Covid Project: Chintz revival in Kolkata
A creative genius returns to traditional hand-painted textiles
Bappaditya Biswas is the mastermind behind a coveted handloom sari brand called bai lou. A convergence of innovative design and artisanal knowhow, the bai lou sari is innovative yet grounded in tradition. Bappa, as he is affectionately known among handloom cognoscenti, is always breaking new ground. But he is also attuned to the sensibilities of generational weavers who are slow to adopt change.
Over nearly 20 years, bai lou’s fan base had steadily grown. When the pandemic hit and access to weavers became problematic due to lockdowns, Bappa, turned his creative juices to the revival of traditional chintz.
Chintz is the ancient technique of mordant dyeing, used by Indian textile workers since the second millennium BC. Over several centuries, chintz propelled India to become the greatest exporter of textiles the world had ever known. The technique produced intense colours did not readily fade. Distinctive features of Indian chintz include the use of madder dye for vibrant reds and indigo for violet-blues, as well as a consistent range of decorative motifs including a central flowering tree growing from a rocky mound or arising from water surrounded by sacred lotuses and marine creatures. The tree is typically flanked by vases, animals or birds and the design includes a series of narrow and broad borders of undulating patterns based on flowers and leaves.
The original chintz designs were hand-painted and resist-dyed with block-printed designs incorporated later. With the advent of screen printing and digitizing, India lost its advantage and traditional hand painting of textiles almost disappeared.
To Bappa, the slow disappearance of hand painted textiles was tantamount to a gauntlet thrown down. He decided to use lockdown “slow time” to teach himself traditional techniques of hand painted textiles.
“I have always been fascinated with the historical importance and implication of chintz. Currently in India, nearly all the chintz are being digitally produced. What survives of traditional chintz are watered-down versions done through kalamkari.” (Kalamkari is fabric pen and ink art). Bappa was concerned about correcting the commonly held perception that chintz is produced digitally. A revival was timely and necessary.
What knowledge base did Bappa draw on for this endeavour? “I have been involved with natural dyeing and handloom weaving for the last twenty years. Through my knowledge about natural dyes, I learnt the long drawn and tedious process of developing colours from plants, and the play of tannins and mordants. I was also involved in bringing back plantation of indigo in Bengal after 165 years following the Blue Mutiny.”
The Blue Mutiny of early 1900’s was a cornerstone in India’s fight for independence when farmers refused to cultivate indigo in favour of food crops – a colonial policy that had resulted in famine and millions of deaths. “Our indigo was reputed to be the world’s best,” says Bappa. He became front and centre of a revival of indigo cultivation. “Michel Garcia of France really helped me by sharing old recipes. Charlotte Kwan of Maiwa in Canada also helped in providing practical solutions. This is how I built my knowledge on natural dye painting from scratch.”
Bappa’s traditional methods yield luminous results. Key is expertise in colour gradations to create dimension. Each colour gradation is set using specific tannins and mordants. Layer upon painstaking layer is built up to make the textile come alive.
Where to next?
Bappa wants to emblazon his traditional techniques onto a brand of luxury home furnishings such as decorative throw pillows and cushions, throws, table runners, scarves, silk pocket squares and more. Think ultimate luxury combined with a lesson in textile history. The intended market is in the West.
Bappa is looking for suggestions and advice: where should he showcase his glorious designs? What are the best platforms to market his products? Your input would be appreciated. Write Bappaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org
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