Witnessing the Art of Block Printing - Rural Odyssey
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Witnessing the Art of Block Printing

In my childhood, we used to cherish the traditional Rajasthani print bed sheets and pillow covers that looked beautiful. Changing bed sheets used to be a practice on special occasions. How these vibrant beddings used to brighten the whole room is indescribable in words! Ahh…I still miss the smell of those colors! Sadly, these handmade cotton bed sheets got replaced by modern fancy linens with the time, and hence, I lost my touch with those conventional prints.

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Understanding Block Printing and its reducing charm

A couple of years later, while traveling for my work in Rajasthan, I revived my connection with those striking traditional creations and learned that such bed sheets are a result of an art form known as block printing. Block Printing on textile simply means reproducing the same pattern on the fabric with the help of incised wooden blocks. It is so fascinating to find out that it’s the oldest method of textile printing. This art has its roots in China, and a couple of centuries ago, it traveled to India making Rajasthan the most prolific producer of hand block printed fabrics.
What made me a little sad is to know that the demand of block printed fabric has been reducing with time. It’s the slowest method of textile printing because it’s done by hands. People are moving into alternate livelihood options as it’s a labor-intensive work with minimal earnings. Buyers have less or no information about this art form and how much hard work is required to produce every single bed sheet. Moreover, the market is flooded with other cheaper options. Machines have unquestionably begun to replace the manual block printing because they can produce in bulk in very less time, but they fail to bring the good artistic results and a depth of beauty.
Through this blog, I want to take you to on a short journey so that you can vicariously feel this art form, as I recently had a chance to witness the production process in a village near Jodhpur, where manual block-printing is still flourishing.

Dabu Print and Chhipa Community

I got some useful insights from the artisans whose families have been working on this art form for more than two centuries. The Jodhpuri block printing artisans mostly belong to the Chhipa Community, which is spread across various parts of India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Jodhpur Chhipas are Muslim, while Hindus also exist in this community. It’s interesting to know that the word Chhipa has been derived from Gujarati word Chhapa which translates to “print” in English.
Chhipas specialize in coloring and dyeing. They don’t make their own colors, but procure them from the community of Ranrezs. Among the various forms of block printing on textile, Chhipas do Dabu Printing. Dabu is the most prevalent form of hand block printing in Rajasthan, which is a mud – resistant printing technique. The motifs used in Dabu are similar to the themes employed in any other Rajasthani printing technique which includes traditional dance, such as Ghoomar, wedding scenes, plants, flowers, birds, etc. The unique thing about Dabu is that it involves the use of natural dyes which are prepared from vegetables, making it environment-friendly. Also, Dabu prints are high in contrast and very vibrant as compared to any other type of block-print.

Sourcing of Blocks

Blocks used in block prinitng
Blocks used in block Priniting

For the process of block making, artisans draw the intended designs on a piece of paper and send the design to the carpenter’s workshop. Carpenter sources the wood and carves the required design on it. Just imagine the amount of creativity; time and hard work go in carving such intricate designs. In fact, it’s also a complete art form in itself. Blocks are made from Sponge wood, which is obtained from a tree locally known as Rohida. This wood is very firm, and hence, these blocks last for decades. Block printing workshops even have blocks which are more than 150 years old. People often buy such blocks as antiques. The final cost of a block depends on the size and design intricacy, though it starts from 500 INR.

A glance into Dabu printing process

Bed Sheet Made by Block Priniting

Usually, steps vary with the design and color. To produce a design looking like this, we go through following steps:

Step 1:
Once the design is decided, the first layer of color is given on the fabric by turmeric. The required amount of turmeric is mixed with water, applied on motif and pressed hard against the fabric.

Step 2:

Lemon juice is mixed with salt, leaves of Ber (Ziziphus Mauritania), and Neem (Azadirachta Indica). The mixture is heated up to a certain temperate so that ingredients amalgamate well with each other. Later, it’s cooled down, and the cloth is dipped in it for half an hour. During this process, the turmeric reacts with the citric acid (in lemon) changing yellow color to the red.

Bed sheet made by block printing

Step 3:
A mixture of mud, gum, soap, clay and vegetable oil is prepared. This solution is used to ‘mud-resist’ the existing color (which is red in this case) so that a base color can be given. Hence, the prepared solution is block-printed on the red color and left to dry.

Step 4:
The whole piece is dipped in liquid Indigo color which is obtained naturally. As a result, the entire piece is indigo in color except for the parts where we applied mud mixture in the earlier step.

Step 5:
A couple of hours later, the cloth is dried and washed in warm water to release the mud. Hence, now the piece is indigo (base color) with red block designs over it.

It takes 5-6 days to prepare one sheet. Now, you know that why this process is so labor intensive. The art of block printing is not just an art which produces beautiful creations, but it’s a traditional art form that describes Indian Culture in many ways. Moreover, it’s a livelihood to a huge community who has been devoting their lives for centuries to preserve it.

We all love traveling but exploring the offbeat places is an entirely different experience in itself. Some of the places I know where this art form is surviving are Bagru and Saanganer near Jaipur, Kankani village near Jodhpur. Moreover, we as responsible citizens in the urban community can contribute our bit to save this art form. I strongly recommend you to buy block-printed handmade beddings from the artisans. Whenever you are in Rajasthan (or any other place where block-printing is surviving), try to visit the workshop, talk to the artisans, witness the production processes just like I did, buy from them, and understand why this art-form strongly needs our support.
Do you know any other places in Rajasthan (or any other Indian state) where efforts are being made to save this art form? Also, we would like to hear your suggestions that how an impact can be made in helping block-printing flourish in India. Feel free to share your opinion in comments.

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Chandni Aggarwal
Chandni graduated from University with a degree in computer science and an MBA in Marketing. She was bitten by the travel bug in her college days but remained in the corporate world for a few years until she summoned the nerve to break-up with her job and pursued her passion, thanks to a voyage with Semester at Sea. She believes that travel is much more than visiting famous landmarks, picturesque places and eating good food. It should be able to make us understand life better, impact livelihoods and connect to the “human side” of these magical places. In her free time, she loves to click, write, read, sleep, paint pots, chat and search cheap airplane tickets. She loves working with people and exploring the world.
Chandni Aggarwal

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