The artisans of Sanganer worked for three types of royal patrons: nobility and courtiers, temple devotees and everyday clients. Destined for kings and queens, royal attire required the most sophisticated printing and dyeing techniques. Remarkable depictions of flowers dance across the courtly cloth. Whereas local and temple textiles featured indigenous flora, fabrics designated for royalty often portrayed flowers from foreign lands.
During the 18th century, the famed chhipa and rangrez communities of Sanganer expanded their trade by uniting to create delicately patterned and coloured muslin material for a broad clientele. Royal patronage fueled domestic trade and eventually launched the work of the Sanganeri craftspeople into the international arena.
Myths & Legends
The oral tradition of the Sanganer chhipa community incorporates a myth to explain the source of their inherited dye and print knowledge. Their elders recite various versions of the tale but all renditions focus on the popular Sant Namdev, a nomadic mystical poet and chhipa. If a printer in Sanganer is asked of the origin of his art, Kimvadanti is narrated. In the time of the Sultana, the king of Sanganer, there lived a pious man named Namdeo. One night, in a dream, the process of vegetable dyeing was explained to Namdeo. In the morning, Namdeo called his friends and instructed them with what he had dreamt. The people were grateful to Namdeo and accepted it as a gift from God. The popularity of this parable reinforces the traditional belief that Indian crafts result from the harmony existing between religious devotion and the practice of art. For the block printing community the process of creating colours on cloth is a religious act and the ability of natural dyes to impregnate cotton with colour, evokes mystical connotations. Sant Namdev is omnipresent in the streets and alleys of modern Sanganer. Numerous shrines dedicated in his honor dot the cityscape and his image frequently appears on a popular poster that adorns the workplace of many chhipa families. At the heart of the old town in the Chhipa Basti neighborhood, Namdev Chowk square and Namdev ka Mandir temple preserve his name for posterity.
The origin of the printing craft in Sanganer prior to the establishment of Jaipur is speculative. Some Hindu block printers claim their forbearers arrived from Gujarat and historical records support this claim. The social upheavals that occurred during the wars of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb during the mid-17th Century, flowed by incursions of raiding Marathas, may have forced Gujarati printers to flee to Sanganer. The flow of ideas between Gujarat and Rajasthan fostered aesthetic similarities marked by the clear bold lines appearing in both state's printing styles. As Jaipur's population grew, the commercial areas became increasingly congested and craftsmen soiled outside the confining city walls. Oral tradition suggests that the chhipa families of Jaipur began to shift their work to locations where space and running water were freely available, yet still within easy reaches of the capital. The riverbanks of Sanganer presented the ideal location with the added benefit of specialist dyers and cloth bleachers residing in the town. These artisans formed a large, supportive community with block printing at the core of their culture.
BLOCK CARVING: A critical component of block printing is block carving and it is an art form in itself. The stamp underpins the work of every chhipa. The block carving community of Sanganer is often overlooked; yet, these small businesses illustrate the shifting dynamics of Sanganer's textile industry. Historically, block carvers worked from a repertoire of designs designated to a particular community. As the old blocks aged with repetitive use, they were mended or replaced with fresh blocks bearing the same classic motifs. Close proximity between the carvers and printers was unnecessary and at times, hundreds of miles divided these craftspeople. Until the 20th Century, local families of block carvers lived mainly in the 'Purani Basti' district of Jaipur's walled city. Very few families based themselves in Sanganer. Those who did live there, tended to be carvers who mended old blocks rather than those who created new blocks. Then in the late 1970s, the number of traditional carvers and printers in Sanganer grew following an exodus of artisans from Farukkhabad. Suffering with the pressure of competing with modern printing methods, these migrant craftspeople looked to Sanganer and Jaipur to provide
Original textile products of Sanganer were roughly divided into three categories:
1.The 'Syahi Begar' black and red designs on gossamer white cloth were worn as safa turbans or angochha shawls by men of the local community.
2. Buti sprigged floral motifs stamped upon softly coloured or white backgrounds graced Jaipur court society.
3. Dupattas and shawls bearing auspicious red designs on a white or yellow background adorned the pious attendees at Hindu temples.
