Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
Traditionally block printed fabric was traded to the nomadic tribes at local markets. The intricacy and beauty caught on and later it was used as drapery by the royalty too. The versatility of the fabric has lent it to be used in making Sarees, Dupattas, Kurtas, Stoles, home linen and on products such as lamps.
Block print technique is known for its versatile nature, where a combination of various motifs is used to achieve a beautiful patterned fabric. Craftsmen enjoy the versatile nature of the craft as it provides them the freedom to experiment and create new designs. According to them the work with hands never ceases to stop exploration on various designs, as opposed to the screen printing done using machines. These prints have become a rarity now and a few of the old fabrics preserved by traditional craftsmen can be found in the museums today. It is only due to the passion and genuine interest shown by the craftsmen, that a highly skill based craft has survived till today.
The craft of block printing was practiced in Sindh and is believed to have existed from as far back as 3000 BC. The fabrics unearthed at sites like ‘Fustat’ in Egypt are believed to be block printed Indian fabric. The Gujarati port of ‘Bharuch’ appears in the records of Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC- AD 20) as ‘Barygaza’ from where a variety of Indian textiles were exported to the west. The craft was mastered by the civilizations which flourished around the Indus River in Sindh area. The river provided both a site for washing clothes and the water needed to grow indigo.
The bust of a ‘King Priest’ excavated at a site in Mohenjedaro shows him draped in a block print fabric that bears strong testament to its ancient lineage.
Printing and dyeing flourished in Rajasthan in the medieval ages and the influences brimmed over to Gujarat. The craftsmen in Gujarat developed an expertise in printing with wooden blocks. Printed fabric was a frequent element in royal processions with which they made tents when the battalion rested.
Soon auxiliary industries such as yarn spinning and dyeing began to be practiced in accordance to the seasons conducive to fabric printing.
Printed fabric from India was traded to Egypt, Rome, Indonesia and the Far East. ‘Surat’ was established as the main centre for export of printed cotton fabric. In Gujarat, ‘Pethapur’ flourished as the centre for making wooden blocks. Intricate traditional designs were chipped in by artisan families. The prints came to be known as ‘Saudagiri’ prints as ‘Saudagars’ or traders used to gather at fairs, markets or ‘Haats’ and sold their printed fabric to common folk as well as royalty. In Indore, the craft is still followed by the fifth generation of block printers who had come from ‘Nagore’ village of Rajasthan. They were Hindus who converted to Islam during the reign of ruler ‘Feroz Shah’ and travelled to Ujjain to serve the king, who had invited them to settle in his kingdom, due to their excellent craftsmanship. Later they spread to other regions including Indore, as their popularity grew.
The blocks incorporate designs which are traditional as well as contemporary variations. They are of different shapes and have designs carved at the bottom of the block. Teak wood is used for making them on which designs are made by skilled craftsman. The cloth is dyed into a solid color on which a latticework of patterns is stamped with the blocks dipped in dye. These patterns are formed by various motifs. The patterns are floral, free form and geometric. They are mostly inspired from local environmental elements. Intricate patterns are chipped with references from monuments, mosques, temples etc. Even old photographs are referenced for ideas. They can have large ‘Bootas’, small ‘Bootis’, trellis or ‘Jaal’ shaped designs, small borders, large borders and sometimes even geometric designs are used. Each design normally has a maximum number of three colors only and each color is derived from a separate block.
A crucial requirement for block printed fabrics is the availability of flowing water. But due to falling natural water tables and scarcity of available natural resources, many craftsmen have come to rely on man-made water tanks for flowing water. This is an expensive affair and increases the costs of production.
The natural colorants have also been replaced by chemical dyes. The onset of screen printing also poses a threat to the art of block printing since it is faster and cheaper.
With increasing difficulties in practicing the craft, the young generation of many craftsmen chooses to follow more lucrative careers, resulting in very few successors to carry on the craft tradition. In Indore, where almost 60-70 families would practice the craft before, only 2-3 families chooses to follow it now.
Wooden blocks– The wood blocks made from seasoned teak wood are sourced from the towns of ‘Pethapur’, ‘Ferozabad’ and ‘Sanganer’.
Dyes- Natural as well as synthetic dyes such as pigment dyes, discharge dyes, reactive dyes and vegetable dyes are used.
Khar or Starch– It is used along with castor oil to treat the fabric before being washed out.
