Masters of Block Printing
A Short History of Block Printing
Although the oldest wood block printed textiles were found in China dating before 220 AD, it was in Rajasthan where meticulous and intricately expressed designs developed.
Rajasthan has been home to the art of block printing for at least 450 years. The artisans or ‘chippas’ can trace back their teachings through the generations, from father to son, mother to daughter, and so on. Each generation works almost exactly as the one before, producing hundreds of meters of block printed textiles by hand in small villages.
These block printing villages have not always flourished as they do now. Having to withstand high demand for floral printed cottons in 1700’s England, at the same time as decking out the Maharajah and their courts, proved exhausting for these artisans. Furthermore, with the introduction of mass production in the West, meant Indian fabric exports were soon unsought after.
By the 1970’s, the poverty of the these communities became desperate when demand quickly turned to cheaper, roughly printed synthetics.
However, this was not the death of an ancient craft. Around the same time as synthetics emerged, small artisan-dedicated businesses cropped up with a focus on preserving ancient craft techniques. It was with this movement that the artisans began valuing their work and continued to practice it in the original way.
The knowledge and expertise of natural dyes and mordants in Rajasthan is unparalleled, particularly with mordants, ensuring the brightest shades of colour are unfaded. These mordants include metallic salts which not only prevent the pigment to wear away, but actually create colour too. The quantities of mordants are only known unto the ‘dhobi’, a group of artisans who prepare and wash fabrics.
Using Teak wood, the carvers then soak the blocks in oil before chiseling delicate designs in open studios, in and around the villages.
After being carved, the blocks are then dabbed onto handmade ink pads made from layers of cloth and pigment to start the printing process carried out by the ‘Chappanas’ (stampers). They stamp with a firm thump thump on top of the block to create a full and unbroken print on to the fabric.
The printing is carried out by eye and with such accuracy. Across the new textiles are giveaway signs of the human hand, neat imperfections,
the unreplicable beauty of this craft.
Every part of the multistep process revolves amongst winding streets in ancient villages. But like many Indian villages, a lot of these are being engulfed by urbanisation from expanding nearby cities like Jaipur. However, these communities still behave in an ancient way, where society is structured accordingly to inherited roles and customs. India’s caste system is less apparent in cities, but villages like these still operate according to it.
Our Block Printers
We work with a small family business in Bagru, Rajasthan. These artisans have been teaching their children for decades, and still carry out the skill in exactly the same way as before. Hours are flexible, particularly for women, who have young children at home. Their business is run on the top floor of their home, where lengths of printed fabrics can hang to dry from the rooftop in the sunshine.
Our colour master, Mohan, is surrounded by buckets of coloured inks and pigments, mixing by hand every shade. He carries out several swatches before committing to the final colour, matching the colour chart. Mohan uses natural dyes when possible, otherwise he uses azo-free and water based inks to
achieve brighter and more specific shades.
Our master stamper and wood carver, Om Brakash, is incredibly precise and attentive to his work. He overlooks other stampers throughout the day, men and women who come and go, changing over each day.
We love visiting our block printers, until next time!