Among the rural and nomadic people of western Rajasthan, the design printed on a woman’s skirt may tell a great deal about her social identity. It can reveal, for example, her caste or tribe, her marital status, or her family’s profession.
Ghaggra in Dark Colors
A long skirt (ghaggra), blouse (choli), and veil (odhani) are women’s traditional attire in Rajasthan. Rural women still prefer them to the saris, salwar-kameeze, or Western dress favored by city dwellers. Tribal block prints are most often seen on the skirts. The wearers are women who do manual work out of doors, so the fabric colors tend to be dirt-hiding shades of dark green or blue with accents of dark red, yellow, and white.
Bhalka: Spear or Arrowhead
This motif is associated with the Gadia Lohar, a tribe of itinerant iron workers. For generations these blacksmiths and their families have traveled on bullock carts from village to village, repairing or making the tools used by farmers.
The design has been worn by widows of the Maali community. This occupational caste are farmers of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The motif is said to represent the round, wicker baskets that are used for gathering, storing, and selling their crops.
Boriya: A Wild Berry
The dots on this fabric are reminiscent of bor, a small, round fruit that grows well in Rajasthan’s harsh, desert climate and is widely enjoyed there. The design is worn by married women of the Kumhar (potters) and Chaudhury (owners of small landholdings) communities. The dots are also said to represent the matkas, round vessels for storing drinking water, made by the Kumhars.
Not associated with any specific community, the katar (dagger) motif is worn by women in numerous tribes.
Rakhri: Head Jewelry
The design is said to represent the rakhri, a jewelry band worn around the head. This motif has traditionally been popular with Rabari women. The Rabari are a community of cattle and camel herders. Historically nomadic, most Rabari now live in fixed dwellings.
Hand-printed, cotton fabrics with tribal designs are not as popular as they once were in India. Even in rural areas, a woman’s identity is no longer so closely tied to her particular community. Many women want—and can easily find—a greater variety of fabric designs to choose from. Even for those who prefer to maintain the design traditions, synthetic, machine-made fabrics are replacing hand-printed cotton. Naturally, the result is fewer chhippa (block printers) who still make this fabric.
There are numerous block printers in India, but few who still make fabrics with these tribal designs. We were fortunate to find a master printer who continues to be engaged in this work. His workshop produces these fabrics in the traditional way: using hand-crafted wooden blocks and natural dyes to stamp the historic designs onto cotton material.
These darkly colored designs require the dabu method for printing, where the design is stamped onto the fabric as a resist before and during the dying process.
Natural dyes are used for the colors.
Some Steps In The Dying Process
After the resist has been stamped onto it, the fabric is dyed then dried. Multiple colors require a repetition of this process. Finally the resist is washed off and the fabric dried for the last time.