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The man behind the craft


MASTERCRAFTSMAN ISMAIL Sulemanji Khatri is himself part of the history and mystique of Bagh prints, having literally resurrected the craft and given it pride of place in India's rich textile heritage. He is the winner of three state awards (Madhya Pradesh) as well as the President of India's National Award for Excellence in Hand Block Printing. Excerpts from an interview.

You must be a proud man.

Yes, God has been kind to me. It was with the support from the Central Government authorities and the MP Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation that I was able to rescue and develop Bagh prints which had totally faded into oblivion by 1965. The All India Handicrafts Board members came to see me in 1973. I showed them a few samples of my work. They asked me to set up a government training scheme, which I did. I have trained around 1000 people in the craft. Many now run their own units and produce superior work.

You brought about a complete change in the quality, aesthetics and finish of Bagh prints.

Yes, Bagh block prints which were originally worn only by Adivasis and rural people had become very crude. I was trained in the finer aspects of printing by my father. I did a lot of innovative placing and formatting of blocks on the body and pallu of a sari, as well as experimented with creating new vegetable dye colours. I also created new colour combinations. I mainly concentrated on the nuances of block printing and have now started experimenting block printing on crepe and silk. Had I not revived this craft it would have died by now.

Any `new' colour you have introduced?

Among many colours that I introduced, a special mustard which I recently got out of pomegranate rinds looks impressive. I also used to make my own blocks. I have even 200-year-old blocks in my collection. My colours are fast and made out of flowers, bark, leaves, fruit skin and natural minerals.

The most cherished moment of your life... ?

When I got the National Award from President Zail Singh, it was an unforgettable moment in my life. I was also happy when I created a masterpiece with 1230 geometric patterns for the Festival of India in France. I am glad that my sons Mohammad Rafiq, Mohammed Yusuf and Abdul Razaq are also State awardees. But what Iam most happy about is that Bagh prints are now famous all over the world and that thousands of craftsmen are making a living out of it in Madhya Pradesh.

Your future plans?

I am 73 and will continue to create masterpieces till my last breath.

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