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Block Printing – History And Importance

One of the oldest printing methods technique – Block Printing. A carved piece of wood or any other type of carved block like linoleum is used to imprint an image on paper or fabric. This is basically a stamp that you press onto paper, cloth or other material using ink. Block-printing can be done with wood, linoleum, rubber or various other materials, wood being the oldest medium of all. The reason why historians call it the oldest printmaking method is due to the evidence of its existence in as early as the 15th Century BC. This traditional method has its roots in India, China, and Japan.

Big logs of wood used for Block-printing

In our blog, we will discuss the following:

  1. Steps Involved in Block-Printing
  2. History Of Block Printing
  3. Importance Of Block Printing

1. Steps Involved In Block-Printing

The images that are printed with this technique are much bolder than other types of printmaking. Since these blocks are carved by hands, a huge amount of detailing is kept in mind while carving the blocks. This is also called a “relief printing” because the ink leaves a raised texture on the paper. Typically, done by hand, the ink sits on the surface adding a raised texture to the paper. Meticulous and time-intensive, it is a fast-dwindling profession.

Various motifs carved on wood for printing

Step 1 – To Sketch The Design

As a first step, the design is created. These designs are typically influenced by the nature, beliefs, and customs of the region. Sometimes they take the form of plants and animals.

Here the craftsmen trace motifs very carefully. One needs to be very careful in doing this. It is very important to reverse the image if you are using a text, as the printing image will be the reverse of what is there on the block. So you need to be very specific.

Step 2 – Carve Design On Block

This step takes away from one hour to several weeks or months in carving a block depending on the size and detailing of the image.

Craftsmen use several types of knives for doing the same. This process or step takes a lot of patience. Once the artist carves the block, it is given a neat look by giving a finishing touch at the edges.

Step 3 – Color Choice

Natural color give a very smooth effect that easily matches with every skin type. Natural dyes also help avoiding any allergic reactions. The colours commonly used for block printing are saffron, yellow, blue (indigo) and red. The blocks before taken into use are kept in oil for 10-15 days, which provide them the required softness.

The traditional craft of ajrakh uses only natural colors (vegetable dyes) for its making. The usual colors of the craft are red, yellow, blue and black. However green and some other secondary colors are also used now-a-days. They are generally made by mixing the usual colors.

The colors being made from all natural materials are harmless to the workers in all ways. Whereas the chemical ajrakh printing which has come up in the recent past uses chemical dyes which are very harmful to the health of the workers.

The Indigo color is especially popular as it is vibrant and warm. You can see different shades of indigo in our catalogue to compare.

Step 4 – Dying Of Fabric

The fabric is then dyed in the base color and laid nicely on the table. Then the same is pinned from all the corners. This again needs to be done in a very careful manner, because a single unwanted movement can result in smudges or uneven printing which means that we have to again start from scratch. Sustainability is the name of the game. Using pomegranate peel for green, annatto seeds for yellow, sevalkuddi for red, all colors used are home-made. Even the raw materials are obtained only through sustainable farming methods.

Step 5 – Transferring The Design On Fabric

Design being transferred to fabric

The colors so chose, is then roll onto the block, making sure a thin and even layer to be transferred onto the block. Once the inking is done, the block is then pressed down onto the paper or fabric. This requires a certain amount of force, often achieved either by hitting the stamp by hand or with the aid of a hammer. If the design incorporates multiple colors, then each is applied separately with its own block.

Step 6 – Drying Of Fabric

Once the dye has dried, the completed block print fabric is rinsed in a local river or waterway. The block printing process concludes by hanging the fabric to dry in the sun.

Good hand block printing requires skill and plenty of practice in order to create uniformity and clear block printing patterns. The tiny variations in the block printing, vibrant and meaningful motifs, and handmade techniques of Indian block print fabric are what give it such a unique charm.

2. History Of Block Printing

As this art has a history starting from India, China, and Japan so many artisan communities in these countries practice this art even today, and each one of them has their particular way of doing this. Let us take a tour to Jaipur and learn this art majorly from this city of Rajasthan.

As with most ancient practices, every process in this hand block printing is done with the help of a cloth and is labor-intensive and time-consuming. In the traditional method, the craftsmen tear the cotton by hand and scour it with soda ash before washing and thrashing it repeatedly to remove natural oils and scratches. Then it is treated with cow dung and castor oil to bleach it. Finally, a myrobalan nut bath introduces tannins that give the cloth a pale yellow color. All these steps need time to complete approximately two weeks, so a lot of effort is involved in this traditional practice.

The Chippa Community Rajasthan

In India, we have such communities in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh that follow the same traditional centuries-old method of block printing. Notable among these is the Chippa community in Rajasthan that is famous for their Bagru prints. In this, the base cloth is prepared with fuller’s earth and turmeric. Then natural dyes like alum, pomegranate flowers, and indigo are used in printing. The main characteristic of this is to do the printing on distinctive off-white or beige base cloth colors that they usually get from the Fuller’s earth that as smeared on it during the preparations. Their printing process is simple as described in the steps above which is actually the most eco-friendly printing technique in existence. Approximately 250 families are making their livelihood by taking this tradition ahead.

Sanganeri prints are another fine example, which is normally done on the bright white background. These are mostly the floral motifs inspired by flora and fauna of Sanganer.

Kalamkari is a hand block printing method that is a native to Andhra Pradesh and is characterized by floral forms with thin black outlines. They are influenced by Persian art.

Styles and designs vary from region to region and Jaipur has become world-renowned for using heritage floral designs known as bootis, as well as geometric designs influenced by Islamic art.

3. Importance Of Block Printing

In this age where machines churn out yards of fabric limitations, here is a product that a craftsman creates by hand with utmost skill and care. This factor alone is sufficient to mark the uniqueness of this technique. The technique has evolved over centuries, but most of the original methods remain intact, and each hand block printed fabric has its unique story to tell.

As Jaipur is famous for the art, when on a Tour to the Royal city, take a look at any authentic hand block-printed fabric and you will realize the minuteness of the work involved. The human touch is evident due to the presence of minor imperfections that are otherwise omitted by the machines. But one can apparently appreciate the efforts of the artisans that goes into every stage of creating a hand block printed fabric.

We can call it a celebration of ecological integrity, plants, nature, and people who are closely involved in each step. These prints are a beautiful rendition of plants, animals and human culture. Thus, hand block-printing is an environmentally friendly art. It deserves appreciation and recognition. Being in the city of Jaipur, you may shop for these authentic pieces of art for yourself.

Jaipur Heritage Walking Tour

We will discuss the importance of Rajasthani block printing and the common places where this practice takes place in abundance followed by the changes that have taken place all these years in this practice in our next blog.

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