Jan 1, 1200 - Jan 1, 2013

Past-Continuous: Block Printing on Textiles in India 

Craft Revival Trust

  “We Chippas, can block print on anything… give us even a rock and we will show you how we do it.”  - Block printer, Bagh, Madhya Pradesh 
By Ritu Sethi

The textile tradition of the Indian sub-continent was seeded over five thousand years ago in the Harrapan Civilization (c. 2600-1900 BCE).Excavations at Harrapan sites unveiled evidence of cotton fiber cultivation, weaving tools and needles, the identification of structures as dyeing workshops and the finding of a single fragment of madder dyed cotton, while indigo seeds were uncovered at other sites revealed a civilization with an advanced textile know-how.  The stone bust of the Priest-King at Mohenjodaro, his left shoulder draped in a robe with a trefoil design, signaled a long developed tradition of patterning and decorating textiles.

The earliest surviving samples of block printed patterned and dyed cotton textiles can be dated to the 9th Century BCE. These fragments of trade cloth were uncovered at a burial site in Fustat, Egypt, their origin traced by scholars to Gujarat.

Celebrated in literature and poetry, extolled by travelers and traded across the world the textiles of the Indian sub-continent whether woven, embroidered, painted, printed or dyed in myriad colors have been renowned since antiquity.  Among the wide variety of decorative techniques honed by craftsmanship was the patterning on textiles through stamping with blocks.

The practice of block printing and dyed textiles was spread across centers in India. The tools used were seemingly simple yet technologically evolved – blocks carved with patterns and motifs, intricate or complex. Understanding of plants and minerals led to the development of advanced technologies of laying on multiple colors. The knowledge of fastener agents, adhering colors binding them to textile fibers, developing shades and spectrums of colors and hues, processes of resist and reserve dyeing, that used pastes of mud, wax or lac were only some of the technologies that craft communities had developed and mastered.

Over the ages command over the medium allowed craftspeople to respond with creativity and inventiveness to the varying demands of their clientele who covered the spectrum from courts and courtiers to peasants and tribal’s, from textiles created for places of worship to trade goods coveted the world over. The block printers fashioned cloth for requirements extending from clothing to hangings, tents, animal trappings, furnishing to book covers and any other uses that textiles could be put to. 

The huge diversity of traditions, while held together by an underlying unity varied immensely from region to region in  practices and techniques, each center stamping on its own unique cultural identity, adapting technologies to suit local geographies, leading to specialization and differentiation.

Though much has been lost in antiquity, many fabled traditions continue till today, even though much diminished. the resilience of the craftspeople has kept alive the link between the past and the present, demonstrating the continued relevance of hand block printed textiles to the present day.

Overviews of a select few of the diverse traditions that continue to be practiced in centers across India are presented -  

VARAK GOLD AND SILVER LEAF PRINTING

Precious metal Varak leaf created by flattening gold or silver to a fine paper like consistency was hand printed onto flags, coats of arm, royal tents and other insignias of power to reflect the status and prestige of the possessor. The use of this  gilding extended to textiles traded in India and overseas for use as clothing and as furnishing. Embellishing sacred purpose textiles,  the tradition of Varak leaf printing continues to be employed to decorate temple textiles today. 

Given the Indian fondness for ornamentation and the wide selection of available options, the choice of  Varak as an embellishment  technique  depended on  not only the glamour quotient and the characteristics of the textile base but equally to  the budget available and the  use the finished product would be put to. Glittering Varak  leaf prints, had a niche use, while reminiscent of the costly brocades woven with precious metal thread and zari embroideries, they were more reasonably priced;  the textiles however did not  lend themselves to the rigours of washing their gleam  fading away over time.

The making of Varak printed textiles can be traced to large temple towns and several erstwhile royal cities in India. Now the traditional practice of Varak block printing is rare. In Jaipur the capital city of Rajasthan only two printers continue the tradition.

Printed Textile with Silver Varak Leaf
Border of a temple frieze hanging hand printed with gold Varak

The craftsman has a choice of three different tools, used alone or in combination to create the patterning -carved wood blocks, metal perforated stencils or a fine brush. The eventual permutation depends on what the printer feels is most appropriate to the pattern and  motif mix.

Hanging or cover for the steps of a shrine
Fine gold Varak before its use

MATA NI PACHEDI, RITUAL TEXTILES OF THE VAGHRI

The ritual shrine cloth of the Mata Ni Pachedi serves as a backdrop during the worship of Mata, the Hindu mother-goddess.  The Pachedis celebrate the 64 Jogini forms of the Mata. Manifest through her divine cosmic energy, the Mata  defeats evil, through the duality of her creative and destructive aspects. 

