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Evolution of block printing in India: A tale of love, labour and survival

They say, a picture can say a thousand words; and when you look at the prints that originated from one of the most robust and colourful parts of India, you realise how true it is.

Yes, we are talking about block prints from Rajasthan.

Every time you buy a block print kurta set, or see a block print shirt while window shopping, remember, this print has seen the world, and yet remained true to the Indian heritage - its very own centre of inception. From the fashion streets of New York to the gullies of India, this is one print that has travelled all across the globe and left a lasting impression. What started off as one of the most ancient artforms is today being adapted to beautify the modern world.

How it all began

One of the most interesting and vibrant tales in the history of art and fabric, has to be the origin story of block prints. There are different interpretations, theories and conjectures about when it all began, what traces were found where etc. But one thing remains for certain, this was a printing format that was handcrafted with love and preserved with care in India. According to some accounts, it was in Egypt that the first evidence of block printing was found. There are remnants of block prints in a place called Fustat which is located near Cairo. But, how did it reach there?

All the ancient civilizations in the world were connected and connected through trade. This allowed them to not only share goods and products, but also to facilitate a cultural exchange. And it is believed that block prints travelled from the Indian subcontinent to Egypt, the traces of which have been excavated.

Block prints in ancient India

Block prints have a history of their own. Changing with time and influence, they have morphed into what they are today because of the various influences of the past.

From the days of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro

Known to be one of the most advanced civilizations dating back to 2500 BCE, block printing in India actually finds roots here. According to studies, traces have been found that people of this part of the world knew the use of mordants, which is a dye fixative and thus printing could flourish easily. They were also well trained in the art of extracting dyes from flora.

What we today understand as block printing germinated here. As we know, block printing is done on a block of carved wood, a method that was developed back during this time. There is a palpable difference however in the designs. If one is to take a look at the art forms excavated from these sites, the patterns were mostly geometric and that is exactly what got reflected in their block print designs as well. Designs which have evolved over time.
It is not surprising that Rajasthan, which is located just a few hundred kilometres from the known sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, would become the flag bearer of this ancient art form. Everytime you buy cotton kurta sets online, you can fondly bask in the nostalgia of a brilliant past that these motifs carry with them.

And then came the Mughals

Indian ethnic crafts experts today are of the opinion that it was under the patronage of the Mughals, that block prints truly came to bloom. It is a well known fact that the Mughals brought with them the scope of cultural assimilation and this saw a reflection in the block prints as well.
Intricate designs are what dominated the Mughal art scene and it was during the reign of Akbar that block print artisans were on high demand. A blend of Persian sensibilities and the Indian style of painting is what we see in our block prints today. It was during this era that motifs depicting flora and fauna made its way into block printing. And it was not just the patterns that went through a change during this time.
Focus was given on the technique as well. First of all, muslin travelled to India with the Mughals. It is one of the finest materials ideal for block printing. The need for vibrancy and colour too shined through the craft with advanced methods of enriching the dyes and making them last longer.

The Dark Age of block printing

The block print cotton suits that so many of us are fond of today, did not have a smooth sailing past.

Like many other local arts and crafts, block printing too saw a decline during the British Rule. The British who carried with them the power of the Industrial Revolution, could produce clothing items in a large scale at a much reduced cost. Raw materials were taken from India, developed in Britain and then sold back to Indians at a much higher price. The need of the time was for factory workers in the cities. Local block printing artisans found it difficult to find two square meals a day and hence more and more of them gave up this generational art to shift to factory work.

But things were about to change pretty soon.

This problem was identified by the Father of the Nation and he raised the clarion call to hark back to what is our own, through the Swadeshi Movement. This marked the first step in bringing back a heritage from our past, which gathered full momentum under the Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay, who made it her life’s mission to popularise this about to be forgotten craft.

Meet the Chippas

Every ancient art form that has survived the changing weathers of time is a generational craft. It is passed down from father to son and then to their son. It is a heritage that is borne in their family through centuries which is again what breathes life into one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world. And when it comes to block printing, it is the Chippas.

If you were to visit the village of Bagru today in Rajasthan, you will find in almost every house, local artisans attentively working on creating a block print kurti set. Carved wooden blocks of different patterns lie scattered around them, as they dip the block in hand in dyes of the most vibrant hues and carefully place them on the material. The result that you see is nothing less than a celebrated painting.

Chippas are the forebears of block printing in Rajasthan. China is believed to be the country from where printing on fabrics originated. But it is an unanimous opinion that block printing is something that flourished in India. And the Chippas had a significant role to play in it. This art has been carefully nourished and developed for almost 300 years by this band of people. They are scattered across Rajasthan and Gujarat as well. Blocks designed by Chippas across areas will be different. They take their inspiration from Nature and hence what they see and experience based on their local surroundings is what makes its way into the block patterns they create.

The name Chippa originates from the Chappai which essentially means printing. This group of people excelled in printing methods and naturally they became the ones to carry forward one of the most treasured art forms of India.

Keeping the art alive at Kahva

While block printing is one of the most loved art forms across the world there’s a lot that needs to be taken care of for it to survive. It is indeed a laborious process. It is also a work of art. Thus our local artisans need to be provided with all the help they need to keep block printing alive. From providing them with the right tools to ensure they get the due value for their work, it is up to us to encourage them with what they need.

At Kahva we started off with a simple desire to unite all through the love for block prints. And through the process we ensure that our local artisans from Jaipur, who craft the beautiful block print kurta sets in our collection are empowered. Our artisans always come first, the ones who have carried this tradition with them over the years.

At Kahva, we celebrate the story of block prints.