Dabu Print, the Indian Craft That Says “Daag Acche Hain!”
In the second edition of Tamarind Chutney’s Craft Diaries blog series, learn about dabu print, a beautiful mud resist hand block printing technique from Rajasthan.
You know the Surf Excel ad, “daag acche hain?” That should be the tagline for dabu print! Because when it comes to this ancient mud resist block printing technique, the daag is the star of the show.
Legend has it that dabu print originated in the Rajasthani village of Akola (which is still famous for its beautiful dabu prints) when a cloth dyer accidentally mixed his mud-flecked dhoti with other clothes meant to be dyed in indigo. When he dried these dyed clothes, he realized that the mud-covered parts had retained their original colour. And so, dabu print was born.
We don’t know if this is the true origin of dabu print, or whether it traveled to India from China in the 8th century. But we do know that this is an ancient craft that was loved all over the world, with dabu designs from India being found all the way in Central Asia.
So what is dabu print? And why do we call it mud resist printing? What makes it special, and why do we at Tamarind Chutney love it so darn much? Read on to find out!
What Is Dabu Print and What Makes it Special
The dabu printing process uses a special paste made of mud, resin, lime, and wheat chaff to print gorgeous designs on fabric with wooden blocks known as “batkare”. Sawdust is quickly sprinkled on this paste and then the cloth is dyed. The mud and sawdust prevent colour from seeping into the fabric, leaving printed parts uncoloured.
What sets dabu print apart from other resist-dyeing techniques is the beautiful texture left by this unique process. When the hand block printed cloth is dyed, colour can seep through cracks and leaks in the mud. This leaves vein-like patterns in the dabu fabric, which add to its beauty.
Dabu print motifs, colours and designs
Traditional dabu print designs use vegetable dyes like indigo for blue, and kashish dye for a grey-brown colour. And while bachelors can’t handle pomegranates, dabu artisans are total pros who use this complicated fruit to create beautiful red and yellow colours in their designs.
This chanderi cotton-silk dabu print saree is made with indigo vegetable dye, giving it the popular dabu blue colour.
If ajrakh print was an explosion of colours, dabu is subtle beauty. That’s because dabu fabric is traditionally made with a single-coloured dye. But with evolving tastes, it’s not uncommon to find beautiful dabu print motifs created in multiple colours. For this, dabu artisans repeat the printing process with different colours. This is known as double dabu or triple dabu.
The motifs used in dabu print are inspired by vegetable, floral and animal patterns, including cornstalks, mangoes, sunflowers, and peacocks. Along with these, geometric designs are also used.
The history of dabu print is not free of caste boundaries
Originally, dabu print motifs and colours were segregated by caste. Yellow was reserved for upper-caste women, blue and green for women belonging castes today known as Other Backward Classes, and red for women belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. So if you saw someone wearing a dabu printed fabric in the village, you could immediately tell which caste they belonged to.
This changed when dabu print hit the international markets in the 1970s and became a popular fabric used in clothes for elites and in home decor items like bedsheets and cushion covers. Like in the case of many other traditional crafts, what was once a marker of hierarchy and marginalization is now a symbol of being privileged.
Who Makes Your Dabu Print Clothes?
Dabu requires patience and skill built over years, passed on from generation to generation in the Chippa community. Which brings us to the story of its makers.
The craft of dabu printing is practiced almost exclusively by the Chippa community in Rajasthan.Traditionally, the chippas have been cloth dyers and printers. But as the craft fell out of favour due to its time-consuming process and lower profits, many of them have moved to other occupations while others have adapted.
On Instagram, you may chance across savvy dabu artisans like Akola Hand Print (@akola_hand_print_), a ten-year-old small enterprise specializing in dabu print. Dipak, Bhavesh and their family have been running Akola Hand Print for 10 years, though the expertise of dabu printing has been passed down through the generations. Their beautiful fabrics go into many of our best-loved Tamarind Chutney designs, like our Jhilmil Polka Slip, Green Nicker Shorts, and of course, our Neelam Sarees.
With the rising interest in Indian handicrafts and sustainably-made fashion, crafts like dabu are seeing a slow revival. When you wear these beautiful hand-crafted prints, you’re not just keeping alive a tradition that goes back to 8th century India, but also helping it evolve to keep up with the modern day. That means keeping the good, like sustainable production and beautiful designs, and shedding the bad, like casteist practices.
Plus, you look fabulous, wearing history in the present as you take on the future.