An ancient mud resist hand block printing technique from the tribal regions of Rajasthan, Dabu is making a steady come back into the apparel industry.
Holding a wooden block dripping in mud Bhagwati Lal Chippa carefully prints the patterns on a white piece of cloth. The designs that he creates are in perfect symmetry and make for a stunning visual against the backdrop of the magnificent City Palace in Udaipur. I met Chippa an artist from Akola, Chittorgarh in Rajasthan as part of the 4th World Living Heritage Festival. For someone who learnt the craft when he was just 12 years old has continued its practice for the last 35 years, he is in a way the person who is continuing his craft.
Dabu, the word derived from Hindi word ‘Dabana’, means ‘To Press’ and is an ancient mud-resist hand block printing technique originated from the tribal regions of Rajasthan. The mud-resist is prepared with Clay, Calcium Hydroxide (Chuna), wheat chaff, gum and lime. Acacia or babul seeds have been used to make gum which works like a binder. The dug-out mud from the dry pond is soaked in water in separate tank overnight. A mixture of beedan and ground along with mud is used to make a sticky paste. “The mud resist is applied on the fabric by using wooden blocks. Dabu printing is done either on a single table while the printer is sitting, or on a running table. This depends upon the space availability and comfort of the individual printer. Sawdust is applied to places where the mud resist is printed to quickly dry the paste which is a binder that prevents colour penetration while dyeing. The final result creates beautiful and uneven cracks on the fabric,” says Alka Sharma, Founder, Aavaran. “The highlight of Dabu is the several stages of applying mud-resist, dyeing and washing which results in the sophisticated and elegant patterns of veining along with the symmetrical patterns derived from the nature like the alignment of birds, flowers, leaves,” says Nidhi Yadav, Creative Head & Founder AKS Clothings.
The fabric received from the mills is first washed to remove any impurities that can cause obstruction to dyeing. The designs are then hand block printed using fast dyes. “Next is the use of the Mud resist paste made of gum, lime, mud and left over wheat chaff. This paste is applied onto parts of the design after which sawdust is sprinkled all over to dry and hold the paste. The fabric is now spread under hot sun to get the mud paste to dry out completely. Once its dries it is dipped in a vat of dye, dried again and then washed thoroughly to remove all traces of the paste and excess dye. This process can be done more than once to achieve the desired color and effect. Traditional Dabu print uses natural dyes and colors like indigo and vegetable dyes,” says Bhavya Chawla, Chief Stylist, Voonik. “Thus, the unprotected parts of the fabric catch the color while the dabu covered bits remain plain. The fabric may be dyed more than once in different colors to give each part of the design a different hue,” says Dr. Lucky Yadav, Founder, Lyla.
With rising awareness of building a cleaner and greener environment all around, people have massively switched to eco-friendly alternatives in all domains of their life. And coming to the fabrics, Dabu printed ones are the best choice to go for as these adorable prints are made with organic colours and vegetable pastes which are eco-friendly, skin-friendly and retain the brilliance of colours for the longest time. The technique can be used to fulfill all ethnic and indo-western apparel needs of today’s modern women. From sarees and skirts to salwar kameez and shirts, to tunics and kurtas and even to scarves, stoles and shawls, Dabu prints looks pleasant on them all. Designer Arpita Mehta says, “the practice of dabu printing almost died out, but has been revived by the new age designers. Today, the print has become famous all over the globe in various forms due to its vibrants and unique designs. Designers have incorporated this technique in their collections to make indo-western outfits making it appealing for the new generations. Many of the decor brands too have incorporated the same to revive the beautiful technique.” At Lyla, apart from sarees, they do kurtis and some western styles in tops, dresses and even beach wear. Dabu print scarves and duppatas are a big hit and their latest collection which is an ode to this craft brings together dabu and indigo to create denim like look for kurtas and dresses for women and kids giving it a really modern makeover. Jawahar Singh, Co-founder and Owner, Avishya.com, “dabu printing lives on through hundreds of apparel and saree makers who have innovated with variations of traditional designs and experimented with bolder colour tones. Many NGOs and quasi government bodies have encouraged and supported weavers using dabu printing in their handloom products.”
This printing is purely a labour intensive process that involves several steps and stages of printing and dyeing done by expert artisans and craftsmen. But unfortunately, there are only a few artists that can do justice with this painstaking and meticulous job of hand printing. Further adding to this the natural dyes and vegetable pastes involved in the process are costly and tough-to-find. Vina Ahuja, Owner & Designer, Akashi says, “the biggest challenge of Dabu print is that after a certain point it starts to fade because of impurities in the dye colour. Getting a 100% organic dye today is difficult. This technique is highly labour intensive, hence, the dependability and absence of uniformity make it challenging. Being a natural printing method, difficult to replicate the exact same print twice and this makes large scale production a little troublesome.” Designer Sayantan Sarkar says, “due to the increase in demand of chemical colours and screen prints; the value of Dabu print has decreased with time, and as the days are going people are losing their interest in this art form due to it being a delicate slow process and also the cost of it is higher than the other forms of prints.”
The textile industry is moving as quickly as the fashion industry and Dabu printing is used to create a lot of different designs and patterns in both industries. Currently, Dabu print, depending on the design and aesthetic is used for all types of garments and in all kinds of fabrics. Apart from the absorbent and resilient cotton fabrics being the most commonly used for this technique, fabrics like silk, crepe and georgette have become very popular amongst Dabu artisans because they hold the print designs and colours very well. In the earlier days, Dabu printing was used exclusively used in cotton saris. Slowly it became very popular amongst the craftsmen on saris of all fabrics like silk, crepe and georgette. “These fabrics are used as they can hold the designs and colours very well. Dabu print is no being used in many Indian apparels like dresses, kurtis, salwar kameez, shirts, tunics, scarves, stoles and shawls etc. This is not only restricted to apparel, it’s also catching up and being used in handbags, fashion jewellery etc. It’s great to see that the Dabu which is known as an Indian traditional print, is now being exported to western countries too where it will soon be seen on trousers etc. The vibrant colours and unique designs used in this printing is being liked by people,” avers Pooja Dahiya Dhankar, Fashion Consultant, Co-Founder, Salesforever Stores. Designer Asha Gautam adds, “Dabu printing decorate high-end sarees made of fine cotton fabrics like Maheshwari cotton, nowadays they are used for all types of garments and in all kinds of fabrics. In particular, silk, crepe and Georgette have become very popular mainly because they hold the designs and colors very well.”
This story first appeared in Apparel Magazine’s April 2019 issue here:Feature – Dabu