The soft thud of a wooden block hitting the print table is the rhythmic backdrop to the centuries-old craft of block printing. Despite India’s embrace of 21st century technologies, the craft persists, carried out in the crepuscular light of thousands of workshops across the subcontinent. Quite when it evolved is unknown but the earliest surviving block prints, cotton fragments retrieved from Fustat in Egypt, have been dated to the 9th century. Made in Gujarat, these fabrics speak of India’s dominance of the global textiles trade. Indian artisans supplied the medieval trade with the Arab world and heirloom textiles for Indonesia, as well as the ‘craze’ for chintz in Europe that was stoked by the East India Companies. But India’s position waned under the impact of British colonial policy and the Industrial Revolution which transformed manufacturing and shifted the centres of production and trade to the West. Prior to that, the ability of Indian dyers and printers to produce multi-coloured, patterned, colourfast textiles had confounded the rest of the world. The ‘secret’ lay in the artisans’ knowledge of natural dyes and mordants – chemical agents that make fibres receptive to dye and fix colour on cloth. Use of mordants was married to the application of resists – media such as wax, mud and lime and gum paste – which reserve areas of the cloth from the dyes - allowing the printers to build up complex patterns through multiple stages of printing and dyeing with plant-derived colours such as indigo and madder. Regional specialities developed: the Coromandel Coast of south India was renowned for painted and printed kalamkaris which, modified for the European market, became known as chintz; Jaipur was known for small floral butis motifs; nearby Sanganer earned a reputation for syahi begar, fine red and black printing on a startling white ground made for the courts of Rajasthan; the dabu (mud resist) prints of Bagru were used as skirt lengths (fadat) by Rajasthani women. In the neighbouring state of Gujarat, Kachchh district became famous for ajrakh, a textile printed on both sides of the cloth with complex geometric and floral designs, dyed with indigo and madder; worn by Muslim cattle herders it remains an emblem of regional and caste identity. Revived through government, NGO and entrepreneurial interventions since the 1970s, block prints have become increasingly popular, and production is flourishing in the workshops of Kachchh, Machilipatnam and the Jaipur area.
Words by Eiluned Edwards
Eiluned Edwards trained as a textile designer and first visited India in 1991. Captivated by India’s material culture, she has spent the intervening years researching it, working with artisans, entrepreneurs and NGOs, and has published widely on South Asian textiles, dress and crafts.