The word Dabu, derived from the word ‘Dabaana’ meaning press, is a block printing technique of using mud as a resist, to create patterns on indigo dyed fabric. With its main centers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, this craft flourishes in areas that naturally has sticky clay like soil. Traditionally these prints adorned the lehenga’s and odhni’s of the women in this area. Today a wide variety of garments, and home linen are available in this technique. People believe the technique dates back to the 8th century AD. This believe is based on the oldest known Dabu textile, found in Central Asia.
Local stories tell that a man who by tradition colored clothes for a living (Rangrej in Hindi), in his trip to the river for water did not notice the mud that had clung to his dhoti at the river bank when he returned. The next day the dhoti was also put in the indigo vat along with the other clothes. When they were put to dry, he suddenly noticed that the spots where the mud had stuck to the dhoti were not colored by the indigo. This gave him the bright idea of experimenting the same now with mud smeared in a pattern over a cloth and the effort bore fruit, since the pattern came out un-dyed while the rest of the cloth got colored with the indigo color. This is the beginning of Dabu.
This characteristic of the mud found there and the water of the river gave birth to a new tradition that was called ‘Dabu’. Dabu is believed to be employed in India since 8th century A.D. since a specimen of Dabu printed fabric was found about that time in Central Asia.
The prints popularly adorned the flowing Ghagras. These were the favored clothing of the women, locally called ‘Fetiya’ in Rajasthan. This was usually coupled with a Bandhej Lugda (a long fabric draped over the head). Taking one long Dabu printed fabric with the preferred motifs of concerned community, Fetiya was made with just one line of stitching. It was crafted by joining the extreme ends of a 8-12 meter fabric (the length varied with the buyer’s interest). The garment then beautifully enveloped Jat, Gadariya & Gujjar women. Popular ones are Kahma, Lal titri, Dholika, Kantedar. The craftsmen dip the blocks into a viscous paste of mud, gum and lime. The method gets it’s name from the word ‘dabaana’ , meaning ‘to press’.
Earlier, Rajasthan province was densely populated with Dabu printing clusters. Now, very few remain to live the legacy. Few clusters cater to the fabric demands of neighboring villages. The colors of the sky – blue of the day, indigo of the night, red of the sunsets – are mostly seen in the regional attire. Each producing village is a self sufficient system for Dabu printing. Block carvers sculpt the blocks, the earth lends mud and the river bestows water. The fabrics are sourced from Kishangarh and pigments come from Udaipur.
Their craft speaks of skill and years of experience, as the craftsmen swiftly pattern the clothes. The application of resist and dye are done several times to get various shades of ground and motif color. As time passed, Alizarin pigment used to impart red color was replaced by Naphthol and the craftsmen began to use tar instead of mud in case of designs which require sharper contrasts.
Some of the native craftsmen specialized in block printing. Few hundred years ago, Rani Rathorji of Mewar, established a village by the banks of Beduch river for them. Today around 200 people practice this craft in some of these villages.
Like the essence of earth, Dabu prints remain the primeval block printing technique. And like the patterns, these fabrics are deeply embedded in the cultural identities of various Rajasthani communities.
The main tools of the printer are wooden blocks in different shapes – square,
rectangle, oval, round and semi-circular or crescent – and sizes called bunta. Blocks
are hand-carved of seasoned teak wood by trained craftsmen. On the bottom face
the motif are engraved with steel chisels of different widths and cutting surface by
the carver. Each block has a wooden handle and two to three cylindrical holes drilled
into the block for free air passage and also to allow release of excess printing paste.
The new blocks are soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grains in the timber.
These blocks sometimes have metal over the wood.