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Imprints Of Block And Screen


“To Block or to Screen” – that is the question. But one can also block and screen. The age-old art of block printing has been very effectively combined with screen-printing and sometimes even with rubberized embossing for that added pizzazz.

By definition, a print is an image that has been produced by technical means, which enables it to be multiplied. The art of hand block printing to produce attractive fabrics of rich colors and patterns is age old. The Gujarat region has been one of the great textile exporting regions of the country. The patterns were usually applied by block printing.

The most important centers for traditional block printing are Bagru, Barmer, Sanganer and Jaipur in Rajasthan and Anjar Deesa, Ahmedabad, Jetpur, Rajkot and Porbunder and Bhavnagar in Gujarat.

Originally there were three types of hand printing – ajarakh – worn predominantly by the Muslims – was geometrical in pattern and was block printed on both sides of the material. The name is probably a derivative of azrak an Arabic word for blue. Certainly, indigo-blue was the principal colour for these cloths. The ajarakh cloth was – and in certain cases still is – used as marriage wears by Muslim men. The Hindus from western Rajasthan and the Thar district of Sindh wear a similarly patterned cloth. It is called malir and the main colour here is red. The block printed and screen-printed designs produced in Ahmedabad comprise a variety of floral sprays and simulated bandhani (tie-and-dye) on a red background and the floral prints have a strong Persian influence.

Bagru, near Jaipur is the hub of the orthodox method of block printing. These printed fabrics have in the past mainly been used by the local women. Pattern rich in colors like indigo blue, alizarine red, iron black and turmeric yellow were produced on coarse cotton cloth by this indigenous process of printing.

The hand-printers known as chhipas came to this village from other parts of Rajasthan almost three hundred years ago to settle here and make their home in Bagru.

According to legend, the chief of Bagru brought two families of Chhipas from Isarda, a village near Jaipur. More printers’ families followed. The reason for the migration could have been the royal patronage their craft received. But a more important one could have been the abundant supply of water from the river Sanjari. Word spread of its copious flow and its excellent properties suitable for dyeing, printing and the washing process.

Down the ages this craft has been imitated at various other centers but the Bagru prints have retained their special appeal. The reason is still awarded to the inherent quality of the waters of Sanjari!

The printing is essentially in two colors, red and black. Dyeing is done to impart a colour to the ground fabric and at the same time to bring out different coloring effects in the motifs after printing. Formerly natural dyes made from pomegranate rind, indigo, turmeric, madder were used as technological advancements were made, synthetic colors replaced these.

The tools of the trade of these untutored chhipas are very interesting. Over the years the highly scientific method has required only slight improvisation. The printing communities of both Rajasthan and Gujarat have adhered to their age-old technique, which has been handed down from generation to generation.

The prathiya, a rectangular table, situated about a foot above the ground, allows for printing in a sitting position. Usually 32 layers of coarse cotton cloth are spread over the entire surface forming a resilient, soft padding, which is further covered with two layers of coarse, thick handloom cloth. The top layers give a felting effect and serve to absorb any surplus colour form the block that might seep through or drop out. For those who prefer to work standing, a table of a higher height, usually till the waist of the workers, is used instead. The coverings remain the same.

On a part of the table is placed the trough containing the printing paste. A wooden trolley is placed nearby and can be moved to different positions to suit the printer while working.

Without dispute, the most crucial part of block printing is the block itself. This is made by the block-carver who uses teak wood to make the block. The wooden hand-printing blocks are of different shapes – square, rectangle, oval, round and semi-circular or crescent. On the bottom face the motif are engraved with steel chisels of different widths and cutting surface by the carver who expertly executes the designs free hand.

As with every other craft, modernization has seeped into this age-old form as well. There has been renewed interest in block printing and a kind of revivalism, which brings in contemporary styling.