Castor oil– Used along with starch to treat the fabric.
Harda– This is used to give the fabric an off white color.
Fitkari or Alum– It is mixed along with indigo dye to achieve a green color and mixed with black to get a chocolate brown color.
Iron– Iron is heated and put in water to obtain the black color from where it is singes. The rust is also used for color.
Glue– It is mixed with pigment binder to create a thick viscous liquid. This gives the color tray a soft base which helps to spread color evenly on the wooden block.
Newspaper– The printed fabric is rolled up inside newspaper sheets to prevent the dye from spreading onto other layers.
Coarse piece of cotton cloth– It is used inside a tray containing the dye. The cloth soaks up the dye and blocks are pressed on it instead of direct dye application. This prevents dripping of color.
As the fabric is washed in water mixed with starch solution, water wastage is involved. Measures should be taken to reuse the water for other purposes. The remaining dyes or colors are not wasted as they can be mixed with kerosene and re-used.
Wooden blocks- Made of seasoned teak wood, the wooden blocks are the main tools of the printers. These blocks are carved in accordance to the designs given by the craftsmen in Pethapur, Ferozabad or Sanganer and are etched on the underside of the block. About two to three holes are drilled vertically and horizontally across the body of the block, which ensures free air passage and release of excess printing paste. This special feature is unique to these blocks.
Dyeing Trays- Trays made of wood or plastic are used to fill the dye and it is mixed with the help of various ladles. A thin bamboo trellis is fixed into the tray of dye mixture and this holds a coarse piece of cotton cloth. The cloth has been soaked in dye and the blocks are pressed onto it, rather than being dipped in the solution. This enables the dye to spread more evenly onto the block and not drip.
Printing tables- These are raised wooden blocks and are 5 feet by 3 feet in dimension. Bricks and smaller wooden blocks are used to uniformly raise this platform by 9 inches. Printing begins on these after they are covered with layers of plain cloth and jute for protection.
Paper Stencils– Paper stencils are used for outlining the border designs, in case of apparels like kurtas.
Metal Pins– The fabric to be printed is stretched out on a wooden table uniformly and fastened using strong metal pins.
Wooden trolley– It is used to store colors on its racks and the printer drags the trolley along as he prints.
Boilers– These are used to steam printed fabric and fasten their colors.
Bamboo trellis– A thin bamboo trellis is fixed into the tray with dye mixture to hold a coarse piece of cotton cloth.
The beautifully symmetrical pattern of block printed fabric is created by pressing intricately carved hand held wooden blocks that have been dipped in dye. Beautiful motifs using vibrant colors are created across yards of fabric which is then treated with various stages of resist dyeing.
Before printing begins, the fabric has to be treated where the fabric is treated with ‘Khar’ (starch) and castor oil. It is then washed thoroughly to remove the factory starch. Later it is treated with ‘Harda’ to achieve an off white tint to the fabric. If the natural grey of the fabric is not desired then it is bleached to obtain a stark white color. The fabric is also sometimes dyed to get a base color at this stage and washed to remove excess dye. It is then stretched evenly over a wooden table and fastened uniformly using strong pins.
Iron is heated and put in water to obtain the black color from where it is singes. The rust obtained from iron is also used for color. Alum also known as ‘Fitkari’ is mixed with Indigo to get a green color, and mixed with black to get a chocolate brown color.
The wooden blocks are used at this stage. The Color is kept in a tray on a wheeled wooden trolley with racks which the printer drags along as he works. The tray of color rests on another tray which contains a thick viscous liquid made from the pigment binder and glue. This gives the color tray a soft base which helps to spread color evenly on the wooden block. The fabric is printed by hand from left to right. Different printers/ craftsmen are involved in the stages.
One layer of blocks is pressed appropriately with adequate pressure to get the pattern. This is repeated as per requirement. In case another set of prints is needed, this is done by the other craftsman. Paper stencils are placed on the fabric for outlining the border designs, in case of apparels like ‘Kurtas’. Approximately 30 to 35 m of a single color fabric, per day is finished by one person.
After the block printing is done; the fabric is then dried in the sun. It is rolled in newspaper to prevent the dye from spilling on to other layers and is then steamed in boilers. The fabric is again washed in large quantities of water and finally dried. The process is finished by ironing as this makes the color become permanent.
List of craftsmen.