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Mahila Print: Re-imagining Rajasthani block printing

How do you introduce ‘start-up’, entrepreneurial thinking to a 400-year old artisan community? In Bagru, the hub of Rajasthani block printing, Jeremy Fritzhand tells us that a start-up mindset is critical to growing the industry and “putting creative power back in the hands of the artisans.” In this episode of Radio Ock Pop Tok, Jeremy discusses he and a group of forward-thinking women, along with the help of the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI) joined forces to start Mahila Print, a new way of protecting and licensing indigenous designs.
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Meet Jeremy

[1:16 minutes]

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You just heard Jeremy Fritzhand. Jeremy calls himself a ‘business catalyst’, and indeed he’s been a spark ignites change. He finds broken, unfair systems and finds a way to turn things around.

Originally from Ohio state, Jeremy is now living and working in Bagru located about 30 minutes south of Jaipur. Bagru is the hub of Rajasthani block printing. Stroll around this bustling artisan hamlet, and you’ll see large metres of freshly printed and dyed metres of cotton and muslin drying in open courtyards and hanging from rooftops. In spite of the din and activity, the wholesale orders from international clients, the block printers here will tell you they still struggle to make ends meet.

Jeremy found himself immersed in a community and a craft that was at a crossroads. In order for the younger generation to inherit and evolve the craft,  something had to change.

One of the most pressing is the issue of cultural intellectual property rights. Jeremy explains the issue and tells us how he and a group of women block printers banded together to create Mahila Prints, a new enterprise model that puts the power back into the hands of the maker.

Let’s head to Bagru and meet Jeremy ..

Studio Bagru, the first step

[3:21 minutes]

Back in 2010, Jeremy co-founded Studio Bagru, a startup that allows designers to bypass industry middlemen and collaborate directly with artisans.

Now, ten years later, Jeremy is the co-founder of Mahila Prints which addresses the big and often confusing issues around cultural appropriation. You see, for as long as anyone can remember, the big giants of fast fashion, international sourcing companies and up-and-coming designers have commissioned block print fabrics from Bagru. Sometimes, the arrangement is fair, often it is not. Designs were, and continue to be used, freely with little attention to proper consent, credit and compensation.

With guidance from the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative, Jeremy and his team drafted an innovative system of licensing and extending intellectual property rights to village artwork. Let’s hear more about this.

Block printing in Bagru, a short history

[8:26 minutes]

For those of you who might not know much about Bagru or block printing, let me catch you up. About 400 years ago, the Rajput king Jai Singh II built Jaipur from the ground up. In order to do this, he brought in artisans from around the country.

Jaipur became an artisan centre, and even today, the old city is teeming with labyrinth corridors full of karighars or artisan plying their trade.

Of course, noblemen and new citizens need textiles, and so a group of Chippas or artisans known for block and resist-dye printing migrated from the Deccan Plateau and settled along the banks of the Sanjeri River, about 30 km from southwest from Jaipur.

The Chippa Mohalla or Chippa quarter of Bagru are descendants of these migrant artisans, and they have continued this tradition uninterrupted for the past four centuries. In addition to block printing, Bagru is also known for it’s dabu or resist dye printing using clay or mud from the river. And it’s iconic black and rust tints which differentiates it from other block printing settlements in the region.

The craft of block printing is a communal affair. Men typically carve the block and do the bulk of dyeing. Both men and women work as block printers, which requires tremendous precision, particularly when a design requires several layers of colours. Over time, women have become more involved. Let’s go back to my conversation with Jeremy.

Hear artisans Sushila & Poonam

[13:29 minutes]

I took an opportunity to speak with Sushila Chippa and her daughter Poonam Chippa. Both part of the Mahila Print collective.

The women are shy and not really accustomed to reflecting on their experience. Nonetheless, they kindly indulged my probing questions and shared some thoughts. We spoke about the workshops led by Petra, the designer Jeremy mentioned earlier.

For Sushila, the most notable benefit to working with Mahila Print is the ability to work from home.

Petra’s workshops involved taking the women on nature walks around Bagru. They strolled fields, waist high in millet and mustard, meandered the banks of the Sanjeri River under the shade of tamarind and acacia trees. They took their time.

This was a whole new experience for the women who are often pressed for time, balancing work inside and outside the home. Here you hear Poonam talking about a typical day where she begins with domestic work and then goes to work as a “chippai” or block printer. She adds that the workshops with Petra were tremendously enjoyable and useful.

For Sushila, the most notable benefit to working with Mahila Print is the ability to work from home. Here she says working from home allows her to learn and teach, it is a collaboration that accommodates and supports the demands of her domestic life. At the end, she says, “only if we learn new things can we move forward.”

Last words

[23:59 minutes]

This wraps up our show for today. Please take a look at the Mahila Print website to see the ways in which they collaborate with designers and companies. They also offer a design library with existing copyright protected prints that designers can license. And, if you are curious about cultural intellectual property rights, check out the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative.

If you head to Jaipur, drive down to Bagru and take a block printing class with Studio Bagru and check out Mahila Print. Eat some samosas and jalebis, wander the bazaars in Jaipur’s old city .. this is iconic India!

Like Studio Bagru and Mahila Print, Ock Pop Tok loves to connect with travellers by offering classes in silk and bamboo weaving, dyeing, embroidery and batik at their LIving Crafts Center overlooking the Mekong River.

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