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Block Printing


Records show that as far back as the 12th century, several centres in the south, on the western and eastern coasts of India became renowned for their excellent printed cotton. On the south eastern coast the brush or kalam (pen) was used, and the resist applied by the same method. In the medieval age printing and dyeing of cottons was specially developed in Rajasthan. In Gujarat the use of wooden blocks for printing was more common.

Tents were created from printed fabrics and became a necessary part of royal processions. The seasons largely influence the integration of the highly creative processes of weaving, spinning, dyeing and printing. Festivals also dictated this activity.

Trade in cotton cloth is said to have existed between India and Babylon from Buddha’s time. Printed and woven cloths traveled to Indonesia, Malaya and the Far East.

In the 17th century Surat was established as a prominent centre for export of painted and printed calicos, covering an extensive range in quality. Cheaper printed cloth came from Ahmedabad and other centres, and strangely enough Sanganer was not such a famous centre for printing as it is today. Wall hangings, canopies and floor spreads were created from printed and painted cottons largely in western India for the European market.

Thirty two kilometres east of Jaipur city is a small village called Bagru, where there is a hum of activity even today in the field of hand block printing on textiles, using traditionally patterned blocks, and rich natural colours. There has always been some confusion with regard to Sanganer and Bagru prints which are similar, though actually each has distinct characteristics. Sanganer prints initially were printed on white or off-white backgrounds whereas Bagru prints are essentially in two colours – red and black. Sometimes the fabric is dyed and different colour variations are possible on printed fabric. Commonly, green, black and red are used.

Natural colouring materials like madder, indigo, pomegranate rind and turmeric have been replaced with alizarine and synthetic dyes, which are less difficult to prepare.

Ajrakh prints, popular even today originated in Gujarat involving a resist print, primarily intended for garments for men.

It is possible that when the search was on in alchemic laboratories for the elixir of life to free the body and mind from the pressures of life and ageing, the researchers stumbled on to medicinal plants like harda, myrobalan. The by-products were doubtless invaluable in the process of dyeing and bleaching and even till to day many plants used in archaic dyeing processes are found listed and described in Ayurvedic medical texts.

In India every craft has sprung up with the influence of religious traditions. The finest creations of craftsmen were prepared for rituals and the most skilled of dyers, painters, weavers have congregated around main centres of religious worship. India has always been sensitive to colours, which has formed the basis of poetic inspiration, of music, surcharged with the subtle nuances of mood. Red was the colour of love, and madder being fast it could not be washed away.

Yellow was the colour of spring, filled with blossoms and the cry of mating birds. Nila or indigo was the colour of Krishna who is like a rain filled cloud. Gerwa or saffron, was the colour of the yogi, the seer who renounces the earth.

The main tools of the printer are the wooden blocks in different shapes and sizes called bunta. The blocks are made of seasoned teak wood though gurjun (grown in the forests of a district in Rajasthan) is being preferred because of its light weight. The blocks are prepared by craftsmen trained in this art. The underside of the block is kept flat, and the design etched on it. Two or three cylindrical holes are drilled into its thickness connecting the upper side of the block to the carved lower surface. The holes help in freeing air bubbles and excess of printing paste if any while printing. Each block has a wooden handle carved on top.

There are various centres for block making and each region has its own speciality. Block makers at Farrukhabad are known for their artistry and intricate designs, as also those in Pethapur, Gandhinagar, 29 kilometres from Ahmedabad. Pethapur is famous for some of the finest printing blocks in the country. Benaras block makers design their blocks to suit fine silk printing, sometime each design their blocks to suit fine silk printing, sometime each design bears seven colours! It is surprising how the same motif can get interpreted differently at each centre. Block designs become bigger and bolder and the delicacy of design gets watered down as one goes south or even towards Calcutta. Andhra Pradesh is a big centre today for hand block printing. Kalahastri and Machilipatnam which are prime centre for kalamkari, have also organized printing with vegetable dyes. Hyderabad is the home of lepakshi prints, a rage in India about 15 years ago.

