Centuries-old Art And A Tangible Heritage With Generation Old Skills And Knowledge
The art of hand block print textiles is prevalent for hundreds of years in India. It was always very popular with the royals and flourished under their patronage. The earliest documented centers of hand block print were in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. In Rajasthan, the craft started thriving in the 18th century during the rule of Sawai Jai Singh. It was started in Sanganer since the proximity of a river supplied a constant source of water for the artists to wash and dye their products. The far-sighted Jai Singh invited many hand block print artisans from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh to open workshops in the newly developed Sanganer and this was the beginning of a major art center in Rajasthan. Little had he known at that time that his idea would succeed beyond the wildest dreams and he would end up providing a means of income to thousands of families throughout generations.
The hand block print artisans of India generally belong to the Chhipa community. Since they are practicing this craft throughout centuries, the intricacies of the process are transferred from one generation to another. Every member of the Chhipa community is involved in washing, dyeing, and printing of fabrics. There are also a number of people who are engaged in several other crafts which are indirectly supporting hand block print process. These are wooden block makers, dyers, tailors, suppliers of raw materials, dealers, etc. Hand block print process is highly dependent on the constant availability of water.
Design blocks of different shapes and sizes are the main tools of the printers and these are made of wood or metal. The wooden block is usually made of teak wood and a block maker prints out the design on paper before sticking it on the wood. After this, the carver starts chiseling out the design on the seasoned wood and once the block is made, it is soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grain. There are two kinds of blocks available. The outline block is called Rekh, while the filler block is called Datta. For more intricate designs and a superior level of clarity of prints, metal blocks are used. Another important equipment of a hand block printer is the printing table which has customized measurements of 3 feet high, 3 feet wide and 9 feet long. The surfaces of these tables are covered with several layers of cloth, jute, and canvas and 3-4 printers can stand at each to work simultaneously.
Traditionally hand block print artists used natural colours though today chemical colours have gained popularity. The natural colours are extracted from fruits and vegetables and form a basic shade palette of indigo blue, red, black, and green. Red is obtained by mixing alizarin with alum, and indigo blue is extracted from the indigo plant. Black comes from an acidic solution of iron which is obtained by processing iron scraps with jaggery and salt. Boiling of pomegranate skin provides green. Apart from these, a hand block print artist also uses the bark of mango tree, vinegar, slaked lime, etc.
What makes the hand block print so popular is the loveliness of its motifs. Usually printed over white or cream cotton cloth, the designs are inspired by nature. Flowers are very popular though plants, fruits, animals, human figures, and geometrical patterns are used as patterns. More than one motif is used in a hand block print and a finished product may have different patterns on its base, border, and body. Floral motifs are inspired by sunflowers, narcissuses, roses, rosettes, lotuses, lotus bud, lily, plumeria, canna, daffodils, marigold, hibiscus, and chrysanthemum. Fruits like bananas, dates, grapes, and pomegranate are also quite common. In some traditional prints, daggers and other weapons are also used as motifs. Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur was a huge devotee of Lord Shiva and during his reign, there was a rise in hand block print motif of a trident.