Block printing is one of the first art forms which influenced me the most, right from college days. Its amazing to see how this traditional art changes form and shape in different regions of India and presents a spectacular picture every time.
While I was exploring this art in Kolkata I came across various communities practicing the art. It is truly a delight to see them work through this whole process with such dexterity.
Let’s celebrate this labour of Love, adorn yourself in beautiful bright mulmul sarees and let the spring take over you!
ABOUT THE CRAFT
The practice of block printing is about two thousand years old. Right from ancient times it’s been practiced in different corners of the world, each having its distinct identity characteristic of the place it is practiced in. It may be called with different names but the technique largely remains same, like in Gujarat, it is called Gaamthi prints, Rajasthan it is called Sanganeri, Madhya Pradesh it is called Baagh print, Andhra Pradesh it is called Kalamkari, and Kolkata it is called Chappa prints.
“The wonder of block printing lies in the fact that one can always bring in an individual element to it.”
BLOCK PRINTING PROCESS
The main tools of the printer are wooden blocks in different patterns and sizes. The underside of the block has the design etched on it. Each block has a wooden handle and two to three cylindrical holes drilled into the block for free air passage and also to allow release of excess printing paste. The new blocks are soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grains in the timber.
Wooden trolleys with racks have castor wheels fastened to their legs to facilitate free movement. The printer drags it along as he works. On the upper most shelf trays of dye are placed. On the lower shelves printing blocks are kept ready.
The fabric to be printed is washed free of starch and soft bleached if the natural grey of the fabric is not desired. If dyeing is required as in the case of saris, where borders, or the body is tied and dyed, it is done before printing. The fabric is stretched over the printing table and fastened with small pins.
The printing starts form left to right. The color is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood and the block dipped into the outline color (usually black or a dark color). When the block is applied to the fabric, it is slammed hard with the fist on the back of the handle so that a good impression may register. A point on the block serves as a guide for the repeat impression, so that the whole effect is continuous and not disjoined. The outline printer is usually an expert because he is the one who leads the process. If it is a multiple color design the second printer dips his block in color again using the point or guide for a perfect registration to fill in the color. The third color if existent follows likewise. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colors need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole. A single color design can be executed faster, a double color takes more time and multiple color design would mean additional labor and more color consumption.
Originally, natural dyes were used, but today they have been replaced by chemical and artificial colors. The main colors used were, green from hinna, yellow the color of spring from turmeric, blue as in Krishna from indigo and black from rusting iron, near about 27 different colors could be achieved through plant parts and metals.
But with time and easy availability of chemical dyes, use of natural dyes is fading away. Different dyes are used for silk and cotton. Rapid fast dyes, indigo sol and pigment dyes are cotton dyes. Printing with rapid dyes is a little more complicated as the dyes once mixed for printing have to be used the same day. Standard colors are black, red, orange, brown and mustard. Color variation is little difficult and while printing it is not possible to gauge the quality or depth of color.
It is only after the fabric is processed with an acid wash that the final color is established. Beautiful greens and pinks are possible with indigo sol colors but pigment colors are widely popular today because the process is simple, the mixed colors can be stored for a period of time, subtle nuances of colors are possible, and new shades evolve with the mixing of two or three colors. Also the colors are visible as one prints and do not change after processing. Colors can be tested before printing by merely applying it onto the fabric. The pigment color is made up of tiny particles, which do not dissolve entirely and hence are deposited on the cloth surface while rapid dyes and indigo sols penetrate the cloth.
Pigment colors are mixed with kerosene and a binder. The consistency should be just right, for if it is too thick it gives a raised effect on the material, which spoils the design. Small plastic buckets with lids are ideal for storing the mixed colors over a few days.
Cotton saris after pigment printing are dried out in the sun. This is part of the fixing process. They are rolled in wads of newspapers to prevent the dye form adhering to other layers and steamed in boilers constructed for the purpose. Silks are also steamed this way after printing. After steaming, the material is washed thoroughly in large quantities of water and dried in the sun, after which it is finished by ironing out single layers, which fix the color permanently.