Venerated by tribal and peasant communities that include the Bharwad, the Koli, the Rawal, the Vaghri, the Rabari and the Devipujak  the Mata is worshipped at times of illness and misfortune, for wish fulfillment and during the nine nights of the Navratri festival.

Presently there are only 12 households engaged in creating these ritual textiles in Ahmedabad, all belonging to the same family of Vaghris. According to the  community, the Mata Ni Pachedi tradition was introduced to Ahmedabad about three centuries ago when their ancestors migrated here from the village of Ashoknagar in the Chunwar area of Saurashtra due to floods.

Close up of the central deity

The central image consecrated in the textile is that of the mother goddess, depicted with all her unique attributes. The central foci is the sanctum sanctorum, usually rectangular in shape, densely hemmed in by symbolic figures of deities, flora, fauna, ritual objects, followers, and worshipers.Characterized by strong, clear, bold lines, the austere, yet bold colors of blood-red, black and white of the Pachedis are both hand-painted and block printed. Defined by sections and borders, patterned with geometric motifs, floral forms, and figurative representations, the inventory of blocks used to depict the  iconographic images and attributes of the tradition can sometimes numbers more than 500.

DEESA DABU CLAY RESIST HAND BLOCK PRINTING

Located in the northern most region of Gujarat, Deesa is sited on the banks of the river Banas which in the past provided the mineral rich waters for the textiles colors to blossom in its wash. The local populace provides the clientele for the full length drawstring gathered ghagara skirts, the head mantle odhnis, the saris and the pagdi head turbans. 

Skilled printers juggle the choice of the cotton textile base according to the final outfitting, while selecting the motifs, planning their placement and dying the colors according to their clients’ ritual requirements.

The layouts for the garments being printed require specific orientations and motifs. The sari with its pallu end piece, borders and the patterning in the field; the ghagaras, a minimum 10 meter hard wearing cotton length, requiring borders on two sides; the head mantle with its four sided border, a central motif and overall patterning, while the pagdi requires its own orientation. 

Blocks for Dabu are ingeniously carved, the motifs deeply incised are a hairbreadth smaller that the final dimensions required, keeping in mind the slight diffusion of the Dabu paste as it is stamped on.

Motifs and colors specific to caste and tribe are printed to suit the Patels, Bhils, Rabari, Mali and other peasant communities, identifying the wearers affiliations, status and social standing. 

A Set of Blocks

GOLD AND SILVER DUST KHARI HAND BLOCK PRINTING 

Traditional Khari printing used the dust of precious metals to ornament plain or printed textiles with motifs, patterning them with the sparkle of gold and silver for wear at weddings and festivities. Simulating the look of the high-priced Zardozi metal thread embroidery, the age old printing process remains the same though the use of precious metal dust has been largely substituted by crushed mica - chamki and other more affordable metal dust.

The stamping tools used in Khari printing  differ from other printing blocks. An ingenuous system madeup of two components, close fitted into each other. The outer sancha is a brass metal case, round, square, or any shape  suitable for the purpose  with the pattern to be printed perforated onto its base surface.  The inner component  is the hatha wooden mallet, fitting smoothly into the sancha metal sleeve.

Traditionally practiced across Rajasthan in its erstwhile royal capitals, the city of Jaipur continues to have a vibrant Khari hand printing community practicing their oral hereditary tradition. While in the neighboring State of Gujarat, only the family of  Nathubhai Rangrez, who migrated to Ahmadabad from Jaipur, in the 1960’s continues the tradition of hand printing Khari. 

Unlike other block printing processes Khari printing does not permeating the textile surface as it is a surface embellishment.  Thus extending its usage to finished textiles - plain, dyed, printed, embroidered.

 The versatility of the printer now extends not only to the wide range of textile fibers  and finishes available, but to paper as well.

Gold and Silver Khari prints

BAGRU CLAY RESIST HAND BLOCK PRINTING

Bagru, a small town contiguous with Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, has long been known for its clay resist dabu process of patterning on textiles. This tradition  remains vibrant, the hereditary Chippa printers continuing to practice and transmit their skills orally and through apprenticeship.

In the past the Chippa community of printers had block-printed on coarse hardwearing Reja cotton for the local tribal and peasant communities. Now printing largely for a new urban market, the base textiles has been replaced by finer textured weaves. 

While much has changed the print technology followed and the color palette of deep red, indigo-blue, green, iron-black and marigold yellow remains the same even though chemical dyes have largely replaced the natural dyes of the past.

A contemperorary Bagru Clay Resist Hand Block Print

The motifs, whether floral or geometric, are hand-blocked on, in a complex process. The specially prepared impermeable clay is blocked onto the textile at different stages to safeguard and retain the base color from additional dye dips.

