wages or even pay their fare to and from their villages.” Sometimes, one even finds the three brothers hunched over and laboriously repeating the techniques of their forefathers as they try their best to meet a deadline.
Over the years, Yaseen, who markets the products, has switched to computers. “We had to do it, otherwise we wouldn’t survive the market,” he says. “People are finally beginning to understand what it means to own a hand-block printed, natural dyed dupatta or a sari.”