Mansukh Pitambar Khatri looks painfully scrawny and impossibly gnarled, as he bends over a long table spread with a beige cloth. He certainly looks suited to his trade, as he continues to work, oblivious to the heat, using astonishing muscle memory while printing a block design from left to right on a piece of fabric. The whole time we watch, he barely flinches.
“My fascination with Bela printing began at an early age,” Mansukh passionately tells us about his craft, a hand block printing technique that takes its name from the town of Bela. “As a child, I would spend most of my time carefully watching my elder brother print over textiles. Even today, I distinctly remember how the entire process, that of stamping dye-dipped wooden blocks onto fabric, and not just the results, would fascinate me” he tells us of his early encounters with block print.
Mansukh acquainted himself with basics of washing, dyeing and printing from the age of 11. “My father passed away when I was quite young. So, most of the time spent with my elder brother would involve sitting quietly beside him, carefully watching him covert an ordinary piece of fabric into a piece of art,” he shares.
Today, even at the age of 55, he washes, prints and dyes, all by himself. Spend some time with him, and you’ll come to realise that there’s a method to his madness. After all, his craft requires imagination, concentration and precision. And when he’s about to place a wooden block dipped in a dye bath onto a freshly washed and dried fabric, a degree of boldness comes out. A millimetre here or there could smudge the motif, so the eventual beauty of the fabric lies in the precision of Mansukh’s hands.
Back in the days, his hometown, Bela, was well-known in Bhuj for its dense concentration of block printers, who survived in a dust bowl of concrete family compounds that housed a thriving craft tradition. “Today, only I remain,” he sighs in despair.
A town that was once self-sufficient began seeing a low demand for artisanal products among local communities, who soon got enchanted by machine-made cheaper goods. With no prospects of work in Bela, many block printers, including Mansukh’s elder brother and nephew were forced to give up printing and to look for alternative sources of livelihood. Mansukh, however, remained undeterred.
He used his rookie status to shake things up with ancient wooden blocks of traditional designs belonging to his grandfather and infused each cloth he made, with a rustic, antique sensibility that echoed of times passed. Over the course, he managed to turn what seemed like a liability into an asset. This wouldn’t have been possible if not for the work offered by Vadilal bhai, the owner of Kutch Kutir Udhyog, a handicrafts store in Bhuj, and the guidance of Anjalee Jindal, one of the former textile designers at Khamir.
While Vadilal bhai helped Mansukh bhai to put food on the table, by buying huge consignments from him, Jindal helped him develop new design concepts and revive some of his natural dyeing skills. However, just when things started to seem improving, Bela’s water-crisis was back to haunt him. The process of hand block printing needs a lot of flowing water, and the town’s irregular rains were definitely not ideal for his business.
Worried, he turned to Khamir, an organization he had connected with, in the past during the Kutch Ji Chhaap Exhibition, requesting for a space with the required facilities, that could help him continue with his printing, dyeing, and washing. Since then, he has been working with Khamir to reinvigorate Bela-style block printing and creating traditionally designed printed bags and bolts of fabric in deep reds and rich blacks.
Yet below the surface, this positivity isn’t always evident.
Back in the day, Bela printing as a form of art endured because nothing came close to its versatility or efficiency. It was one of the earliest, simplest and slowest forms of textile printing. It was a craft that once had a role far beyond utility. It was a possession that all of Bela’s people used to embody memories, to mark the essential landmarks of their lives, to show who they were. As they used them and lived with them, they marked the passing of time.
But today, Bela printing is in danger of dying out unless younger people make a concerted effort to learn it. While Mansukh’s own son shows no interest in the craft, can the lad really be blamed?
The past few years have seen the rise of the machine, which can make things infinitely faster and cheaper, meaning a dying craft such as Bela printing doesn’t really stand a chance. There is also an ongoing challenge of encouraging the younger generation to see a profession that favours patience and precision as a viable path – which it is – and one that can provide a varied, stimulating and rewarding career. To paraphrase Brian Keeble, author of Art For Whom and For What?, the question we have to ask is not “What does a man get for his work?” but “What does he get by working?”
“These skills will only survive if they live in each generation. They provide a link to our roots, and they are a part of our shared heritage,” Mansukh says painfully. “It saddens me to realise that generations of young people whose ancestors came from Bela are growing up with no understanding of the craft’s long history or its technique,” he adds.
What Mansukh bhai will be leaving behind is his legacy of hand block printing. And many wooden blocks, which were once the centre of family life in much of Bela. They’ll be the only tangible threads that connect years of Bela’s block printing history.
Does this mean that Mansukh bhai isn’t hopeful? No. He thinks perhaps, Bela printing will survive, with the knowledge that it involves a culture built around a community, in which families and neighbours once worked and lived in tandem, often across generations, from a shared history.