I’ve always been a huge fan of handmade and block printed items from India. There’s something magical and very attractive about what’s created by hand, that machine made, mass produced products just cannot match up to.
As I progressed through the journey of life, I have firmly come to believe in the beautiful and poetic phrase by Rumi – “What you seek is seeking you”. Ever since the launch of my website, I have come across people, places and events that I have always been wanting to be a part of. And just as if the universe brought me to the thing I love the most, block printing, I met and featured Ms. Shyamala Rao, the founder of Blocks and Prints in Mumbai and there was a deep bond that was created instantly.
Five to six years down the line, we reconnected over an enriching block printing workshop at her home studio in Mulund and it was truly a very delightful experience.
Here’s a snippet of what I learned from the talented Shyamala Rao. I just couldn’t contain my excitement, I felt like a child in Disney Land!
The workshop began with a presentation and real samples of various wooden block prints and fabrics. Little did I know, that the humble art of block printing is a living tradition that dates back to over 4,000 years. Right from the exquisitely handcrafted teak wood blocks, to the techniques involved in block printing, the fabrics, understanding the warp and weft of the fabric, to the history, culture and the economics of block printing, I realized that this is an entire universe in itself. Somewhere while I was amazed at this traditional handicraft industry, I also felt ashamed of being a part of a larger society that turns a blind eye to our rich handicraft heritage.
I was amazed when I learned that it was as early as during the Mohenjodaro Civilisation, it was noted that the Priest King would wear fabrics with cloud prints on them. At that time, prints as subtle as even cloud prints would denote something of magnitude – that of prosperity in the kingdom. “However, we don’t know for sure that it was printed, just that the fabric is embellished with design. No one can point a finger on a date to say this is when printing began, and from where. Textile scholars piece together evidence and come to these conclusions and sometimes they are argued and refuted,” adds Ms. Shyamala.
The high point of the block printing industry took shape during the Moghul era where this art form reached the heights of perfection. Now I realize where some famous motifs such as the paisley and floral designs have originated from.
Even today, one of the major hubs of block printing in India is at Ajrakhpur, in the Kuch district of Gujarat. It is interesting to note that a tradition that has been passed down from generations has played a prime role in supporting the locals of the village economy and now is struggling to keep pace with cheap, mass-produced mechanical designs just because they’re cheaper in price and quality.
Being a more of community wise work (as each step requires a different skill set), block printing as a traditional art form became passed down from one generation to another and survived for several years and has also helped sustain the local artisans.
I also learned how so much thought and wisdom is used in block printing techniques right from the first wash of the fabric, followed by ‘mordanting’ where the fruit from the myroballan tree is powdered and soaked to make the fabric more accepting of the colour when soaked overnight.
This is when I realized that a simple block printed sari, a bed cover or a tablecloth is not so simple after all. It involves the work of various artisans and technicians from the traditional block printing industry who painstakingly create subtle designs.
One of the most intriguing parts of the workshop was listening to the history on Indigo. History used to be my favourite subject in school and when Ms. Shyamala Rao, narrated the entire history of the indigo trade including the Indigo Revolt in 1860 in India – I was intrigued.
It is heartening to know how the entire process of the Indigo plantation is being revived responsibly in a small hamlet 70 – 80 kms from Almora up in Kumaon Hills and also by Brij Ballabh Udaiwal from Jaipur who is actively engaged in studying and reviving the Indigo tradition in India.
The best part being, when I held the blocks of pure Indigo – it almost felt like holding pieces of gold and diamond. I could empathize with the indigo farmers of their blood, sweat and tears and months of hard work they have dedicated to create the exquisite blocks of rare royal indigo. Sadly again, they’re struggling to sustain when cheaper and artificial alternatives to pure indigo have taken over the market, which makes this niche kind of indigo farming very difficult to sustain.
I now feel that if history was taught to kids in schools through workshops like these, I am sure that it will inculcate a more positive and an empathic bunch of children who would have actually seen, felt and heard stories from our rich history in a live workshop format. Workshops like these add value to the learning, make history more interesting and make us more connected with our roots and heritage.
Apart from moments of laughter, talks about life and living, sipping on homemade tea and munching on biscuits, I realized one day is just not enough to learn the rich tradition of our block printing industry in its most traditional form. Art forms like these need time, patience, love and nurturing – more at a personal level. There’s a sense of achievement when you see your own creation come to life on fabric, with the prints and motifs chosen by you almost adding a new lease of life and bringing your dream come true.
When I printed the tablecloth and cushion covers for my home, under Ms. Shyamala’s guidance, I realized the amount of manual labour that goes into creating any product like this. The time and patience it requires, it just cannot be rushed.
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