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A Prelude to Block Printing

 

Textile production has long been a hallmark of Indian culture. The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are no exception, where block printing was pioneered and remains strong. The states are the origin of both traditional and modern Indian block printing. Though the art of block printing is not tradtional to West Bengal, the state became a hub for block printing activity in the 1940s. Block printing begins with carving designs into wooden blocks by hand before being dipped in dye and printed onto fabric. Throughout the printing process artisans pay meticulous attention to detail in order to ensure all motifs and colours are harmonised on the fabric.

Fragment of 14th century block printed and resist dyed fabric found in Gujarat   Basic colours of block printing patterns
L: Fragment of 14th century block printed and resist dyed fabric found in Gujarat
R: Basic colours of block printing patterns

Gujarat is known as the ‘Jewel of the West’. The state's moniker is derived from its role in history, having been known to the ancient Greeks, Persian Empire and Roman Empire as a land of trade opportunities as well as being a landmark along sea routes. Rajasthan is the ‘Land of Kings’ and the largest state in India. It is known for its energetic burst of colours in everyday life, from traditional garments to its bazaars. The art of block printing travelled from these two western states to the eastern state of West Bengal, which was a part of the historical region of Bengal.

Dashashwamedh Ghat situated on the bank of Narmada River in Bharuch, Gujarat, a city that was once a sea port, recognised along sea routes since 6th century BC   Vibrant colours of a saree bazaar in Jaipur, Rajasthan
L: Dashashwamedh Ghat situated on the bank of Narmada River in Bharuch, Gujarat, a city that was once a sea port, recognised along sea routes since 6th century BC
R: Vibrant colours of a saree bazaar in Jaipur, Rajasthan

The Chhipa community, who initially settled in Bagru, Rajasthan, before spreading throughout the country, are a chief community in the art of textile block printing. An area known as the Chhipa Mohalla or printer’s quarters today bears witness to the three-century-old use of traditional block printing methods and natural dyes. Block printing is a traditional Indian textile art that is still dominant today. The art is not restricted to textiles and is used in the production and design of wallpaper, decorative items and bedding.

Block printed wallpaper showcased by the Society of British and International DesignMughal Jewel block printed cushions available to buy from National Geographic
L: Block printed wallpaper showcased by the Society of British and International Design
R: Mughal Jewel block printed cushions available from National Geographic

For centuries, the most commonly used fabric for textile block printing has been cotton, followed by jute and silk. The aesthetics of block printing owe much to the skills of the woodblock carvers and textile printers. Meticulous accuracy and exceptional teamwork are vital in block printing to harmonise motifs and colours in the final creation. Patience is also required. For example, even with twenty printers the painstaking process for a single hand printed garment can take eight hours to complete, though the result is one of a kind.

An artisan at work
An artisan at work

Vibrant colours such as blue, yellow, red and saffron are frequently used in block printing. However, the choice of colours that are available is endless. There is a diversity of designs originating in different parts of India, particularly various areas within the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. These range from traditional figurative designs of animals, Gods and flora to contemporary graphic geometrical designs to name just a few.

Block printed textile from Jaipur, Rajasthan with silver varak leaf motifs
Block printed textile from Jaipur, Rajasthan with silver varak leaf motifs

 

Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Roots, eBharat, Incredible Indian Tours, Society of British and International Design, National Geographic, Gaatha, Google Cultural Institute