The social significance of the printed textile, the colors and motifs printed indicated marital status and distinguished the ethnic identity of the wearer.

AKOLA MERN BLOCK PRINTING ON TEXTILE

According to oral lore the Cheepa community of block printers and the Neelgar community of indigo dyers have been working and living in Cheepon Ka Akola - the Akola of the Printers since at least 600 years, their memories extending back ten generations. Their clients, long-established dwellers in these parts belong to the tribal and peasant communities of the Jat, Gujjar, Raigar, Mali and others.

While a majority of the block printers in Akola have extended their markets beyond the borders of Rajasthan, even internationally, a small minority of three families continue to process the cotton, hand print the motifs and dye the colours according to the ritual needs of their time honoured clientele. 

The source and composition of the Mern resin is obscure; its use associated with the Cheepa printers deity Saint Namdev, who legend has it gifted them the secret of the Mern. The blocks for stamping the Mern resist are also unusual, being a combination of wood and metal.  

The Phentiya

The printing technique requires that the white dots on the fabric and the blood-red motifs be protected from the repeat dips in the indigo dye.  The application of the glutinous oily resinous Mern safeguards and secures these reserved colours, withstanding 8 to 12 dips in the boiling indigo vat. The immersions, conducted over a period of three to four days are each accompanied by air-drying for oxidization and sun-drying for colour development. The result, a deep blue-black colour as demanded by the client. The impermeable Mern resist protecting the base white and red motifs through the repeated dips and drying. 

While much has remained the same in Akola  there is also change, the Bedach River that flowed through the village with its mineral rich waters that enhanced the dyed colours is now dry, its sandy bed used for drying the dyed fabric. The weavers of the strong long-use Reja cotton cloth, the fabric of choice, have left their hereditary calling to move to other trades. The demand for Mern resist textiles is on the wane with the young not willing to carry on the tradition and urban fashions changing the sartorial needs of the clientele.

Ready for the Indigo Vat

The dramatic colour palette of indigo-blue, blood-red and white remains unchanged. The motifs, each known by name, are closely associated with the caste of the wearer, augmenting and underlining their identities.  Their hard wearing cotton prints converted into the full-gathered draw-string closure, phentiya long skirt and the head veil odhini for the women and the turban cloth for men.

HINDU SACRED VESTMENTS, THE NAMAVALI

The tradition of sacred vestments, woven, printed, painted, embroidered has long been part of the Hindu religious tradition. Donned during pujas, pilgrimages and at other religious ceremonies by the male Brahmin priest and often by the supplicant too, the Namavali  - literally string of names, have invocations to the deity, repeated as mantras across the field of the textile. A visible expression of devotion, the Namavali reflect religious and spiritual affiliations and beliefs. 

The printed Namavali shawl or a gamcha shoulder cloth are  purified and sanctified by the repeated mantras, often include easily understood religious symbols associated with the God being propitiated – the trident of the God Shiva, the footprints of Lord Vishnu, Om, the conch shell, the sacred cow, the venerated sun. 

 Namavali vestments continue to be used extensively across Northern and Eastern India during the observance of religious rites. 

Though now rarely block-printed, as screen-prints are cheaper and quicker to make, the Namavalis are available in both versions in specialized stores that retail items for prayers and pujas.

The Namavali has also found its way into the tourist trade.  Made-up into garments in the late 1960’s during the visit of the Beatles to the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, at the height of their fame. Its popularity as tourist memorabilia continues unabated as is apparent by its ubiquitous availability in shops at tourist destinations. 

Though now rarely block-printed, as screen-prints are cheaper and quicker to make, the Namavalis are available in both versions in specialized stores that retail items for prayers and pujas.

The Namavali has also found its way into the tourist trade.  Made-up into garments in the late 1960’s during the visit of the Beatles to the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, at the height of their fame. Its popularity as tourist memorabilia continues unabated as is apparent by its ubiquitous availability in shops at tourist destinations. 

AJRAK PRINT PATTERNS

The Ajrak geometric print pattern on cotton is created through a complex, time consuming sophisticated process of stamping and resist dyeing. Accomplished Ajrak printers often work both sides of the textile to achieve the bipuri or mirror image print that further pushes the boundaries of technical virtuosity and requires great expertise and patience.

