Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Working on hand printing in India © Shuterstock/ Sahat

Block Printing in India

Block printing is a traditional techniques of textile design holding pride of place in the rich repository of Indian craft. Some scholars hold the view that it originated in China, and it came to India only in the twelfth century. Others cite fragments of printed cloth from Mohenjo-Daro or references in the Ramayana as evidence that it has existed in India since ancient times. The technique is unique in its ability to reflect both the creative ability of the designer and the sensibility of the printer-craftsmen. The creations of such bespoke production uniquely manifest the tiny imperfections that make it so highly prized. This singularity may never be achieved using automated machines.
As a traditional craft, the skill is hereditary but poor wages/benefits and working conditions, health problems (because of constant exposure to water and chemicals), makes it less appealing to the current generation. Yet the craft has seen a revival with the growing interest in sustainable crafts and natural dyes, and a compulsion to leave a smaller carbon footprint.

As a labor intensive craft, it offers a livelihood to a large number of people. However, dyeing and printing cloth requires large amounts of water and safe filtration to clean wastewater before discharge to further reduce its impact on the environment.
In India, the craft originated in the state of Gujarat. Since then Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have all become important centers of block printing. Each center and even individual cities within these centers exhibit unique traditions. They differ in their motifs, color sensibilities and the manner of resist. The sanghaner (intricate floral jaal designs) and daboo prints (using natural dyes and mud resist) of Rajasthan, the vibrant colors and designs of Serampore, West Bengal, the Kalamkari with its idols and temple prints from Shrikalahasti, Andhra Pradesh and the intricately processed fabric using natural dye from Bagh in Madhya Pradesh are some varieties.

In the process of printing © Achira Basu

Block-Printing Process

  1. A block of sisham (teak) or sagwan wood is cut, and sanded for surface evenness. Once the designer/artist has created the design, either as a set of motifs (boota or buti) or a floral or geometric repeat (jaal) or an asymmetric pattern, the design is inverted and traced onto the block. The negative space is carefully chipped away to create the design, the depth of the carving varies from two to three to a deeper eight to twelve for wax resist blocks. A few fine holes are drilled into the block to prevent formation of air pockets. Also ‘pins’ (guide points) are created to ensure perfect alignment of the blocks while printing. A handle is fixed to the upper side.Depending on the intricacy of the design, each block costs between Rs 450 and 600. The basic requirement can be a rekh (outline) block and a gadh (filler) block. A single design, can have seven to eight gadh blocks, one for each color. The blocks are seasoned by soaking in oil for around fifteen days before use.
  2. The fabric to be used is washed to remove starch/gum, impurities before being bleached and if required, dyed.
  3. The printing table is covered with base fabric (achara) to absorb excess print color. The prepared fabric is now stretched on tables that vary from 6.5 to 7 meters in length and pinned firmly in place with small pins.
  4. A master printer or color master mixes the dye to be used. This can be of four types, pigment (direct), discharge (allowing bright, lighter colors to be printed on darker backgrounds), rapid (limited color range but brilliant fast color) or naphthol (cold water dyes for resisted fabrics. A small amount of color is poured into the color tray, a jute/woolen fabric is placed within it. A fine net or fabric is placed above and the color is repeatedly evened out by a flat rectangular piece of wood, to prevent excess color from being caught up in the block.
  5. The printer prints from left to right, pulling his color tray with him. He presses the block firmly into the fabric thumping the handle with his hands to ensure a deep print. This process is repeated along the length of the fabric, allowing the first color to dry before adding a second or third color. Once the printing is complete the fabric is left on the table to partially dry, then hung up on wires to fully dry.

The quality of print can be affected by the weather (not enough sun, too much moisture, etc) or even the type of water and the minerals it contains.
The designer is only limited by his imagination as the blocks can be used in a multitude of combinations and colorways to create new and exciting designs.