Mundra could pass off as a nondescript township in the heart of Kutch if it wasn’t for its age-old legacy. Once a prosperous mercantile centre, its shipping businesses flourished and there were regular contacts with Muscat. While today, Mundra has gone on to become the largest commercial port in India, acting as a major economic gateway, it has also come to be known for a traditional wax-resist dyeing technique called Batik, an almost 1000-year old craft.
We’re greeted by Batik artist Shakil Ahmed Kasambhai Khatri, a fifth-generation Batik craftsperson and a National Award Winner. As he leads us down a cobbled alley to Rainbow Textiles, his workshop, we see coloured fabrics, in shades of flaming orange, brown, pink, indigo, red and green – all with fine lacy crackled designs drying on clotheslines, fluttering gaily in the breeze.
Inside a small room with smoky blue walls, splattered with wax in tones of clotted blood, a huge vat of beeswax simmers on a gas burner. Behind it are four large tables covered in sand. Besides, that is a dyeing room, which in all of its technicolour glory, is a visual expression of happiness in an art form.
Just a few minutes inside Shakil Bhai’s workshop stirs about an overwhelming stimulation of the senses – thanks to the several colours, patterns and the actual smell of Batik.
Azizbhai H Khatiyar, an artisan working with Shakil Bhai, dips a wooden hand block into the hot molten wax, leans over the cloth and stamps the fabric, making sure to hit the block twice. Flowers, creepers, mango motifs, dots, wavy lines – the design begins to evolve in minutes until the sheet gets riddled with apparently whimsical flourishes.
“Before printing, the fabric is always de-starched and soaked overnight in soda water. It is subsequently washed over a stone to soften the fabric before it is finally allowed to dry,” Shakil Bhai tells us. Since soaking and washing use a great deal of water, the workshop needs to have a proper drainage system. After the wax printing, the next stage is dyeing. We enter the dyeing room where freshly dyed pieces of fabric drip colour onto the slick floor. Another of Shakil Bhai’s workers repeatedly dips the fabric into a large container (locally known as kundi) of dye, as if it were a giant teabag.
In the case of multi-coloured designs, Shakil Bhai tells us that after the fabric dries, the initial colour is given another coat of wax design and then dipped into a darker colour. Each subsequent colour is masked with wax to retain its hue, always working from light to dark shades.
After drying, the cloth is hanged on bamboos called lath which allows the excess water to drain away. This method avoids wringing the cloth, which may smudge the colour. Below the lath, moulded iron sheets are fixed through which water drips and accumulates in large kundis. This is what gives the fabric its mania-like cracks or veins of dye bleeds – the signature feature of Batik that sets it apart from other block printing and dyeing techniques.
Finally, the whole fabric is immersed in boiling hot water to remove or melt the wax. Since wax has a lighter density than water, when boiled, it forms a layer on the surface of the vessel, like butter from milk. The unused melted wax is moulded together for reuse. Shakil Bhai tells us that this is followed by the fabric being rinsed thoroughly and washed with soap before it is allowed to naturally dry. Subsequently, it gets ironed and packaged for the market.
After taking us through the rather lengthy yet fascinating process, Shakil Bhai invites us for lunch. While we enjoy the chicken biryani, he begins to tell us more about Batik, a craft he has been perfecting since the age of 17.
“It’s a family recipe. This hand block printing technique is an inherited tradition of my forefathers. Today, I have my own unit. But back in the days, we were a big family of 70 members and known as the Ghaniwla family, all working on Batik with the tasks divided among us. The business was eventually broken into six equal parts of 10 members each.”
Shakil Bhai makes sarees and other textiles using this family traditional art, where each saree takes three full days to be ready. The floral motif called Bairaj, he tells us, has been a standard design on the attire worn by Ahir and Patel farming communities of the region for several hundred years. The other traditional motifs are kachbo, kanski, and jalebi.
While he was taught printing and dyeing by his uncle, he credits his design education to Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, for helping him add the “trendy” back to Batik, thereby making him a pioneer among the present generation of Batik printers.
Moving on, he goes on to tell us how the word ‘Batik’ is actually derived from the word ‘Ambatik’ which means ‘A cloth with little dots’ where the ‘Tik’ refers to little dots, drops or points. It is also believed that the word ‘Batik’ originated from the Japanese word ‘Tritik’ that defines a resist process for dyeing.
Though wax-resist-dyed textiles can be found across cultures and time, according to a popular belief, Batik is said to have originated from the Indonesian island of Java, where the technique was refined and elevated. Local legends share stories of the Batik being carried to Kutch by seasoned, master craftsmen, during the time of the Ramayana.
Years back, Shakil Bhai tells us, Batik prints were made by dipping blocks, made of wood or metal, into hot piloo seed oil, which was then pressed onto a stretched fabric. After dyeing, the oil paste would then be peeled to reveal a print. Over time, wax came to be adopted in the process as a more sustainable alternative to oil, which had to be pressed from thousands of small seeds. This changed the appearance of the textile, giving it the characteristic lacy veined look.
Today, many Batik printers work with chemical dyes, while Shakil Bhai likes doing things differently. He spends his time experimenting with natural dyes like indigo, pomegranate bark, onion peel skin, turmeric and even some local plants among other herb varieties. But this is challenging for him as paraffin wax, an essential component of the batik process, reacts badly to acetic natural dyes such as alum.
Showing us more of his own works, he tells us that he has been using novel styles and techniques to interpret the ever-changing face of twentieth-century life. He has been defying tradition in his search for new dimensions of expression. Challenging the traditional and typical Batik dots, geometry and floral patterns handed down over the generations, he has been creating newer shapes and patterns through unique block designs, which has helped him create a niche for his art, in a sea of Batik printers.
Indeed, Shakil Bhai has a way of making artworks that mix completely contemporary-looking aesthetics with historical or traditional elements of his handed down craft tradition. After years of playing it safe with cotton textiles as the base and sometimes even handwoven textiles, he has also branched out to printing on chamois satin, Chanderi and even Tussar silk.
While his father and the generations before him simply juxtaposed or contrasted and combined colours purely based on what they liked or what they had seen others doing, Shakil Bhai has been breaking the rules by using a colour gradation chart as his point of reference. His education at Kala Raksha helped him learn how to differentiate between cool and warm shades and gradations. Today, he uses this knowledge to understand how different hues of the same colour can be used on various parts of the fabric.
For Shakil Bhai, the fabric is is like a vast stretch of space that helps him to liberate himself from the familiar. It allows his hands and blocks to print patterns which are more painterly and free from the set conventions. He has been creating original, bold works, and is constantly evolving.