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.
Myths & Legends
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.