The Ancient Art of Block-Printing

Every craft is associated with innumerable stories about its origin, its essence and about the people associated with it; and through the course of its evolution, it gets intertwined with many more stories, myths and meanings.


The textile tradition of the Indian sub-continent was seeded over five thousand years ago in the Harrapan Civilization (c. 2600-1900 BCE).Excavations at Harrapan sites unveiled evidence of cotton fiber cultivation, weaving tools and needles, the identification of structures as dyeing workshops and the finding of a single fragment of madder dyed cotton, while indigo seeds were uncovered at other sites revealed a civilization with an advanced textile know-how.  The stone bust of the Priest-King at Mohenjodaro, his left shoulder draped in a robe with a trefoil design, signaled a long developed tradition of patterning and decorating textiles.

The earliest surviving samples of block printed patterned and dyed cotton textiles can be dated to the 9th Century BCE. These fragments of trade cloth were uncovered at a burial site in Fustat, Egypt, their origin traced by scholars to Gujarat.

Making of block

Celebrated in literature and poetry, extolled by travelers and traded across the world the textiles of the Indian sub-continent whether woven, embroidered, painted, printed or dyed in myriad colors have been renowned since antiquity.  Among the wide variety of decorative techniques honed by craftsmanship was the patterning on textiles through stamping with blocks.

The practice of block printing and dyed textiles was spread across centers in India. The tools used were seemingly simple yet technologically evolved – blocks carved with patterns and motifs, intricate or complex. Understanding of plants and minerals led to the development of advanced technologies of laying on multiple colors. The knowledge of fastener agents, adhering colors binding them to textile fibers, developing shades and spectrums of colors and hues, processes of resist and reserve dyeing, that used pastes of mud, wax or lac were only some of the technologies that craft communities had developed and mastered.

Making of Ajrakh

Over the ages command over the medium allowed craftspeople to respond with creativity and inventiveness to the varying demands of their clientele who covered the spectrum from courts and courtiers to peasants and tribal’s, from textiles created for places of worship to trade goods coveted the world over. The block printers fashioned cloth for requirements extending from clothing to hangings, tents, animal trappings, furnishing to book covers and any other uses that textiles could be put to. 

The huge diversity of traditions, while held together by an underlying unity varied immensely from region to region in  practices and techniques, each center stamping on its own unique cultural identity, adapting technologies to suit local geographies, leading to specialization and differentiation.

Though much has been lost in antiquity, many fabled traditions continue till today, even though much diminished. the resilience of the craftspeople has kept alive the link between the past and the present, demonstrating the continued relevance of hand block printed textiles to the present day.

AJRAK PRINT PATTERNS

The Ajrak geometric print pattern on cotton/silk is created through a complex, time consuming sophisticated process of stamping and resist dyeing. Accomplished Ajrak printers often work both sides of the textile to achieve the bipuri or mirror image print that further pushes the boundaries of technical virtuosity and requires great expertise and patience.

It is not just the long, painstaking process of printing, carefully matching the motif on both sides of the fabric and dyeing in different colourants one by one, but also the fact that all the ingredients used are natural and environment friendly, that makes Ajrakh and dyeing the fabric that makes it such a treasure.

These traditional indigo-blue, iron-black, madder-red and white geometric patterned cotton/silk textiles are customary dress of the Maldhari cattle herders, and the Manganyar and Langha itinerant musicians. Draped either as  a lunghi  that is worn around the waist, as a turban or as an all-purpose shoulder cloth, its wear can be seen in Kutch, Jaisalmer,  Jodhpur, Barmer and other areas along the western desert areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Words do not do justice to the process of Ajrakh printing, where one can see the colours magically appearing in their printed patterns after completion of dyeing. It is a perfected process, unchanged over centuries. The fabric is first treated with Harada, which helps in fixing the colour. Then it is printed with lime or gum, where the colour is not required and black for outlines. After printing, the fabric is dyed in indigo, then washed to remove the resist material and dyed in the mordant. Depending on the mordant, the print areas will get their colour, for example, alizarine gives red, henna gives green and rubab gives brown. Printing in remaining areas and dyeing is repeated till all the colours in their full strength are achieved.

Made of hard wearing seasoned teak wood the block set required to print an Ajrak pattern include the Rekh  for the pattern outline, the colour filler blocks – the Datlo and the Kaatmavi, with the background colour being printed by the Gudh block. Each block working in complement with the other to create the whole design. Often more than 23 to 25 blocks may be required to complete a single Ajrakh patterned textile with combinations of patterns and border motifs. 

The block-making process starts with marking a right angle on the wood, this step ensures that the corners of each block when stamped are perfectly aligned and contiguous to the next stamp in the printing process.

While adept at making and repairing the blocks themselves, the printers use the services of the specialised block-maker community at Pethapur. 

The quality of water plays a vital role in the process of Ajrakh printing, from beginning to end. On 26th January 2001, when Bhuj was hit by a massive earthquake, it not just caused immense damage to lives and property, but also caused changes in the environment. The iron content of Saran River’s water increased, making it unsuitable for Ajrak printing.

Half the craftsmen of Dhamadka decided to move to a new village and named it Ajrakhpur.

Every year, on 26th January, they clear the village accounts and select a new person for keeping the accounts for the next year. The village is an example of rebuilding lives from scratch. A rainwater harvesting plant has been built in the village, indicating that sustainability was an important consideration in planning the village.

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