These traditional indigo-blue, iron-black, madder-red and white geometric patterned cotton textiles are customary dress of the Maldhari cattle herders, and the Manganyar and Langha itinerant musicians. Draped either as  a lunghi  that is worn around the waist, as a turban or as an all-purpose shoulder cloth, its wear can be seen in Kutch, Jaisalmer,  Jodhpur, Barmer and other areas along the western desert areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The traditional process of printing is in fourteen sequential stages, each comprising several steps that are accomplished over several days. The printers themselves, hereditary Khatri community craftsmen in Dhamadka and Ajrakpur in Kutch, Gujarat and in Barmer in Rajasthan trace their roots to Sindh in Pakistan, where too the tradition of printing and wearing the Ajrak continues to be vibrant.

The clientele of users has now widened to include the urban cognoscenti who value the sophistication and contemporary look of this traditional geometric patterning with its dramatic interplay of colors. The Khatri printers adapting the product range to suit their demands.

Made of hard wearing seasoned teak wood the block set required to print an Ajrak pattern include the Rekh  for the pattern outline, the colour filler blocks - the Datlo and the Kaatmavi, with the background colour being printed by the Gudh block. Each block working in complement with the other to create the whole design. Often more than 23 to 25 blocks may be required to complete a single Ajrakh patterned textile with combinations of patterns and border motifs. 

The block-making process starts with marking a right angle on the wood, this step ensures that the corners of each block when stamped are perfectly aligned and contiguous to the next stamp in the printing process.

While adept at making and repairing the blocks themselves, the printers use the services of the specialized block-maker community at Pethapur. 

BAGH PRINTS

Madhya Pradesh has a versatile tradition of hand-block printing spread across different centers in the State. The distinctiveness and particular style of each center incorporates a combination of the culture and tradition of the specific area, the raw materials locally available, the artisans skill set and the clienteles design aesthetics and customary requirement. Each centre retained its uniqueness till fairly recently as traditions were deep-rooted, distances vast, communication networks weak, and the mineral-rich waters that facilitated and added to the colors unique to each area. Distinct among the block-printing centers is Bagh. Legend has it that the village of Bagh, the Bagh river, and the nearby Bagh caves dated to 3rd and 5th century CE, with rich carvings and paintings dedicated to both Hindu as well as Buddhist deities got its name from the baghs or tigers that inhabited the region.

The Khatri community, who comprise the printers are believed to have come to Bagh  about 400 years ago from Larkana is Sind, which is famous for its Ajrak prints. Crossing the capricious Indus and settling in the interiors of India, far away from their ancestral homes, the Khatris brought with them their knowledge of dyeing and a strong tradition of hand block printing.

The printers settled near water sources, along the Bagh river, where they set up centers of hand block printing. Bagh's proximity to the river was an important reason for its selection as a printing site as flowing river water is vital to the process of dyeing and printing. It is believed that the waters of the Bagh river contribute to the richness to the colors of the Bagh print. Pointing perhaps to the high mineral content of the waters and its reaction to the dyes and mordants used in printing. 

The traditional clientele of the Bagh prints has shifted from the Bhil and Bhilala tribal communities for whom they printed to the urban middle class market. The dramatic red, black and white prints appealing to their new and transforming markets, the ratio of colour formation, their particular ways of printing and processing make their work specific and particular.

The Khatris design repertoire includes geometric and floral compositions that are curiously contemporary and striking. The motif blocks owned by the Khatris number in the thousands, some new and many inherited from generations. Some blocks are broken or not in use, but are never thrown away. Carefully stored considerable attention is paid towards their proper upkeep.

KALAMKARI BLOCK PRINTS

Kalamkari, another complex technique of block-printing on cloth is from Masulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The origin of the word Kalamkari is from kalam or pen and kari or work. The Kalamkari practiced here is a  mix of painting and hand-printing. This craft it is believed to have originated in the old city of Golconda after which it spread along the eastern coast up to Tamil Nadu. Originally known as Coromandel chintz, the textiles produced here are famous the world over.

The process followed is detailed and the fastness of the colors is ensured by washing, bleaching, and sunning. Mordants like alum are used to fix the colors onto the cloth. Wax is used as the resist agent when combinations of colors are used to embellish different parts of the design.  The wax-resist is hand-printed on to the fabric with a kalam or pen made of an iron loop attached to a bamboo stick. This step is done before the application of indigo. After the wax is removed by boiling, other colors are applied. The detailed coloring is done with a brush. Running water is used for washing and the process takes several days, weeks, or months depending on the length of the cotton cloth.  The blocks used are made by specialist artisans. These blocks have very detailed and elaborate designs carved on them.

This craft reached its zenith during British rule and was also in high demand as dress and furnishing material in Europe and SouthEast Asia. The motifs used were floral and animal designs.  The Persian influence on the designs is visible: ornamental birds, flowers, creepers, and mehrabs or archways found chiefly in Mughal architecture are common.

Credits: Story

Curator — Ritu Sethi, Editor, Asia InCH (www.asiainch.org)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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