Cloth is finally washed again and treated with sheep dung and sunlight for the last time.
India’s richness of handicrafts — kalam kari, baatik, ikkat, tie-and-dye, block printing, phulkari, etc. — is vast. Amidst the plethora of synthetic fabrics, dyes and machine-made fabrics there’s one artist who is trying to unravel the mystery of chintz.
Renuka Reddy is exhibiting “The Art of Hand Painted Chintz” at the Gallery Art Motif, Delhi. Her first exhibition that will go on till May 6 will have 16 artworks depicting the lost, forgotten technique of chintz.
Chintz was hand-painted resist-and-mordant dyed cottons with the intricate resist work that was exported from India to the West between the 17th and the 18th century. Reddy was inspired by the book Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West written by Rosemary Crill. “I vividly remember my response to the spectacular plates, the desire to make something so beautiful. Little did I know how this reaction would change my life in ways I could not imagine,” says Reddy.
A textile designer, Reddy encountered enormous problems the first being lack of knowledge about the lost techniques as craftsmen didn’t remember how chintz was made. She had nobody to reach out to when it came to using particular dyes and colours. “The biggest disappointment was that the practice of wax resist was completely lost; no one could remember the technique. This was a huge roadblock. How could I produce chintz without those fine white lines?”
It took her six years of experimenting to piece together the jigsaw puzzle, which Reddy says is “still unfinished”.
Particular to the Coromandel Coast of Andhra Pradesh, chintz process is tedious and requires concentration. 100 per cent handspun and handwoven cotton cloth is washed and bleached in a series of steps involving sheep dung and drying in sunlight. It is soaked and rubbed with myrobalan, a source of tannin, buffalo milk and dried in sunlight which allows the mordants and dyes to be painted on cloth without spreading.
Black outlines are drawn with fermented iron called Kasimi, red outlines are drawn with alum mordant. Cloth is washed and dyed in a bath of madder to develop the reds and deepen the black. To bleach the reddish background, cloth is soaked in sheep dung and exposed to sunlight for 7-10 days after which it is treated again with myrobalan and buffalo milk to prepare it for the next round of painting.
Wax resist lines are painted on the cloth to get the fine white lines, which is a quintessential characteristic of historic chintz. Alum and Kasimi mordants are painted over the wax lines to develop pinks, purples, browns and many other colours. Cloth is washed again and dyed in a bath of madder. It undergoes sheep dung and sunlight treatment again to bleach the background to pristine white.
Cloth is treated with buffalo milk to prepare it for painting blues and yellows. Wax lines are again painted to retain the white background colour in blue and green areas. Indigo is painted in areas to be blue. Historically, cloth was dipped in an indigo vat for the blue areas. Cloth is washed and boiled to remove wax after which pomegranate dye is painted in areas to be yellow and over painted on blue areas to get green.
Cloth is finally washed again and treated with sheep dung and sunlight for the last time. It is starched and polished to give a shiny surface.
Inspired but without any solid guidance Reddy decided to revive chintz. She first started interacting with the craftsman, who had almost no skill and knowledge of the ancient art. While her knowledge of Telugu helped interact with the craftsman, she realists that the practice of wax resist was lost. A tip to Java ensued where she found that the elasticity of wax was increased by adding animal fat and artificial resin.
Then came the struggle with drawing fine resist lines and the task of preparation of the fabric with a mordant and buffalo milk. “When milk-treated fabric is exposed to sunlight, the high fat content from buffalo milk penetrates deep into the fabric which prevents dyes from spreading. As in most steps involved in making chintz, the results can be unpredictable. It’s difficult to know if the milk has spread evenly and penetrated sufficiently until the first smudge appears, sometimes after weeks of work,” explains Reddy.
The smallest 6x6 piece of chintz could take up almost two months. “The process of bleaching which is done four times at different stages takes 7-10 days,” says an excited Reddy.
All the pieces of chintz that are on display use hand spun, hand woven cotton. Natural dyes such as indigo, pomegranate, myrobalan and alizarin are used. The drawings are intricate flowers, leaves and petals. While designs resemble kalam kari and the wax technique is similar to that of baatik, chintzes has a unique finesse to it. “While baatik uses wax to do outlines, chintz wax is used to draw fine white lines,” says Reddy.
For a viewer, the artwork speaks of the patience of the artist. Reddy’s transition from a textile designer to an artisan is laudable. “I didn’t want to use low-twist cotton because it would have killed the character of chintz... I am combining different elements... Doing this gives me an insight into the process,” elucidates Reddy.
Reddy wants to continue her research on chintz. “There are many technical challenges which I haven’t figured it out yet. For example, the wax resist that was used 300 years ago was even finer that one could have imagined… It’s astonishing,” says Reddy.
Reddy began with the question “Can I make the 18th century chintz today?” And I think she’s not only succeeding but inspiring others too.