From the white walls of a small kiosk at Chennai’s recent Natural Dye Bazaar flow saris, dupattas and stoles in cotton and silk. They look glossy, embellished with vivid motifs of Dak Mandwas, Chamelis and Amdas in red and black. “The one that looks like little mushrooms is the Makkhi. These are some of the oldest Bagh prints inspired from ancient cave engravings,” says stall owner Mohammad Yusuf Khatri.
Khatri’s spiritedness stems from his long tryst with the art. Sixteen years ago, this Bagh artist broke the mould by teaching the art—a secretly guarded family tradition—to the tribals of Bagh, a village in Madhya Pradesh.
“My father (Bagh artist Ismail Khatri) was against it, as teaching meant competition. But the art was waning due to lack of interest among youngsters and it was time we took it outside the family for its own sustenance and that of many others,” says Khatri.
Khatri, who received a Unesco award of excellence for handicraft in 2014, is currently working on the mediums of leather, jute and cane. He received a national award in 2003 for translating Bagh motifs on bamboo mats. Thanks to his efforts, Bagh prints have travelled the globe and are a part of brands like FabIndia and Mrignayani.
Khatri trained 20 artisans under the Guru Shishya Parampara of Development Commission of Handicrafts in 2012 and 2014. He also trains students of fashion institutes such as NIFT, apart from receiving trainees from abroad.
“Conditioning the fabric is sacrosanct. It is elaborate and trying, but the results are rewarding. The prints come out clear and unbroken, the colours bright and the fabric never bleed or stink,” says Khatri, whose sons Mohammad Bilal and Kazeem help him with his art.
Alum is boiled and cooked with starch and tamarind seed flour to get a blood red tint while iron is decomposed with jaggery in earthen pots to produce black. The colour blue is squeezed out from Indigo leaves and green from that of Dhawda and Pomegranate.
The printing is done manually with the help of wooden blocks engraved with designs and delicately pressing them on the cloth. “This is a part which needs seasoned and dexterous hands. Because one twitch of a muscle could ruin the continuity of a print,” says Khatri.
After printing a fabric is kept aside for eight days before it goes through another vital round of washing in the river Vichliya before it is lent colours in the bhatti (earthen furnace) and bleached (Tapai).
“It is extremely important that the finished fabric is washed in running stream water. So, when the local Baghni river dries up, we have to travel to the nearest one,” he says. The Khatris stick to the traditional designs of Lehria, Jwaria, Mungphali and Genda among others, occasionally tweaking them for fresher designs.
“When I was working with bamboo mats, there were days when I would be at my wits end because the colours would simply slide off the surface. Then I processed the bamboo sheets till the colours caught on. It taught me the lesson that passion never lets you lose,” he adds.