Earlier this year my latest travel trip brought me again to my beloved incredible India and Sri Lanka where I fell in love with the earliest and simplest forms of textile printing. Traditional Indian block print was always an inspiration, but only now I discovered it completely for myself and found a partner in Jaipur, Rajasthan, who transformed my ideas into reality.
The traditional process of hand block printing on textiles, with rich natural colors, has been practiced in Rajasthan for around 500 years. Block printing was introduced to the Jaipur region of Rajasthan by the so called Chhipa community. This community was originally located in Bagru Village, an area now famous for its vegetable dye and mud resist block prints. The art of block printing has been passed down for generations within families and communities and has branched out in recent decades to other regions such as Sanganer, just south of Jaipur. In traditional Bagru style block printing, the ‘recipes’ for the traditional plant-based dyes are developed within each family and kept alive from generation to generation. The colors are dependent on the quality of the plants, the water and skill and knowledge of the printing masters.
A print starts with the design, drawn on paper and carved into the Sheesham wood block. The physical block is the design for a single repeat which is then stamped in rows across the fabric. Each color in the design is carved into a separate block. The outline block or ‘rekh’ is the most intricate and usually stamped first; it is typically the outline for a floral or lattice type design. Next comes the fill block or ‘datta’ and possibly the ground color block or ‘gud’ depending on the color scheme used. Block carving is in itself an art requiring years of apprenticeship to gain mastery and is done entirely by hand.
Once the blocks are carved, the master printer prepares the colors which will be used in printing. The colors are then poured into wooden trays and the blocks stamped in the color each time, then stamped onto the fabric to form the repeat pattern. Each color pattern is stamped individually onto the fabric; the process takes skill and time, as the pattern must be stamped repeatedly across the fabric, color by color. The slight human irregularities — inevitable in handwork — create the artistic effect emblematic of block prints. The final outcome of this intricate labor is a timeless beauty and every garment made from this fabric is unique.
The block printing villages are known for their rhythmic ‘tock-tock’ sound of the block printer hitting the wood block to ‘stamp’ the pattern. It is an enchanting sound which echoes through the village and is a reminder of the significance of artisan work.
Block printing is typically done in open-air facilities in villages or in people’s homes. It provides a source of income to many village families and is an environmentally positive approach to textile production in rural India. It is also a method of decentralized production following Gandhi’s philosophy of keeping more people employed within their traditional environment. While often men have been the printing masters, in small-scale, traditional production, women also become skilled printers. Traditional printing is often done in family units which provides more income for the whole family and allows women to work within the day-to-day routine of family life.
Photo credit: Pradeep from Karni Jaipur / Pinterest