Nandana hand block printed textiles: The forgotten cultural legacy of Madhya Pradesh

While researching and reading about Nandana, many questions cross our mind. Why is it that many textile crafts of India have languished for ages? Is it because of the complex, time-taking, labour-intensive process involved in making it? Or is it the lack of continued royal patronage or apathy of other organizations? At least in the case of Nandana, apparently, since the craft has remained totally confined to a tribal community, it seems to have missed sustainable sources of support – both socially and financially.

On the surface, the story of Nandana hand block printing sounds similar to any other languishing textile craft of India. However, when you dig deeper, you realize how this craft had its unique origins, purpose and technique much akin to the name derived from ‘Naand’ the pot which was used to prepare indigo dye.

Let’s learn more about the craft and how it can be saved from further decline along with possibilities of restoring its original glory.

Origins of Nandana hand block printing

Nandana originated in the villages of Ummedpura and Tarapur in Neemuch district of Madhya Pradesh. This is where the incredibly beautiful hand block printed Nandana fabrics were worn by women of the Bhil and Bhilal tribes as their traditional attire. Though the 500-year-old craft has survived till today, it has lost many patrons and practitioners during its long journey; for the tribal community it has remained more of a ceremonial costume than their regular wear.

Nandana involves wax resist dyeing process with 18 steps. The technique is used to print thick and heavy-duty cotton fabric with limited colours and motifs.  The fabric was used by Bhil and Bhilal community who were engaged in physically challenging activities like farming. The motifs of Nandana are few and they are used in the backdrop of deep, dark and rich colours that suits the rugged use by the hard-working community.

The craftspersons belonged to the Chippa community of Tarapur. With the gradual reduction of these artisans who are directly engaged in the craft, today there are about 125 – 150 families who are connected with Nandana in Tarapur and Ummedpura clusters. Out of this, 50 to 60 families are still actively practising the craft with 150 dedicated artisans.

This traditional craft has been the source of livelihoods for artisans but today, both the craft and the crafts persons are facing challenges.

  • The link between the Bhil and Bhilals (patrons) and the Chippa community (the artisans) has weakened over the years
  • The printed craft has been facing competition from mill printed cloth affecting its unique artistic value and cheap imitations
  • The fabric has remained confined to the region and was used mostly for making full-length skirts (ghaghras) worn by the Bhil women
  • The design was limited to traditional motifs and it did not evolve or adapt to changing times and trends
  • The fabric has not been explored for functional uses like furnishings that could have widened its use


Material and process

Nandana makes use of a natural mordant, five designs and carved wooden blocks. The craft has 18 steps of printing and dyeing, quite similar to Dabu printing. Traditionally, the Nandana process involves the use of four motifs such as Mirchi, Champakali, Amba and Jalam buta, derived from plants and flowers. Dholamaru was introduced later in this craft.

Materials used for the traditional Nandana hand block printing and few unique aspects:

  • Natural mordant like alum is used to get red with alizarin; pomegranate peel and indigo to get green or black colors
  • The cotton fabric is treated multiple times before it gets printed
  • Five designs called Mirchi, Champakali, Dholamaru, Amba and Jalam are traditionally used along with three different blocks for one design
  • Use of blue and green background in addition to black

Current status of the craft and challenges

Despite the rich traditional art form, there are a few critical challenges faced by the artisans while printing the craft.  It’s highly time-consuming, the process takes a month to finish a volume of fabric. There is a shortage of skilled workers and there is also environmental consciousness growing in the material used in dyes. So, the craftsmen are seeking alternatives to use eco-friendly processes. Mud is being used instead of artificial dyes.

There is an employment crisis as this craft is being retained according to the market demands and also there is a decline in the volume of production of materials. Many craftsmen have migrated for more income and fewer working hours.

Though Nandana craft has exquisite designs, artisans need to upskill and re-skill themselves according to the changing times. They should be adequately trained to use eco-friendly dyes and power sources, new techniques, modern methods to keep the Nandana craft alive.


How skill-based training can help in realizing the market potential

To save the Nandana craft from extinction and rebuild the livelihoods of the artisans who have depended on it for ages, efforts should be followed with upskilling and creating entrepreneurship support systems.

  • The artisans can be encouraged to use modern techniques and blend it with traditional material. This can bring in process efficiency and enhance productivity.
  • To expand the beyond the families of the artisans, youth can also be inspired to take up the craft as a profession through awareness programs and demonstrations conducted by the Nandana artisans. Through such measure, we can ensure longevity of the craft and sustainable livelihoods for people connected with it.
  • The artisans should explore more designs and re-visit the craft according to modern times. Youth can learn the craft, take it to other countries and increase the potential both in domestic and international markets.
  • The government, the artisans, industry bodies and the educational and training institutions are needed to implement the plans and programs designed to save the craft from extinction.

Most importantly, the 500-year-old traditional craft should be saved from extinction by providing a good amount of income to the artisans. A craft rooted in history becomes a part of our rich cultural legacy and we need to explore many ways to preserve the legacy and pass it on to future generations.