The Art Of 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 centers 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 centers in the south, the craft seems to have been prevalent all over India. Surat in Gujarat became a prominent center for trade of painted and printed textiles. The major items produced were wall hangings, canopies and floor spreads in rich natural colors.

History

Records show that as far back as the 12th century, several centers in the south, on the western and eastern coasts of India became renowned for their excellent printed cotton. On the southeastern 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 influenced 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 center for export of painted and printed calicos, covering an extensive range in quality. Cheaper printed cloth came from Ahmedabad and other centers, and strangely enough Sanganer was not such a famous center for printing as it is today.

Major Centers Of Hand Block Printing

Cotton is also printed in Ahmedabad, Sanganer, Bagru, Farukhabad and Pethapur, the main centers in Rajasthan and Gujarat where hand block printing has 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 artistry and intricacy of design. Pethapur near Ahmedabad is known for the finest block printing. Banaras block makers design their blocks to suit fine silk printing - sometimes each design has seven colors.

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

The Process Of Hand Block Printing

Block printing has become popular because the simple process can create such sensational prints in rich and vibrant colors. Originally natural dyes were used but today they have been replaced by chemical and artificial colors. The main colors used are red, the color of love, yellow the color 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 called bunta. 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.

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 desired. 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 color is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood and the block dipped into the outline color (usually black or a dark color). 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 color design the second printer dips his block in color again using the point or guide for a perfect registration to fill in the color. The third color if existent follows likewise. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colors need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole. A single color design can be executed faster, a double color takes more time and multiple color design would mean additional labor and more color 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 colors are black, red, orange, brown and mustard. Color variation is little difficult and while printing it is not possible to gauge the quality or depth of color.

It is only after the fabric is processed with an acid wash that the final color is established. Beautiful greens and pinks are possible with indigo sol colors but pigment colors are widely popular today because the process is simple, the mixed colors can be stored for a period of time, subtle nuances of colors are possible, and new shades evolve with the mixing of two or three colors. Also the colors are visible as one prints and do not change after processing. Colors can be tested before printing by merely applying it onto the fabric. The pigment color 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 colors 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 colors 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 color permanently.