Chippas - from block printers to entrepreneurs
The printing caste known as Chippas is spread in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab (where they are known as Chimbas). Many of them are still pursuing their traditional occupations and there are many among them who are exporters, entrepreneurs and millionaires.
When we started working with the Chippa community in the early 90's, they had known the second boom of exports which was then leveling off. Recognizing the importance and value of textile printing by hand, in the 80's a hand printing institute was set up in Jaipur to research, develop and nurture block printing traditions.
Traditionally Chippas were block printers using small blocks (3"by 3") printing fabric for ghaghras and odhnis. They worked with other related castes of Neelgars (indigo dyers), Rangrez (tie-dyers),Dhobis (washermen).The printing was done using the traditional mordants of alum and iron and were famous as Sanganeri and Bagru prints. The colour palette was of red black with mud resist dyes of blue, green and yellow. The bleaching after the process of printing was done next to rivers or lakes with water being sprinkled on the fabric under the fierce Rajasthani sun, known as sun bleaching. The whole process largely used wastes and was eco-friendly. For centuries these colours and print combinations had worked as each caste wore their colours like a flag and certain prints were essential for weddings and other functions through the year. With the coming of the sari and 45 inch or broad width cloth the small sit down tables had to evolve to standing up tables 22feet long, along with a whole new aesthetic of pallu, body, border using the old ghaghra bootis as all over body prints and odhni big bootis as pallu layouts.
In the 60's the hippie era led to large orders of fabric to be made into clothes, scarves and t-shirts. Our conversations with older Chippas led to interesting discoveries. There was always regional and global trade among their caste. We met Chippas who had traveled to Afghanistan to buy "manjishtha", the creepers which gave the best reds, "Anaar Chilca" (pomegranate skin) came from the lower Himalayas, "harda" from Madhya Pradesh and Western Ghat forests. Indigo meanwhile was grown in Rajasthan. Pre- independence, printers used to go to Ahemdabad and print "Saudagiri" (meaning to trade, or to barter) prints which were exported to Burma. We ourselves have seen block printed panels in the Royal Palace of Bangkok imported from Rajasthan! With great pride we were informed of the time when the Chippa printers earned a wage as much as a police constable. The Khatris and Chippas of Barmer and Dhamadka, Kutch print a fabric called Ajrakh, using "multani mitti" as a resist with red and indigo dyes. It was traditionally (still many wear it) a "lungi" for Muslim males and a variety is printed exactly on both sides of the fabric, so there is no reverse side of fabric and no risk that you have worn it wrong side up in the darkness in the village. Lots of Ajrakh was smuggled to the Pakistani side till the fencing of the international boundaries began. They still smuggle it and that is the reason you do not get to see much of it in metros and local stores. Talk about local markets!!
Chippas have taken to huge volumes in export by shifting to screen printing which is also considered hand printing as no machine is used. Most fabric available in local markets now is not hand block printed as the labour work charges are 3-4 times higher for block printing as compared to screen printing. To pass off as block some errors are consciously incorporated in the screen. Many pass off as natural dye by dyeing the base in "harda" which is the cheapest dye and overdye in chemical dyes, so it will test positive for vegetal matter.
There are a dozen crorepati (millionaire) families among the Chippas of Jaipur district and recently one of them has opened a store called "CHIPPA" in upmarket Greater Kailash M block market in New Delhi in a 2000 sq. feet basement. This Chippa is a major supplier even to Fab India, so its interesting to see what established brands will do on competition from artisan entrepreneurs.
This story is to share autonomous enterprise by the artisan community. We have worked over a dozen years now and seen closely how caste networks work and support each other during large export orders and big exhibitions by sharing the workload and giving stock on consignment. Till today no non-artisan enterprise has been able to produce hand printed mud resist fabrics at prices these artisans produce. Till today old brands like Anokhi have finishing units not fabric producing ones, though today there are many bigger exporters of block printed items than Anokhi, almost all traders and fabricators. Though till today no one has put in design the way Anokhi has, the rest depend on artisans to create new ranges year after year.
These Chippas were hit by the ban on Azo dyes passed by the European Union in 20031. Many units had to shut down. A continuous engagement is needed with new generation dyeing and finishing techniques for hand printing to flourish again. If industry is supported by huge research budgets even artisans need continuous innovation in design, processes and new colour palettes.
We have always believed that one needs to build on skills available rather than repeat hundreds of block printing workshops which the Government does, are about teaching these communities to print, its like teaching a halwai to make mithai. One has to use parts of processes and combine mud-resist, tie-dye and Khari (gold and silver dust printing) to create new levels of effects. New block designs and layouts every season are the kinds of inputs needed. We and many others stores and boutiques have started doing this on their own, but still dyeing and finishing support is needed by technically qualified personnel. This is the space the state and research institutions can fill, increase the palette of colours and uniformity of colour in bucket dyeing.
Instead of blaming a process as retrograde one needs research which is craft based and specific to centuries old processes ,as this and many other crafts are not only eco friendly but employment friendly too.