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 Buddhas
time. Printed and woven cloths traveled to Indonesia, Malaya and the
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.
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 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 ones 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.