Menswear constituted the majority of Sanganer's printed fabric. In Rajasthan, traditional male attire consists of a simple series of garments like the 'dhoti', one example of India's famed aptitude for taking a single piece of unstitched cloth and folding it into a complex garment. Ordinarily, he wears a white kurta long shirt along with a bundi vest, worn underneath in winter or donned as outwear in the summer. Next, he winds a length of cloth around his head as a safa turban. To complete his outfit, he tosses an angochha shawl either over his shoulder or around his neck or waist.
Many chhipas in Sanganer remember the regular production of printed designs for local women. Some patterns mimicked the bandhani-tie-dyed head cloths particular to local Mali and Mina women. The bright yellow Mali chunnari or veil cloth is distinctively patterned with a single large red circular motif in the center of the rectangular cloth. On the other hand, the Mina Chaddar, a heavy cotton shawl, is covered with small flower-shaped arrangements of simple red dots on a dark-black background.
Home furnishings incorporate a wealth of folk imagery. Regimented borders of flowers, vines, animals and human figures flank the geometric jaal patterns in the center. Ranks of small soldiers accompanied by decorated cows, elephants or horses compete with vignettes depicting popular folk tales. These large textiles enable a block printer to exhibit his creative flair because each piece is a unique combination of block designs derived from the printer's personal collection and filled with hidden clues to the client's identity.
BLOCK CARVING: For hundreds of years the traditional blocks used by Sanganeri chhipas were recognized by their diminutive size and detailed carving, Fundanbhaya, a local block carver, describes these tiny old-fashioned printing blocks as 'cigarette packets' that look like children's toys next to the modern blocks. This animated 68-year-old carver is the son of a handloom weaver and started making blocks at the age of 12. By the end of the 1980s, organized borders of 'butah' and 'buti' combinations gave way to stripes, geometrics and irregular bold repeats. To compete with screen-printing, the size of the blocks increased by three to four times from their original size. According to the 2008 census there are 52 block carving units in Sanganer today. They receive regular orders from local printing units but their numbers are shrinking in conjunction with the block printers.
Their links with Farukkhabad remain strong; carvers regularly visit family members, as well as order 'shisham' rosewood from local timber merchants. Carvers' workshops lining the lanes of Sanganer are a familiar sight. Open-fronted shops contain stacks of seasoned, sliced wood inside. They work under the front awning, squatting at small three-legged tables. Unfazed the cacophony of tapping which fills the air, each worker guides his tiny chisels across the face of a wooden block with utmost precision. Every carver retains a traditional toolkit: a personal and unique set of over thirty miniature chisels, well-worn hammers, and old-fashioned bow-drills. They don't use power drills or saws. They may save a carpenter some time, but are of no help to the block carver. The symbolic relationship between the art of hand carving wooden blocks and the skill of printing is now ingrained in the heart of Sanganer. Old and new designs sit side by side. Even though the traditional designs compete with new ones, the old blocks are compulsory because they were made, are made and will always be made.
Over the past three decades, block printing in Sanganer has increased dramatically because of an expansion in the textile market all over the world. With changing times, craftsmen have adopted cheaper and more easily available raw materials, which include the usage of chemical dyes in abundance and the almost null use of the traditional natural dyes. Chemical dyes, which offer an abundant variety of colours picked up a rapid sale in the market and soon, majority of the printers made a shift to the same. With over 400 chemical dye dealers in Jaipur alone, the sudden shift became prevalent even in the domestic markets. This began taking a toll on the ground water of Sanganer and surrounding areas. When the printed fabrics would be washed, over and over again, the chemicals from the dyes would seep into the ground water making the water unsuitable for drinking and other purposes directly related to human beings and animals. Today, the groundwater here is so polluted that government has released orders to shut down all printing units in the Sanganer area.
Along with environmental challenges, the availability of artificial printing material and change in the trends and forecasts of the markets has resulted in the loss of identity of the Sanganeri prints. There has been a major shift in the colours used, the motifs used, the fabrics used and the purpose of the making a certain kind of print. Globalization and the mass expansion of the printing industry ahs led to a certain loss of essence of the Sanganeri prints.
Also, with the coming of screen-printing, which produces printed fabric way cheaper and faster than block printing, it has taken up the majority of the market demand for block printing.