Block Printing in Bagru
Hear the words 'Indian textiles' and the first image that springs to mind is mostly likely to be of a length fabric covered with beautiful, block-printed patterns. It is thought that printing designs onto fabric actually originated in China some 4,500 years ago, but it was the Indians who made the art their own.
Located just outside the Rajasthani capital Jaipur, Bagru has been home to the Chhipa (a clan whose name comes either from a Gujarati word meaning ‘to print’ or from combining two Nepal Bhasa words: ‘chhi’, meaning ‘to dye’, and ‘pa’, which translates as ‘to leave something to bask in sun’), for over 400 years. A centre of hand-block printing ever since, today the town is one of the craft’s last remaining hubs. (The majority of the region’s villages have switched to screen printing.)
The town is an intoxicating hive of activity. Block carvers, mostly fathers and sons, squat inside tiny open studios chiselling intricate patterns into lumps of teak. In the centre of town, families of printers stand at long, fabric-covered tables and dip these blocks into coloured dye before stamping them onto the fabric. ‘Dhobiwalas’ (laundry people), standing waist deep in water baths, then wash the fabrics before hanging them out to dry in the vast communal drying field that lies at the heart of everything. Fabrics in indigo, madder, saffron and hot pink cover the ground and hang from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. The air is filled with the scent of drying cloth.
This is where the process begins. In Bagru, carvers make their blocks using Sagwaan (Teak), Sheesham (Indian Rosewood), or Rohida (sometimes called ‘Desert Teak’ or ‘Marwar Teak’). Sagwaan is used when durability and softness is needed, while the hardness of Sheesham makes it ideal for intricate, detailed motifs. Once the block’s design has been sketched on paper and the block has been cut to size, the pattern is drawn directly on the wood. The carver then uses drills, chisels, hammers, nails and files to recreate the pattern on the block. It is a meticulous process requiring skill and precision and can take a carver up to two days to prepare a single block. On average, a printer will need at least four or five blocks for a single cloth - a background block (called a 'gudh'), an outline block (the 'rekh') and several filler blocks ('the datta').
Most colours used in Bagru are natural and the recipes have been passed down through generations of artisan families. Blues are made from Indigofera tinctoria, stored in dye vats 10 to 12 feet deep. Different hues of red (begar) are created by mixing varying proportions of alum (fitkari), madder (lal mitti) and acacia arabica (also called babul gond). Alum is used for greys and syahi (fermented waste iron, jaggery, and water) for blacks. Many of the dyes require months of curing for the desired color to develop. Weather, water quality, and changes in the crops, all affect the vegetable dye.
For regular hand block printing, the printer dips the wooden printing block into a dye tray and then pounds the center of the block onto the fabric with his or her fist. The pattern is then repeated across the fabric, each block being positioned by eye. Delicate floral and leaf motifs are popular, but Bagru printers also incorporate geometric shapes such as leher (waves), chaupad (checks), kangura (triangles), and jaali, a gridded trellis pattern which may have been adapted from Islamic architecture.
There are two styles of traditional Bagru block-printing. One features dark, generally geometric, patterns on a cream background, the other light-coloured motifs on a dark ground. This second style is known as dabu, named after the mixture of local black clay, wheat powder, guar gum and lime water the printers use to apply pattern to the fabric. As the dabu does not absorb dye, these areas remain uncoloured when the fabric is dyed.
See this living craft in action, meet the founder of a business ensuring its survival and try your hand at some block-printing yourself on our Incredible India programme to The Land of the Maharajas. Learn more here