Tracing the journey of the block printers of Mohammed Ali Road
As the only natural-dye printers in Mumbai, Ahmed and his son Sarfraz Khatri, have put their stamp on local and international runaways
The tight streets of Mohammed Ali Road have made room for all kinds of artists. Among them are the founders of Pracheen, a renowned block printing unit, in an otherwise run-down block. The 2,200 sqft space is workshop, store and durbar. This is where Ahmed Khatri, 63, a fourth-generation block printer, along with his son, Sarfraz, 39, meets us. This is also where he meets international designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Donna Karan and local powerhouses such as Tarun Tahiliani and Priyadarshini Rao. "Tarun Tahiliani used to place a chatai there," says Ahmed. "At Pracheen, I tell him [Sarfraz], that we have to walk on the path of truth. If we had cheated in our journey, we wouldn't have reached this stage. You have seen how difficult it is to get to this lane. But thanks to god, our work has pulled people here."
The Khatris are the only block printers in Mumbai to use natural dyes. Brij Ballabh Udaiwal, an indigo expert from Sanganer, who has come to pay his respects, says, "So many people have diverted from this field to digital printing, screen printing and rotary printing. These two are mainly responsible for keeping natural dyes and block printing alive in Maharashtra." Their adjoining karkhana is chock-a-block with wooden blocks. Sarfraz estimates they have about one lakh blocks, a few of which are 90 years old. "I still have my ancestral blocks," says Ahmed. "I have revived them, repaired them or got them made new." The blocks are carved with different imprints: a few are flowers and leaves, turning the fabric into a forest floor; others are geometric and abstract, the canvas of a meditative painter. To create the patterns, "we refer to books from olden days to the new developments [in fashion magazines]," says Sarfraz. "One thing he has taught me is not just to pick up [a design] and place it. Innovate something and use it in a new way. And once it has been made, forget it and think of something better." Ahmed adds, "Make a story. The design should have a family."
The Khatris have about one lakh blocks, nearly 50 per cent of which are inherited
The Khatris' story has a similar shape. Like a six-metre cloth is block printed, one artisan taking over from the other, five generations of Khatris have run the business, father passing down his knowledge to his son. "My grandfather had moved here from Kutch," recalls Ahmed. "My father used to do block printing, but we used to take it up as jobs, and in chemical colours, not natural dyes." Their clients included Kala Niketan and India Saree Museum. "They used to give us the sarees, we used to print and charge them for the printing. We worked with Kala Niketan for 10 years. But, a lady [customer] asked us, 'Why can't you make Ajrakh on silk?' I didn't know the A-B-C of Ajrakh. There was a man in Ahmedabad, Toofan Rafai, the founder of natural dyes in India. Toofan Rafai taught me how to make natural dyes, with mordant phitkari, which has minerals to fix the colours."
For the past 30 years, they've been using natural dyes, indigo and mehendi and the sap of flowers, sourced from across the country. "There's a vast difference between chemical colours and natural colours," says Sarfraz. "In chemicals, you can easily get shocking colours like fuchsia or turquoise, whereas in natural dyes, you will get earthy shades, because they come from plants, roots and herbs." Ahmed adds, "Natural dyes won't hurt your eyes, and it will give sukoon to your mind. This is the wonder of a kudrati cheez [natural thing]. I'm not saying this from a businessman's point of view, but what I've personally felt." Which is why they did so well when Ahmed first introduced them. "NID [National Institute of Design] had hosted a Shibori exhibition in 1997," says Ahmed. "We made 25-30 dupattas, stoles and scarves. It was only for international buyers, and within two hours, we finished our stock. It was the first time I saw Rs 2 lakh. I won't forget that my entire life. After that I got the confidence to do this, and as my son grew older, he took an interest in the business and I educated him."
Sarfraz shares some of what he has learnt. "Altogether, there are 13 stages in block printing. It takes nearly two months for a six-metre cloth [to be printed]. The first block is the background, then comes the outline, and then there are three to four inner fillings. Most importantly, the blocks need to be even, so that when you stamp it, you get an even colour. If it's not, then you get one spot which is darker [than the rest]. That also requires craftsmanship. And, the concentration of the craftsman: he has to be steady, he has to have peace of mind. So when he prints, you see the continuity in the block print. We never pressurise our craftsmen to give us more, we ask them to give us better."
An artisan, in a white ganji and blue lungi, his fingers permanently stained with pigment like a paanwala, shows us the inner workings of outlines. He puts his hand into a mud-like paste of lime and gum, clears the knots and dips the block in it. Carefully, like a mithaiwala placing silver foil on kaju katli, he leaves his stamp on the fabric. "This isn't fast [fashion]," says Sarfraz. Ahmed reasserts their business mantra when the mid-day photographer asks them to act natural while posing. He quips, "Natural mein jo maza hai, kisi mein nahin."
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The block printers of Mohammed Ali Road