Block printing is a technique of creating designs on plain fabric using beautifully patterned blocks. The process involves the use of a block either made of wood or metal into which the design is carved for creating designs through impressions on fabrics. The carved surface of the block is dipped in the dye and then by stamping the block the design is transferred onto the bleached fabric.
Historical evidence suggests that the Chinese and the Egyptians were the pioneers in using the wooden blocks for printing. However, a fragment of madder dyed cotton fabric found in the site of Mohenjo-Daro is suggestive of the practice and knowledge of natural dyes as early as 5000 BC.
In India, the technique of creating designs on fabrics using blocks is an age old art form. It is practiced in different regions of the country. With its variation in designs and styles the art can be differentiated according to its place of making. Some of the popular block printing techniques are Ajrakh, Sanganeri, Bagh, Bagru etc.
Bagru, a small town located 30 kilometers east from Jaipur city of Rajasthan is known for its legacy of printing fabrics using natural dyes and wooden blocks. The printing done here is widely popular as ‘Bagru printing’. The block printers of Bagru are involved in the indigenous style of printing using locally available natural resources which ultimately reflects an essence of eco-friendly textiles.
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Printing using natural process involves the use of dyes extracted naturally either from plants, flowers or minerals such as alum, turmeric, pomegranate, dried flowers, indigo etc.
It is said that the art of block printing started 450 years ago from now in Bagru when a community of craftsmen known as Chippas migrated to Bagru from Alwar, Sikkar and Jhunjhunu in search of better settlement. Being the follower of saint Namdev, the Chippas are also called Namdevi Chippas.
The craftsmen donot have any technical qualification but the knowledge and expertise of printing is passed on from generation to generation which makes them an expert in their own field.
The settlement of the community nearby the river Sanjaria served as a major advantage in terms of the availability of clay as a raw ingredient and the abundant water for the final wash.
The base cloth is prepared by smearing the entire cloth with clay, collected from the banks of the Sanjaria River, then dipping the entire cloth in turmeric water to get a beige coloured background, to be finally used for printing. After processing the base cloth, intricately carved wooden blocks are stamped onto the cloth to create beautiful designs and patterns using natural dyes.
The types of printed fabrics Chippas produce are fadats, lugdis, angochhas, bedsheets, sarees, kaftans, etc
The making of blocks and technique of printing:
Wooden blocks are made by skilled artisans using fine carpentry tools. The wood selected for making blocks is either teak or rorda. The design to be carved is traced on to the surface and with a fine chisel the nonprinting areas is cut away to a depth of perhaps 1 cm. Before its direct implementation, prior to printing, the blocks are soaked in oil for 10-12 hours for smoothening the grains.
Different blocks according to the borders and filling of the central field of the fabric is made by the expert block makers. After the carved wooden blocks get ready to be used the fabric is bleached, blocks are then dipped in dye and imprinted on to the fabric by a skilled block-printer. Printing is generally done from left to right. Some equipment used during printing are colour mixing drums, long length jute padded printing table, printing paste tray for using the dyes, a revolving stool for carrying the tray around the table.
After setting out the equipments and placing the fabric on the table layered with multiple jute rags, the color is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood. The block is then dipped into the colour and applied to the fabric by slamming hard with the fist on the back of the handle so that a good impression is created. For repeating the impression and continuing the whole effect without any disjoint, a point on the edge of the block serves as a guide.
The colours prepared by the Chippas are through mixing various minerals and natural products. For example: Black colour or Shyahi is prepared from the fermented mixture of iron extract with jaggary. The composition is kept in plastic jars for 15 days to be finally used. Red colour or Begur is prepared from gum paste and alum known as Phitkari. Mehroon or Ruby red colour is prepared by mixing alum and iron extract paste in different ratios as per shades; mustard yellow colour is obtained from turmeric whereas harada is used to obtain light shades of yellow. Light brown is obtained by mixing harada, alum and tamarind powder. Dull yellow is made by mixing harada, alum and pomegranate rinds; Light Olive green is obtained by mixing harada, alum and ratan jot.
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Also, to resist the natural colour sand dust is used/sprinkled on the freshly printed areas before going through multiple washes.
The traditional knowledge of printing with natural hues has been passed from one generation to another among the Chippas.
- Mohanty, Bijoy Chandra; and Jagadish P. Mohanty. Block Printing and Dyeing of Bagru. Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1983,
- India Crafts < http://www.india-crafts.com/textile_products/blockimpressions.html> (25 September 2003)