(Last Updated on : 23/10/2010)
Block printing has earned a reputation for itself in Rajasthan for ages. Rajasthan has a long legacy of its fine handprinted cotton textiles. The craft has been mastered over many centuries and skills in block printing, like dabu (resist-printing); khadi and warak printing are unparalleled. A stability of tradition is apparent in the similar design styles of printing that are found even today, despite the accessibility of modern techniques like screen-printing. According to tradition in Rajasthan, craft skills are passed down the generations, from parent to child, the expertise remains within the family and people engaged in this trade form an identifiable group called the 'Chhipa community'.
The craft of block printing is practised in almost every village in Rajasthan. As it is heavily reliant on water sources; hence, initially, commercial printing centres began to rise near water sources, the most famous centres being Sanganer and Bagru near Jaipur, Barmer, Jodhpur and Akola near Udaipur. Over time, each centre for block printing in Rajasthan has developed its distinguished design style and techniques-for instance, sombre and low toned colours and delicate lines, creating finer designs like the poppy, rose and lotus, usually against a white background, are well known characteristic of fabrics that are printed at Sanganer. In contrast, motifs are conventionally big and bold in Bagru, where dabu (resist-printing) and the dyeing process produce a reddish black shade. Wild flowers, buds and foliage have provided inspiration to the printers of Bagru. In Jaisalmer, the printers use wax resists and thereby create a dramatic wedding odhna called jajar bhat in red and black.
The Rajasthani craftsperson usually creates a motif that is a blend of flower, bud and leaves or other forms such as keri (mango), pan (betel leaf), katar (dagger) or jhumka (ear-ring). A notable feature of Rajasthan's block printing tradition is that animal motifs are usually not used on fabric that is meant for costume. Royal patronage in Jaipur and Jodhpur encouraged local printers to work exclusive designs on various kinds of garments. Motifs in this region have been highly influenced by Islamic culture and floral designs that are often associated with other crafts like silverware, brass, and marble. Local art is also a strong inspiration, as in Udaipur where the art pichvai painting is reflected in the printed textile. Another example is Nathdwara where dyers make their blocks from sandalwood and also add perfume to the colour mixture to produce scented fabrics.
The unique motifs on fabrics serve as a mark of group identity and, hence, have remained unaltered since generations. For example, women of different communities use different motifs on their ghaghras. The Jat uses the motifs like teetri bhat and koyali bhat. Young, unmarried Jat girls, wear the dhola-maru motif, while older women of the Kumhar community use the daabri bhat motif. Even now, when polyester and mill-made warp-knitted fabrics have become the norm, people still strive to wear traditional designs on new fabrics. Block printing is one of the most basic techniques of printing by hand. It is a popular, low-cost technique that is used especially, for small yardages and single pattern designs on cloth pieces. The colours are derived from vegetables and metals depending on local availability. Wooden blocks are the main printing tools and are prepared by the local carpenters. These blocks are usually hand-carved from locally available wood and may be rectangular, square or circular. The blocks have cylindrical holes that are drilled in the back to enable the release of air bubbles during the printing process. Registration notches arc cut on the side of the blocks to ensure proper arrangement for each subsequent colour. This ensures that each block registers on the fabric accurately.
The gad, rekh and datta are three types of blocks that are distinguishable by their different styles of carving. The gad is carved in intaglio and is engaged to print large background figures, while rekh and datta are carved in complete relief. Rekh blocks also mark the outlines of the motif and are often used in conjunction with gad blocks, the rekh then forming the fine elaborate lines within the impression made by the gad block. Datta is carved in bold relief and complements the designs of both the gad and rekh blocks. Each of these blocks is used separately or together to produce endless design variations.
Some of the pastes that are used in block printing of Rajasthan are syahi, begar and dabu. Adding a gum solution to the paste thickens it and thus provides a viscosity that is suitable for printing. The begar paste prepared with fitkari or alum, gum and geru produces the bright red colour. Alum acts as a caustic and combines with the colouring substance alizarin to produce colours ranging from pink to deep red on cotton fabric. The process of block printing begins with washing and desising the fabric. The printing paste is poured into trays known as saj. A bamboo net, chipri is then placed in the wooden tray and a coarse woollen clolh, kambal ki gaddi, is spread over it. This prevents excess colour from rising to the surface and ensures that the block picks up the dye evenly. Dried fabric is eventually spread out on flat, softly padded wooden tables and block printing is begun from one end. The block is lightly pressed on the printing tray and then pressed on the fabric, transferring its impression on to the material. The process is one more repeated, thereby taking care to ensure the blocks' alignment with each other over the entire cloth. Each colour in the design requires repetition with individual blocks. The printed cloth is dried and washed again to remove the gum that was added while printing. Finally, as the last stage, the fabric is dried in the sun.
There are several other processes of block printing that are often used in Rajasthan. In the direct method the block is dipped in the paste and then pressed directly on the pre-treated fabric. This does not involve any resist and no dyeing procedures are necessary. Dabu or resist printing is another method of block printing. In this method, the actual sequencing of the process and different stages of dyeing and printing can differ depending on the desired final pattern. The fabric is printed with a mordant (alum) or a resist (dabu) or both. When a cloth printed with mordant is immersed, it reacts with the dye and colour develops only in those areas, which have been treated with mordant. If the fabric is printed with resist, however, only the areas that are unobstructed will accept the dye.
The fabric is first washed and completely cleaned, then treated with harda solution. It is then printed with the pastes like syahi and begar in two distinct steps. The dabu is applied to the cloth using a 'datta block'. The areas resisted with dabu will not absorb colour on further dyeing. Following the application of dabu, sawdust is lightly sprinkled over the surface to facilitate quick drying of the fabric. Dyeing with alizarin develops a rich red colour in areas printed with the begar paste. The fabric is then washed and dried and, if needed, printed again with resist before being immersed in indigo dye, which produces a deep blue colour. Sometimes, nasphal (yellow dye) is also used on the respective fabric. This can provide it additional tones of yellow and green. In some regions of Rajasthan, the material is eventually dipped in the nasphal solution, whereas in other places the solution is smeared on the surface.
The Dabu paste is prepared with clay. This mud-resist is removed once the desired pattern has been achieved. Different types of dabu solutions are used. Some of these are kalidar dabu, dnlidar dabu and gawarbali dabu. The latter one is produced from roasted seeds and has the maximum adhesive qualities. The most commonly used, however, is the kalidar dabu, which is made with kali mitti (clay), chuna (lime), bidhan (wheat flour) and gaund (gum), a natural adhesive. The clay is soaked overnight and to this is added wheat flour (soaked in water) and lime solution. This is thoroughly mixed by the treading of feet and gum is periodically added to this mixture. The gelatinous paste thus produced is strained through a fine muslin cloth to remove any particles. The solution is then ready for use in resist printing.
Block printing developed in Rajasthan bears a special trait with colorful prints of birds, animals, human figures, gods and goddesses. The demand for block printing fabrics in Rajasthan are increasing with passing years and are often seen to be sold in fairs and festivals at local and national levels.