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Block Impressions - Hand Block Printing

Hand block printing, a craft handed down through generations is in the forefront of the fashion scene today. The ancient craft has seen a major revival over the last two decades and has moved away from its traditional rural centres to the metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai,Chennai and Bangalore.

India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century and the creative processes flourished as the fabric received royal patronage. Though the earliest records mention the printing centres in the south, the craft seems to have been prevalent all over India. Surat in Gujarat became a prominent centre for trade of painted and printed textiles. The major items produced from this fabric were wall hangings, canopies and floor spreads in rich natural colours.

Cotton is also printed in Ahmedabad, Sanganer, Bagru, Farukhabad and Pethapur, the main centres in Rajasthan and Gujarat where hand block printing seems to have continued to flourish.

In fact the prints of these areas seem to be quite similar. The Bagru and Sanganeri prints cannot be easily distinguished but if one looks carefully each has its own typical characteristics. The Sanganer prints are always on a white background, whereas the Bagru prints are essentially in red and black. Farukhabad is famous for its artisty and intricacy of design. Pethapur near Ahmedabad is know for the finest block printing. Benaras block makers design their blocks to suit fine silk printing – sometimes each design has seven colours. Block designs get bigger and bolder and the delicacy is lost as one moves towards the south or towards Calcutta. Today Andhra Pradesh is a large centre for hand block printing. Hyderabad is the home of the very popular Lepakshi prints. It is quite amazing how the same motif can be interpreted in different forms.

Block printing has become popular because of the simple process which can create such sensational prints in rich and vibrant colours – originally from natural dyes though today chemical and artificial colours are being used. The main colours used are red, the colour of love, yellow the colour of spring, blue as in Krishna, and saffron of the yogi.

The main tools of the printer are wooden blocks in different shapes and sizes. Blocks are made of seasoned teak wood by trained craftsmen. The underside of the block has the design etched on it. Each block has a wooden handle and two to three cylindrical holes drilled into the block for free air passage and also to allow release of excess printing paste.

The new blocks are soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grains in the timber. The printing table is long and rectangular over which 24 layers of jute are stretched taut and fixed to the table covering the entire upper surface. This padding offers resilience. The fabric to be printed is pinned over the table and printed block by block, creating beautiful designs.

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