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Delving into the history of woodblock printing in India

Every time we are in Bagru or Sanganer, we are drawn to the sight of lines after lines of freshly printed fabric. The whites shine bright, their prints glisten as the color coats dry, and the air is always thick with the smell of all sorts of colors.

Yes, we can smell the colors! Almost all the time and every time we make our pilgrimed trips to these places.

Woodblock Printing

The history of hand block printed textile in India dates back to the 12th century if the common knowledge is the one to swear by. But it didn’t originate in Rajasthan as one commonly believes. Here’s everything we’ve come to know about the art, the craft, and the history of block printing in India.

 

The origins

Historically, Indian textile producers have been revered for their ability to lend magic using natural dyes to fabrics like cotton and silk - resulting in vivid and fast colors. But the introduction of woodblock printing technique, a skill most likely picked up from the Chinese traders on the Silk Route, augmented the way of textile in India to a point where its origins became synonymous with India.

Gujarat and some parts of southern India and Bengal were where the practice first took off. Prints, inspired by nature and Mughal architecture were prepared as a relief pattern – the negative space chiseled away and the motif shored up and made prominent. Use of plant-based natural dyes, such as indigo and pigments from Indian mulberry and chay root was the norm, and remarkably enough, it still continues to be so in some cottage printing units today.

 

The process 

Wood blocks are typically prepared as a relief pattern, motifs carved carefully by hands using sharp knives or chisels. The patterns are carved in a way that each impression specifies where the next stamp must take place ensuring clean and even efforts. Small holes are made across the height of the block to prevent air pockets and ensure even impressions. Ready blocks are then treated to an oil bath in order to prevent pigments from permeating deep. Two to three weeks into the bath, a block is ready for printing.

Each block has to be pressed firmly onto the cloth so that the print can take effect at one go. Multiple impressions of the same dye are avoided to ensure consistent impressions.

But before a fabric can be printed, it’s cleaned and bleached to remove impurities and ensure that it takes the dye evenly. In traditional facilities, use of camel dung, soda ash, and castor oil is still prevalent for treating the fabric, the process repeated multiple times until the desired state of the cloth is reached.

A dye fixative or a mordant is used to capture the dye on to the fabric. The mordant, natural or chemical, laches with the dye and fixes the color firmly. The way it works is that only the areas that have been treated with the mordant take the pigment.

Another technique of fixing the dye is to use resist printing, most popularly referred to as Dabu. Here, a resist (such as a mud paste) is block printed to the areas designated to remain undyed. After imprinting the resists, the fabric is immersed in a pigment vat until it takes the color of choice. The fabric is then left out in the sun to dry and for the printed colors to take firmly to the cloth.

Woodblock Printing India

The present way of the craft 

Many of the techniques remain largely the same as they were centuries ago. Craftsmen, such as those in Bagru and Sanganer, who have worked this sector for generations, continue to home these time-honored traditional techniques of textile design, still very much involved in block creation, preservation and curation, working as a collective – a community.

And in spite of the many obstacles to running a thriving business in the age-old tested ways – there’s the ever-growing reliance on fast chemical dyes, machine printing, and availability of cheaper prints from other parts of the country and abroad – these small hubs remain largely unfazed. As they see it - and we largely agree - there’s always going to a market for authentic. The fashion and the trends may govern the choice of prints and colors, but one can certainly look to these craftsmen from the small, home-run units in Rajasthan and Gujarat to produce the most authentic renditions of what’s presently desirable in order and turn them into something timeless.

Have you had a chance encounter with block printing? Tell us all about it.


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