This block printing technique for textiles derives its name Balotra from the city in the Barmer district of Rajasthan where it is primarily produced. Balotra printed fabrics are characterised by their vertically arranged floral and geometric butis that appear in earthy reds and yellows, as well as cream, over a base that is dyed deep indigo or dark green. These butis are usually large and often printed without the use of a black rekh, or “outline,” resulting in bold and simple designs without the nuances of colour evident in textiles such as ajrakh or Bagru. A unique feature of Balotra printing, considered an extension of ajrakh printing, is that it is done on both sides of the cloth and in quick succession.
As with block printing traditions in other parts of Rajasthan, such as — Bagru and Sanganer — the karigars in Balotra belong to the Chhipa community. Oral traditions of the community indicate that woodblock printing has been practised there for many years. After the Partition of India, many Muslim Chippa families migrated to Pakistan, leaving a gap subsequently filled by an influx of Hindu Chippas into Balotra. The waters of the seasonal Luni river and Rajasthan’s hot and dry climate made Balotra well suited to the traditional methods of dyeing and printing that the immigrant and native Chhipas and Khatris had been practising. The preparation and printing of the fabric are similar to that of Bagru, although it is not as laborious or repetitive.
The fabric, usually cotton, is first washed and beaten to remove impurities and soften its fibres, and then soaked in water for anywhere between twelve and seventy-two hours. In a process known as saaj, the fabric is treated using a mixture of castor oil, camel or goat dung, and soda ash. While still wet it is soaked in a paste of harda, which lends the cloth a yellow tinge and allows it to develop deeper blacks. Once dry, the designs are transferred to the fabric with wooden blocks in multiple stages: first using direct printing — in which dye is applied to the blocks and pressed onto the fabric — and then using dabu (or dye-resist) printing.
The latter of these two processes is more complex as it serves additionally to protect the base colours of the prints from the eventual dye baths. The dabu paste is first made by combining clay, beden, lime and natural gum and fermented for several days. This mixture is then printed onto cloth using wooden blocks, after which it is usually sprinkled with beden to keep up from smudging and to help it dry quickly. Once dry, the fabric is soaked in vats of dye and then thoroughly washed to remove traces of the dabu paste. When dried again, the fabric reveals the dabu printed parts as undyed. A single fabric may be subjected to multiple rounds of dabu printing and dyeing, depending on what the design demands.
Direct printing is used for colours such as black, made from a mixture of iron filings, jaggery and natural gum; red, made from natural gum and alum; and grey, khaki and brown, from kashish. Other colours in the palette include indigo-blue, green and a marigold yellow — all created using natural dyes.
Balotra print fabric was traditionally used for the attire of women — ghagra (skirt), choli and odhani (a draped cloth) — from various regional communities. Dark-coloured fabrics that mask traces of dirt were used every day as they were better suited to labour, whereas the relatively uncommon lighter variations were reserved for special occasions. The printed cloth also served as social designators, with colours, motifs and patterns being used as differentiators of ethnicity, religion, socio-economic position, occupation and marital status. For example, the phooli, gainda and chameli are motifs worn exclusively by the Mali community. Others such as Rabari ro fatiya and Maliya ro fatiya, named after their respective communities, and the tokriya for the Rabari and gul buta for the Jain communities are all worn by widows. The mato ro fatiya is worn by women who are pre-construction workers, the trifuli is worn by young betrothed girls in Marwar. Motifs derived from names of medicinal and talismanic plants, such as laung and nimboli are worn by married women and by Chaudhary women and Mali widows, respectively. Other motifs such as methi, worn by widows from several communities, and goonda, worn by married Chaudhary women, are based on locally available plants commonly used in cooking.
Since the 1990s, traditional Balotra printing has seen a steady decline as local printers have turned to other professions and as the appeal of less-expensive chemical dyes, polyester fabric and screen-printing methods have simultaneously increased. Only a handful of Chippa karigars who use traditional methods to produce authentic Balotra prints remain. These artisans work to supply local communities while also expanding their customer base by adapting traditional designs to decorate household textiles such as floor coverings, bedsheets, pillows and cushion covers.
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