The growth of hand block printing in India
Some people believe the earliest evidence of block printing can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization based on the dyes and fabric remains excavated in Mohenjo-Daro. Remains of printed fabrics have also been excavated in Cairo, Egypt. China however is credited with the origin of block printing in a much more real sense as remains as old as 2000 years are found.
Slowly it spread across the world but it took a while for the technique to reach Europe through the silk route and it was only in the 13th Century that printing on fabric began during the Byzantine Empire. Through the silk route, it also reached Uzbekistan where it flourished. And it made its way to India with Babur’s invasion and the establishment of the Mughal Empire. Under the Mughals, the textile industry flourished to a great extent. The art of printing on cotton originated in Rajasthan and was later adopted in Gujarat and other provinces. Each province developed its own distinctiveness and thus India became the heart of hand block printing. The Syahi Begar and Dabu prints from Rajasthan made in yellow and black dyes, Ajrak prints from Kutch, Gujarat are known for their animal, birds, and women print designs in black and red. The floral and geometric motifs in light pastel hues of Punjab’s Chhimba community and the vibrant designs of Serampore, West Bengal are some examples of different types of prints found in India. The methods of printing can be broadly classified into three categories- direct printing, resist printing, and discharge printing. While direct printing involves bleaching, dyeing and printing, resist printing involves protecting certain parts of the fabric from the dye and letting the dye spread in those areas to create a ripple effect. In discharge printing, once the fabric is printed certain areas are bleached and dyed with different colors.
The printing part is the most time-consuming process it begins with an artisan creating a sketch of the design before carving it on a wooden block with precision. Generally, teak or pear wood is used to carve these myriads of designs. Then the block is soaked in 10-15 days to soften the timber. The fabric is dyed, washed starch free and dried under the sun before printing. Then it is placed and pinned on a platform for the artisan to dip the block in color and print each design individually.
With the advent of commercialization and modern printing techniques, hand-printed designs are losing their customers to cheaper products. To keep the art alive many have resorted to modernizing the kind of products made from these fabrics. Clothes like skirts, trench coats, crop tops, etc. are taking over the zeitgeist. But why opt for hand-printed expensive clothes when one can get the same quality under a more affordable range? The answer is that it’s the little human errors and gaps in the continuity of the designs that make each product different from the other. It’s the human touch that makes every one of its creations unique, after all the leaning tower of Pisa is known for its structural deformity more than its architectural perfection.