One of the pioneers of current styles where the blocks are made in the same timeless manner but with the motifs that are novel is Anuradha Mahendra. She markets her ensembles under the ‘Anu M’ label for western styles and describes them as ‘that’s me’; ‘Jhalak’ for the ethnic look and ‘Anushka’ for her saris. She acknowledges her designs with an “I’m new blood,” and adds, “I started using blocks way back in 1985 as they were a cheaper form of printing. I combined it with screen printing and got the kind of result I wanted.”

And since her first showing, Anuradha has earned a reputation for giving the unusual, the unique, and the avant-garde. Her premier collection was inspired by Henri Matisse, the French painter/sculptor. Then came the art wear and she borrowed sketches of famous Indian artists. All these were a combination of block and screen-printing. To her goes the credit of introducing the age-old religious and mythological symbols and figures in bold, eye-catching imprint.

“When I’m planning my new collection, I design my print and decide on whether it’s going to be all block or screen or a combination of both. It is like creating a piece of art. The experimentation is very spontaneous and impulsive. Not contrived. It could be modern leaves or fish or animals. The colors and designs depend upon my mood. I am there, with the printers, trying out various combinations myself,” she divulges.

Last year ‘Anu M’ presented the Surreal Range. Faces, hands, eyes – and the choice of material, kurtas in knitwear, went on to prove they were the right texture for this art form. Their fall and drape adding to the surrealism. At the other end of the spectrum was the face of a Maharaja and Indian ornaments – karas (thick bangles); anklet et al.

There is no hard and fast rule to what Anuradha may print on her fabric next. “Anything that interests me,” she avers.

Fashion designer Scheraz Kheshvala works in-house at ‘Eternia’, one of Bombay’s leading departmental stores.

She confesses to a partiality towards western wear but as the trend is decidedly ethnic, she follows the rule yet combines it with a western look. Scheraz has a preference for bold, abstract designs in a contemporary look. For eveningwear she selects gold, bronze, copper and silver as her colors on the fabric and embellishes them further with embroidery. “Beads, gold thread, sequins etc. help to highlight the khari effect of the motif. For day-wear, I tone it down with sober, pigment colors, as they are more informal,” she reveals.

She describes some of her popular works – One with matkas (pots) while another was designed with the sun motif. Personally, this designer finds the Devanagiri script, which everyone seems to be hooked on to, doesn’t move for her. “My clients prefer abstracts. The bolder the better. And they print very distinctly on mulmul (muslin) and tussar silk. I do incorporate screen-printing with my blocks but find the former more rigid. With blocks you are totally flexible. You can place them whichever way you like and it tends to give the ensemble a completely different look,” she confirms.

Also at ‘Eternia’ is Manisha Bagadia who has the distinction of winning the ‘Original design Awards’ for her ‘Taj Collection’ while studying at S.V.T., Juhu, Bombay. This textile designer says the motifs; colors and fabrics are governed by the seasons. Winter is the wedding season, thus her work is decorative and has more glitter in the form of gold, bronze, copper and silver and embroidery. She combines the use of brush strokes with her blocks and where required uses screen-printing as well.

Inspiration for Manisha comes from varied sources. It could be a geometrical design from a carpet; from old manuscripts or even a Rajasthani landscape. A ‘hot’ selling item during the marriage season are her salwar-kameezes with the ‘mehandi’ print. This shows the entire palm with an intricate ‘henna’ design, symbolic of the occasion.

Having studied textiles, she plays around with the basic fabric extensively as well. Thus, it is an interesting weave, like self-woven checks that could make al the difference to a simple block print.

Another innovation of hers is using a rubberized solution. “It is the one commonly used for printing on T-shirts and gives an embossed effect. Its still something of a novelty in context to its use on the salwar-kameez,” she explains.

The placement of Manisha’s design depends to a large extent on the cut of the cloth. It could be the all over Devanagiri script with larger motifs printed over, or a simple border running down the seams of the kurta. But the net result is effective. “And that is what ultimately count as far as the client is concerned,” she reasons.