The wooden blocks are used to create printed fabrics used for making garments, with traditional or contemporary patterns and motifs. The blocks are dipped in various natural and synthetic dyes and pressed on the fabric to imprint the carved design.
At the heights of the Saudagiri trade period, printing was done in Ahmedabad by a group of printers comprising the Muslim 'Chippa' community and thirty Hindu 'Bhavsar' families of Pethapur. Each printer specialized in printing a design or a particular set of them. A 'Khepio' (messenger) would regularly travel on foot from Pethapur to Ahmedabad, carrying blocks along with special instructions to the printers and bringing back any specifications. He would be paid half a rupee for each trip. The ruler of Pethapur is believed to have granted farms to the craftsmen community as an aid that would help them during financial scarcity. This proved to be a boon for the craftsmen during the monsoon months, when printing work would come to a standstill. Cultivating the land served as a secondary seasonal occupation as well as a much needed source of income during a dry spell.
A unique feature of these blocks is the use of Teak or 'Saagwaan' wood as the only kind of wood used in their making. This wood is of high quality and the veins are spread out, making it highly suitable for chiseling the designs.
The specifications of block have been kept constant for centuries, keeping the end user in mind. The human hand can only hold block dimensions of 7x7 inches and 3x4 inches for a long period of time, therefore the blocks created for constant use are made in these sizes. The weight of the block is also taken into consideration as it cannot be too light or too heavy. This causes inconvenience during carving and irregular chipping during usage.
Myths & Legends
There is a folktale associated with block making in this region; several years ago the women of Pethapur village got fed up of plain Sarees which they used to wear every day. In those days, not much was done to ornament the textiles. Hence, they came up with an idea of putting patterns on their plain Sarees. They dipped their bangles, pendants and rings in dye solutions and stamped them on these Sarees. As the men in the area took to woodwork and as they got to know about their unique way of printing; they carved those patterns on wood. Printers and dyers from nearby region also started coming to Pethapur for block making.
India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century AD. The country was one of the largest exporters of textiles from the 16th century AD till the beginning of the 19th century AD. In the exported textiles, 'Chintz' was the most sought after fabric though it was also produced in Europe. This was the name given to any cotton or linen fabric with floral patterns and fast colours. The brilliance and fastness of the colours in 'Indian Chintz' made it more appealing to the European buyers in the 17th century, than the very same fabric produced in their homeland.
The Chinese chronicles report the arrival of printed cloth in China from India in 140 BC. Samples of Indian block printed fabric have been found in Europe, in the 16th century grave of 'St. Caesarius of Arles'. Very few pieces of fabric have survived the wearing of time and season, especially the monsoons. Practically all the material evidence before the 16th century seems to have been washed out.
Indian fabrics have also been found at 'Fostat', in the outskirts of Cairo and were excavated during the latter part of the 19th century. A Frenchman named R. Fisher made the first concentrated study of the fabrics made before the 17th century - distinguishing them into 'Block printed' and 'Resist dyed'. These were exported in bulk and were created for the masses rather than the elite.
The manner of printing helped distinguish between the fine and the commonplace chintz. The fine one was usually painted. Mordant and resists were applied in freehand using a brush or pen. Whereas the common place chintz was printed. The gum-thickened mordant was applied using printing wooden blocks. In the paintings, outlines were impressed by blocks or blocks were used for transferring the resist material such as wax, clay or starch.
Block clamps were the substitute of block making when India was the largest exporter of chintz. These were blocks with designs carved on both sides symmetrically. The fabric would be clamped to the block and the dye poured through the holes in the blocks would penetrate the unclamped spaces in the design. These blocks were mostly used when there were heavy Chinese, Persian and European influences in the trade.
These fabrics thus point to an earlier existence of the craft of block-making and have survived in India since the 15th century. The additions or influences of various elements in design indicate the stages and eras the blocks have gone through. Towns like Farukkabad and Machilipatnam have sustained themselves on European and Chinese trade. The 'Tree of Life' motifs are prominent presences. Machilipatnam also has Baroque and Islamic influences since they catered to the Iranian market for a considerable time. Sanganer block prints from Jaipur have existed for around 250 years. The designs of these blocks only feature 'buttas' and 'buttis' in evenly spaced floral prints. The Ajrakh designs in block printing from Dhamadka in Gujarat have strong resemblances to the prints found in Fostat.
Pethapur, Gujarat was a centre for block-making for more than a hundred years. It is considered a profession passed on through generations of craftsmen. The profession gained importance and popularity early in the colonial period. Pethapur block makers played a crucial role in heightening the export of the Saudagiri block printed fabric. At that time, almost all of Pethapur was brimming with block-making craftsmen. The village suffered wars and invasions but the craft flourished under the patronage of Indian kings and the British. After the decline of the Saudagiri trade in 1940, much of the work was taken away from the artisans. Many of them turned to other styles of block making in keeping with the changing needs. This led to each artisan mastering certain designs and styles.
According to the craftsmen, one of the first few families in Pethapur to be involved in this craft was the Bhavsars. The others included Gajjars, Prajapatis, Mistris and Thakores. After the trade died down, the families were quite protective about their skill and would pass them on only to their own. The Bhavsars ended up changing profession whereas the headstrong Prajapatis propagated the craft through their younger generations and also to willing artisans outside the family. Today Pethapur is one of the very few remaining block-making centres. With a craftsman winning National award as a Master craftsperson, increasing the eminence of the village. It is now a thriving centre with many people coming in - both curious visitors and the ones who wish to work with them. This indigenous industry received a great boost during the Swadeshi movement, the effect of which has also diminished over the years.
Traditional Pethapur block patterns were exclusively intended for export fabrics and the patterns were inspired from the medieval architecture of Sarkhej and Patan. The craftsmen have a collection of over 2 lakh designs where some are traditional while others are customized specifications given by designers. The craftsmen divide them into categories based on their origins like 'Ajrakh', 'Bagru', 'Sanganer', 'Saudagiri', etc.
A common feature seen in block print designs are dots that adorn the spaces between the two lines and is mostly seen in the Ajrakh blocks. The dots have the same diameter in most of the designs. Earlier these dots were carved out by hand, but now brass nails are used to fill the spaces between the two walls of the design, wherever required. This aspect is crucial in determining the expertise of the artisan.
Stark influences of the Mughal era are seen in the designs. The Muslims followed a sense of strong geometry in their patterns and most patterns were formed by the interaction of two or more circles. The Ajrakh blocks were designed taking inspiration from the Muslim architectural elements that form the 'Mizan' - balance and order. The repeat patterns were determined by the grid system. Abstract symmetric representation of surrounding elements and environment were used.
These blocks had a strong persian influence in their designs, as the fabrics were exported to Persia. The traditional Sanganeri patterns have been in existence for as long as 250 years and features delicate floral motifs spaced evenly across a white, pale blue or yellow field. The flowers depicted in the 'buttis' or 'buttas' usually, are iris, narcissus, lily, rose, carnation etc. The flowers or shrubs indigenous to the area are not featured.
These designs trace their origins to when India was trading in Chintz. The Saudagiri block designs borrow immensely from their Sanganeri counterparts with the only variation being that the 'Buttas' or 'Buttis' were interconnected through a lattice-work or creeper pattern.
Block making is a craft that requires high levels of concentration and looking at the designs really up close. Constant pressure on the eyesight of the craftsman causes deterioration over time. They work from morning to early evenings, as this is when they can harness maximum natural light with less strain on the eyes. All the work on the block is hand-done. The smoothening of the blocks cannot be done in factories since the heat applied would split the veins of the wood. It is thus done manually which is time consuming.