Block Printing – Its History
Recorded history of block printed fabrics, date back to the Indus Valley civilization i.e. around 3500 to 1300 BC. Exact reliable early history is difficult as textiles rarely survive the tropical climate.
From the Harappan period onwards, export of textiles, specially cotton is confirmed. A piece of fabric, showing Indus seal was found in Iraq. Also, during the Mohenjo Daro site excavation, needles, spindles, cotton fibers dyed with Madder (a red dye or pigment obtained from the root of the madder plant) were excavated. This proves that Harappan artists were familiar with Mordants (dye fixatives).
Indian block print cotton fragments were excavated at various sites in Egypt, at Fustant near Cairo. A steatite figurine of a bearded man wearing a Mantle with a trefoil design also indicates that the Harappans used decorated textiles. However, it is not clear whether it was printed or embroidered, but the motif was similar to Kakar or cloud design of Sindhi printers in Pakistan. A terracotta block was also excavated in Bannu district in N.W. frontier province dated around 5th century A.D. It may have been used for printing on fabric.
The Golden Era of Block Printing
Under the Mughal rule in India, block printing flourished to a certain extent. Imperial workshops known as Karkhanas, brought the finest Karigars (crafts people) under royal patronage. These Karigars were brought from Persia and Central Asia to introduce new techniques.
The golden era of block printing was during the reign of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan, Aurangzeb i.e. the first six Mughal emperors. The Mughals rejected abstract design and introduces floral motifs which are still used in the textiles of Jaipur. Aniconic designs, i.e. without idols and images were introduced during the Sultanate period.
The Decline of Block Printing
This golden age of block printing was slowly dying by the early 18th century. With British rule coming in, taxation on Indian textiles made them prohibitively expensive, and the Indian markets were flooded with British made textiles. By the 19th-20th century, trade pattern changed. Due to availability of cheaper alternative to handwoven clothes, many chhipas (hand block printers) gave up craft production and took up jobs in the city’s cotton mill.
Gandhiji realized the gravity of the problem. He held Britain responsible for destruction of craft traditions. As a result, Swadeshi movement started to boycott foreign goods.
The Revival of Block Printing
Revival of block printing gathered momentum with state handicraft development corporation from 1960 onwards. Shrimati Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay, who was a chairman of handicrafts board, was the pioneer in reviving this art form and also hand weaving. It is thanks to the efforts of people like her that this traditional craft still exists in various parts of our country.
Written by Smt. Avanti Gadgil – a passionate block printer