In Rajasthan, a tiny village by the name of Akola has been, for centuries, associated with a unique block printing style — dabu. It is said that it replicates the colours of the sky — blue of the day, indigo of the night, and the red hues of a sunset.
Its origins are debated — some say it made its way to Rajasthan from China in 675 AD, and some claim it originated in the desert region — but over time, Akola has become almost synonymous with this art, which uses organic materials from the earth to create intricate designs.
There was a time when dabu printing was widespread across Rajasthan, but Akola is presently among the few remaining hubs of the art. Today, the seventh generation of these artisans work here.
Anyone who visits this community is bound to be captivated by the indigo hues and nature inspired motifs. Alka Sharma, a textile designer from Alwar, felt no different when she first visited the village in 2007.
“I completed my graduate studies in textile designing in 2003 and was looking to work with artisans in Rajasthan. I had often heard of the region of Akola, famous for artisan families who devoted their lives to preserving prints, and thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for me. So in 2007, I decided to visit,” she tells The Better India.
She adds that her intent at the time wasn’t to start a brand, but rather to understand textiles and help widen their scope.
But, on spending a few days at the Akola village, Alka says she did not have the heart to let this experience end.
“I learnt so much while in Akola. While today there are many families well versed with the art, at the time, there was only one family engaged in it. They were well-to-do and more importantly possessed a table (a necessity in dabu printing). I wanted more families to be involved so they could earn through it,” she notes.
A heritage brand is born in Udaipur
The next few months were filled with experiments and hard work, as Alka worked with 200 women artisans to form self-help groups. She herself learnt the dabu art form and trained the women in it. She says that while they did not have an indigo dye bath then, they would manage with small tanks and buckets.
Her work was supported by a scheme by the Ministry of Textiles, and she was also joined by master craftsmen from Jaipur.
The passion to engage in dabu art soon turned into an idea for a brand, and Aavaran was born in 2012.
The brand was an attempt by Alka to “revive and sustain the traditional craft of dabu”. She adds that while doing this, she also wanted to ensure economic empowerment of the indigenous craft persons in the region.
Reminiscing about the journey until now, Alka says it has been surreal. “I never thought I would own a brand someday. When I started work with the artisans I did so with the goal of taking the craft to another level. There was a lot of brainstorming,” she notes.
However, while success was around the corner, so was a conflict.
“I wanted to involve artisans from low-income groups. But the well-to-do artisans, who were already engaged in dabu printing, did not like it, as they thought it was a threat to their business. This caused a divide,” she adds.
In 2015, Alka along with the artisans she had gathered and mentored through the years, moved to Udaipur where they started their first store.
“Our work spoke for itself. People began noticing our prints and approaching us,” she adds, attributing the reason for all the love they received to the timelessness of the dabu style.
“It is painstaking to create but beautiful all the same.”
Wet mud, gum and wheat chaff
The dabu printing technique is a love affair between three things — mud from the desert, water from the river, and blocks carved by skilled artisans in the region.
Thinking back to the first-ever collection she did — a backdrop of Lord Krishna — Alka calls it “traditional and simple”, but with a “tedious” process.
“Mud is collected from the lakeside and stored in a tank overnight. The wet mud is then mixed with glue from the babool tree, beedan (wheat chaff) and chuna (limestone) to prepare a paste consistency and the mix is sieved. A woodblock is then dipped into the paste and placed onto the fabric, which has been washed and dried to remove the starch,” she notes.
On the parts of the fabric where the paste lies, sawdust is sometimes applied to prevent colour penetration during the dyeing process. The next step is to dip the fabric into a cauldron dye. This can be done once or multiple times as desired. Once the fabric is removed from the dye tank, the result is achieved — a fabric dyed in the desired colour, with blank spaces in between, that create the illusion of motifs.
The dye does not catch on in these spaces, as the mud-resistant block print has been used here.
While the traditional dabu printing style involves the use of indigo dye, Aavaran has expanded this to other vegetable dyes to create vivid hues. “The reason the process is lengthy is because a fresh batch of paste needs to be prepared every day,” explains Alka, noting that the resultant product, however, is worth the effort.
“It is a sustainable fabric, good for the skin — as it contains natural dyes — and the environment — as when washed, the dyes do not leach into the water,” she adds.
A safe space for artisans to stand on their feet
Today, Aavaran works with 100 in-house artisans in its 40,000 sq ft manufacturing space.
“Each artisan specialises in a specific activity. For some this may be stitching, for others it is patchwork or printing,” explains Alka. “We also support more than 200 women across four villages. They are paid a stipend of Rs 15,000 to 40,000 every month.”
One of the artisans, Poonam, has been working with the brand since 2007. She says it has helped her sustain her family. “I have been able to provide my child with the greatest education possible because of the job and also have my own house,” she says.
Another artisan Prabhat, who joined Aavaran in 2015, says he came to Udaipur from West Bengal with the intention of inspecting and cutting cloth, but has now learned a varied number of skills. “At Aavaran I learnt everything like dyeing, printing, and production management. Currently, I manage manufacturing and looking after textiles,” he adds.
While the magic of dabu is created in Udaipur, customers pan India can order the collections online.
This includes lehengas, tunics, kurtas, shirts and accessories made of waste fabric including bags, pouches and potlis, jewellry made with fabric scraps jutis and more. Aavaran sees around 14,000 orders quarterly and has witnessed a turnover of Rs 3 crore in the last financial year, says Alka.
As Alka is occupied churning out orders to meet the needs of the festive season, she says life couldn’t have turned out better. “While I started out with the intent of learning a new print style and helping preserve it, I managed to create something that I never thought possible. Dabu art is the pride of my region.”
You can have the magic of dabu art delivered to your home, here.