Before new blocks are used for printing they re soaked in oil for 10 to 15 days as this softens the grains in the timber. The wooden printing table is long and rectangular usually about five metres in length, 120 centimetres in width and 90 centimetres in height. In our unit we used tables to accommodate the length and width of a sari so time was not wasted adjusting the material during printing. To offer resilience during printing about 24 layers of jute are stretched taut, and fixed to the tables, covering the entire upper surface. This padding is varied to suit one’s convenience. Over this a heavy mattress is spread before printing to present a smooth surface and to absorb any colour that might drop out during the printing process. The mattress or achada is changed and washed frequently so that adhering dyes do not pass on to the new fabric.

Wooden trolleys with racks have castor wheels fastened to their legs to facilitate free movement. The printer drags it along as he works. On the upper most shelf trays of dye are placed. On the lower shelves printing blocks are kept ready.

The fabric to be printed is washed free of starch and soft bleached if the natural grey of the fabric is not wanted. If dyeing is required as in the case of saris, where borders, or the body is tied and dyed, it is done before printing. The fabric is stretched over the printing table and fastened with small pins (in the case of saris the pallu is printed first then the border).

The printing starts form left to right. The colour is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood and the block dipped into the outline colour (usually black or a dark colour). When the block is applied to the fabric, it is slammed hard with the fist on the back of the handle so that a good impression may register. A point on the block serves as a guide for the repeat impression, so that the whole effect is continuous and not disjoined. The outline printer is usually an expert because he is the one who leads the process. If it is a multiple colour design the second printer dips his block in colour again using the point or guide for a perfect registration to fill in the colour. The third colour if existent follows likewise. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colours need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole. A single colour design can be executed faster, a double colour takes more time and multiple colour design the second printer dips his block in colour again using the point or guide for a perfect registration to fill in the colour. The third colour if existent follows likewise. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colours need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole. A single colour design can be executer faster, a double colour takes more time and multiple colours would mean additional labour and more colour consumption.

Different dyes are used for silk and cotton. Rapid fast dyes, indigo sol and pigment dyes are cotton dyes. Printing with rapid dyes is a little more complicated as the dyes once mixed for printing have to be used the same day. Standard colours are black, red, orange, brown and mustard. Colour variation is a little difficult and while printing it is not possible to gauge the quality or depth of colour.

It is only after the fabric is processed with an acid wash that the final colour is established. Beautiful greens and pinks are possible with indigo sol colours but pigment colours are widely popular today because the process is simple, the mixed colours can be stored for a period of time, subtle nuances of colours are possible, and new shades evolve with the mixing of two or three colours. Also the colours are visible as one prints and do not change after processing. Colours can be tested before printing by merely applying it onto the fabric. The pigment colour is made up of tiny particles which do not dissolve entirely and hence are deposited on the cloth surface while rapid dyes and indigo sols penetrate the cloth.

Pigment colour are mixed with kerosene and a binder. The consistency should be just right, for if it is too thick it gives a raised effect on the material which spoils the design. Small plastic buckets with lids are ideal for storing the mixed colours over a few days.

Cotton saris after pigment printing are dried out in the sun. This is part of the fixing process. They are rolled in wads of newspapers to prevent the dye form adhering to other layers and steamed in boilers constructed for the purpose. Silks are also steamed this way after printing. After steaming, the material is washed thoroughly in large quantities of water and dried in the sun, after which it is finished by ironing out single layers which fix the colour permanently.

When silks are dyed with direct colours discharge printing is done where the original colour is discharged by chemicals and new colour applied with the result that you get the same brilliance of colour as you would if you printed on a white or cream surface. There are colour limitations and the colours generally available to discharge printing are pink, white, blue, green, purple and orange.

Even if precautions are taken, hand-printing has its defects and contributes to the natural elegance of the piece. Hand block printing has seen a major revival over the past two decades. It is craft that has been handed down generations but with the propensity towards industry, traditional printers are fewer in number.

India is today in the fashion forefront in the world. Foreign buyers have been greatly attracted by traditional hand printed textiles, the export trade has been so consistent that traditional printers are kept busy even today and hand block printing has extended itself to non-traditional centres like Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Bangalore.