The art of the block

Issue 01, 2020

The art of the block

Priya Rana |author

Issue 01, 2020

Indian designers are giving the ancient craft of block printing a new lease of life through the use of innovative designs and products, helping to preserve the cultural heritage of Rajasthan’s villages

Bagru, located around 30 km from Jaipur, is a quintessential small Indian town, with winding lanes lined by simple houses, where doors are hardly ever closed and where neighbours are more like a family. But what catches the eye in Bagru are the splashes of colour that adorn its homes and its streets as swathes of fabric in vibrant shades and prints hang from rooftops and walls, drying in the sun. This is the heartland of Bagru print, one of the most famous hand block printing traditions of India. Here, in workshops run from homes members of the Chippa community, continue to stamp cotton and sometimes silk fabrics with hand-carved wooden blocks dipped in dyes, a 300-year-old art form that has been passed down by their forefathers. A very similar art is practised in another small town, Sanganer, around 30 km away from Bagru.  Here too printers use hand-carved wooden blocks and a variety of colours (natural and chemical-based) to print mostly cotton fabrics. The main difference between the two styles is that while Sanganeri print is done on white or off-white background, in Bagru, rust, ochre and indigo are used.  Traditionally, natural vegetable dyes were used with mordants (metallic salts to let the colours stay on the fabrics). Another popular technique was dabu, a mud-based resist-printing technique that creates a unique texture on the fabric.

A craftsmen carefully prints an intricate design on a saree in one of the many home-run workshops around Chippa Mohulla, the centre of Chippa community in Bagru

“During the fiery summer months, these soft cotton fabrics with intricate prints in natural dyes were popular among the royal families of Rajasthan and Mughals in Delhi. Block printed fabrics from India were in demand in Europe too, supplied by British merchants,” says Delhi-based fashion designer Niki Mahajan, who has worked extensively with this art. But she rues that as this technique is labour intensive and time-consuming, printers started using screens to print larger fabric portions at one go and shift to computer-aided digital prints. Rising cost of block carving and natural dyes added to the misery.  “Years of neglect and consumer apathy had forced most of the traditional printers to either quit their art or switch over to large-scale machine printing. Today, however, the focus is turning towards handcrafted and traditional products, block printing is on a revival path.” explains Mahajan.  Today, this tradition has become a favourite of designers experimenting with colours, dyes and techniques, to create innovative fashion lines and home furnishings.

Mahajan, who retails from stores in major Indian cities and even in the US, has been making block-printed womenswear and menswear for 26 years. Her latest collection, features long, flowy A-line dresses and skirts in vibrant hues, with motifs created by mud-resist block printing. “In this technique, the printer takes a square shoebox half filled with water, and a piece of stretched leather, on which he piles on several layers of fabric so that it becomes a thick pad. On it he applies a paste of mud, zinc and dye,” says Mahajan, whose Gurugram factory has rows upon rows of long tables with silk fabric upon which artisans from Sanganer, work by dipping their carved teak wood blocks in the square box and placing it systematically and accurately on the fabric. “We print with the mud, and once it’s printed, we steam the fabric, and then wash it to remove the dye and the mud. The colour is ‘displaced’ – meaning if it’s a black fabric and we print in red, the mud, zinc, and dye penetrates it and displaces it to become red,” she explains. Mahajan says her recipe to create the mud resist is a guarded secret. “We don’t disclose the raw materials we use,” she says. “Also, the temperature alters the colour. In summer at 40 degree C, a colour will be a different from when it is printed in  winter at 6 degree C.” Locals say that as Sanganer had a constant supply of fresh water, the printers used large quantities of it for printing and washing. Whereas, in Bagru, which faced water scarcity, printers chose the techniques of resist dye. All these natural elements make each piece of garment  different from the other. Moreover, flaws that creep in while printing – are celebrated – with a disclaimer stating that it’s the nature of the fabric and it should be appreciated as thus.

Large, block printed fabrics set out to dry after the steaming process in Bagru village

A similar pride in inconsistencies of printing is reflected in collection of designer brand Asha Gautam, whose store in New Delhi is filled with one-of-a-kind sarees, lehengas and anarkalis with traditional block-printing. A collaboration of the mother-son duo Asha Gupta and Gautam Gupta, the brand provides employment to over 25 block printers from Rajasthan. “We also have a large team of embroiders working for us. These craftsmen not only produce the most unique designs for our collections, but our design inputs also help them evolve,” explains Gautam. The company also operates clusters in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Nashik (Maharashtra), Limdi (Gujarat) and Sanganer. “What we have done in our last collection is merge Sanganeri block printing with other arts and experiment with the fabric. For example, in a saree, we have combined block print with kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh on silk georgette fabric” he explains. Adding, “A traditional craft looks beautiful on its own but sometimes we have to experiment and try variations to appeal to the new-age customer.  For the second generation of artists to get interested in block printing, we need to get them more business and more financial stability.”

In Jaipur, where most of these block-printed textiles are sold, even royals have joined the bandwagon to preserve this heritage. Two designers from the erstwhile royal families of Baria near Ajmer and Danta in the state’s Sikar district, who recently showcased their collections at the Royal Fables exhibition held in Vadodara, are using block printing to craft delicate kota doria (a traditional form of weaving, in which silk and cotton are interwoven to create very light-weight fabrics with square patterns) sarees; anarkali (a style of flowy kurta) suits in fine cotton, and home linen for export. Jaykirti Singh of Baria, who retails out of stores in New Delhi, as well as Jaipur, Mumbai and Indore, has a library of 1,000 wooden blocks, and has been fashioning garments with block prints for the last 20 years at her inhouse unit in Jaipur that employs 35 artisans. “I want to preserve this unique craft of my homeland. I’m also training young boys so that it holds their interest and the craft survives,” says Singh.

Local craftsmen carefully hand printing vibrant designs on fabrics near Jaipur

Richa Rajya Lakshmi of Danta says that she tries to align her work with traditions. “Originally, as block printing was done on white fabric, my pieces too are all white. I don’t dye the fabric – I add colour with blocks,” says Rajya Lakshmi, who supplies to stores in Ahmedabad. “I design my own blocks, mixing traditional patterns with those inspired by the images of Indian forts and palaces” the designer says, whose most impressive work is undoubtedly the block prints in her home furnishing collections  The Rajasthani block prints are not just a mere form of textile ornamentation but a cultural heritage that needs to be promoted and preserved for posterity. Thankfully, as designers innovate, the demand for hand-printed products increase and consumers across the world become more sensitive towards artists’ skill, it seems that block printers of Sanganer and Bagru will keep thumping patterns on fabric for years to come.

Priya Rana

A well-known name in the fashion industry, Priya Rana is a leading Fashion writer who has helmed major publications in India. Rana serves as the Executive Editor at Outlook Splurge. She has also worked as the Editor of India Deluxe Life and as the Executive Editor at Harper's Bazaar. She has also served as the Managing Editor at Oxford University Press.
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