Wood block printing reinvents itself
A man with wrinkled hands and failing eyesight sits on the floor with an armory of chisels, gouges and dainty little knives. He has in front of him a plain piece of Sagwan or teak wood, indistinguishable from any other piece lying in his workshop. But then he puts those knives and chisels to work on this piece, carving a single unit of a floral motif, a delicate peacock or the kairi and makes it special, uncommon and memorable; a wood-block that can in turn make a piece of fabric light up.
Wood block printing has been practiced in India for centuries, decorating simple, common things like quilts, odhnis or bedsheets, adding a dash of beauty to our lives. Its motifs influenced by Persian decorative arts, Rajasthani and Mughal architecture, the nature and the artisan’s aesthetic, wood-block-printing is also one of the best known exports from India.
Wood-carving for blocks in itself is a big industry and carvers known as Kharawgis, have been instrumental in passing down traditional designs by training their children in the craft. Artisans in the village of Paithpur in Gujarat have been carving intricate wood blocks for nearly 300 years and the craft has been practiced in different regions of India for far longer. Various types of block-printing like Ajrakh, Syahi-begar, Dabu and Shekhawati prints from Gujarat and Rajasthan, bold Bagh prints from Central India and Kalamkari block prints from Andhra Pradesh have decorated Indian fabric for long.
Even though the popularity of block prints has never waned in India and today designers are using them to embellish apparel, home textiles and even décor pieces with block prints, the craft still needs to be updated with newness for it to remain sustainable. A new breed of young designers in India are doing just that by creating their own designs. New Delhi-based label, Ekadi, creates innovative styles by designing its own wood blocks and Ekta, creative head of Ekadi, says, “I love to paint and want to use my own designs for our apparel because I want to infuse new-ness into the traditional and make it more appealing to a modern esthetic. To save on time, we decided to convert the hand-painted motif into blocks”.
Swati Sharma of Brahmakarma, a New Delhi based women’s apparel maker that uses only block-printing to embellish their designs, likes using her own designs for the freedom they offer to the creative mind. She says, “Once you work with blocks…its blocks all the way! Block-printing is a great way to give identity to a fabric and making it your own.”.
With new patterns the craft gets a fresh shot in the arm; it also helps the craftsperson add to his skills and find more to do with it. Siddhartha Chandra of Jaipur-based Myyra – a home textile label says, “Taking up the traditional art of block-printing and nurturing it with new designs and a modern aesthetic helps our artisan partners cultivate new skills and earn a fair living in return”.
The printers and wood-block carvers can of-course go on using the traditional designs and old blocks, but with many designers making their own blocks, a new creative phase in the life of this beautiful craft has begun. And it is an important step because without it we will not have our Sanganeris, Kharis, Ajrakhs, Bagrus and Dabus anymore. And what a loss would that be.