There is archaeological evidence that an early form of block printing on textiles existed in India as far back as 3000 BCE, during the period of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. It was not until the 12th century that the traditional art of block printing began to flourish. The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are particularly renowned for manufacturing and exporting magnificent printed cotton fabrics. The art is not traditional to eastern India and was introduced to West Bengal in the 1940s. Highly skilled local craftsmen quickly mastered the textile art form.
Contemporary block printed patterns replicating Indus Valley Civilisation motifs
Today, as in the past, the main hubs for the manufacture and export of block printed fabrics and garments are Ahmedabad, Surat and the Kutch district in Gujarat and Jaipur, Bagru and the Barmer district in Rajasthan. Today, Serampore city in West Bengal continues to be prominent in the production of block printed silk sarees and fabrics. As in the 20th century, motifs and patterns from West Bengal are market driven, thus block printing from this state is young. West Bengali block printed patterns adapt to contemporary fashion trends while Gujarati and Rajasthani block printed patterns perpetuate its tradtional motifs.
Block printing is a form of textile art that diffuses itself into thriving cultures, at the same time enriching them. In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his court were widely known for their love of the arts. This gave motifs in block printing visibility to a wider audience in and outside of India. The British were in India from the early 17th century and were receptive to native culture even before the Raj formally came into being in the mid 19th century. This popularised many floral and vegetal motifs, such as birds and the famous Paisley, or boteh or buta, design that can still be seen in contemporary motifs.
L: Block printed tusser silk with sunflower motifs by British silk-dyeing mogul, Thomas Wardle, 1878
R: Block printed silk and wool shawl with the Paisley, or boteh or buta, motif, c.1845-50, donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Mrs J. Wheatley
Two centuries later, from the mid 1800s, the British Raj led designers from Britain to draw inspiration from these traditional Indian motifs. Thus the widely adored Paisley pattern became embedded into the culture and history of the Scottish town of Paisley, an established hub of the British textile and weaving industry which were ‘Cottage Industries' before the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are regarded as the birthplace of Indian block printing and traditional techniques that are still used in the contemporary designs and colours.
Images: Etsy, Victoria and Albert Museum