During all my years of residence in Rajasthan, if there was one thing which I consciously hoarded, then that was yards and yards of Jaipur hand block print fabrics. I loved them in everything and the wispy, delicately decorated motifs adorned the furnishings of my house, my stationary, and my wardrobe. At that time, I was big into sarees and nothing suited a Rajasthani summer better than Jaipur hand block print 9 yards in soft cotton. My relations there were into politics and one of them hailed from Sanganer which is the hub of this art. Since she was a hard-working popular leader, Sanganer locals adored her and every now and then, we used to get beautiful hand block printed fabrics as gifts. Last year, when I was in Jaipur with Akash, my love for Jaipur hand block print took me to various workshops in the city and I requested my autorickshaw driver, Dinesh to bring us to a workshop. It was a long stop during our Jaipur handicrafts tour and we spent a blistering hot afternoon shopping and learning to use a block on fabric.
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Sanganer is the pit stop for hand block print lovers
Rajasthan is famous for many traditional crafts and among them, the most practiced and popular is hand block printing. This kind of printing is done at many different places in Rajasthan and each area has a historical, cultural and geographical impact on the craft. Thus regional variations exist and each region has its own distinctive style. Sanganer near Jaipur is one such center of hand block printing and it receives a lot of limelight due to the close proximity to the capital city. Located nearly 30 kilometers away from Jaipur, Sanganer presently is a major center for very fine block-cutting and hand printing units. These workshops accommodate more than 5000 block printers and many double up as schools which receives a steady stream of domestic and international students. It is a pitstop in every Jaipur handicrafts tour and Sanganeri block print motifs are indeed one of the loveliest. Such is the popularity of this style that it is often passed off as Jaipur hand block print and for a layman, there is hardly any room for discernment.
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This is a centuries-old art and a tangible heritage
The art of hand block print textiles is prevalent for hundreds of years in India. It was always very popular with the royals and flourished under their patronage. The earliest documented centers of hand block print were in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. In Rajasthan, the craft started thriving in the 18th century during the rule of Sawai Jai Singh. It was started in Sanganer since the proximity of a river supplied a constant source of water for the artists to wash and dye their products. The far-sighted Jai Singh invited many hand block print artisans from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh to open workshops in newly developed Sanganer and this was the beginning of a major art center in Rajasthan. Little had he known at that time, that his idea would succeed beyond the wildest dreams and he would end up providing a mean of income to thousands of families throughout generations.
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The chipa, rangrez, and dhobis of hand block printing
The hand block print artisans of India generally belong to the Chhipa community. Since they are practicing this craft throughout centuries, the intricacies of the process are transferred from one generation to another. Every member of the Chhipa community is involved in washing, dyeing, and printing of fabrics. There are also a number of people who are engaged in several other crafts which are indirectly supporting hand block print process. These are wooden block makers, dyers, tailors, suppliers of raw materials, dealers, etc. Hand block print process is highly dependent on the constant availability of water.
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The careful overlaying of prints and colours
Design blocks of different shapes and sizes are the main tools of the printers and these are made of wood or metal. The wooden block is usually made of teak wood and a block makers prints out the design on paper before sticking it on the wood. After this, the carver starts chiseling out the design on the seasoned wood and once the block is made, it is soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grain. There are two kinds of blocks available. The outline block is called Rekh, while the filler block is called Datta. For more intricate designs and a superior level of clarity of prints, metal blocks are used. Another important equipment of a hand block printer is the printing table which has customized measurements of 3 feet high, 3 feet wide and 9 feet long. The surfaces of these tables are covered with several layers of cloth, jute, and canvas and 3-4 printers can stand at each to work simultaneously.
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The basic natural colour palette of hand block print
Traditionally hand block print artists used natural colours though today chemical colours have gained popularity. The natural colours are extracted from fruits and vegetables and form a basic shade palette of indigo blue, red, black, and green. Red is obtained by mixing alizarin with alum, and indigo blue is extracted from the indigo plant. Black comes from an acidic solution of iron which is obtained by processing iron scraps with jaggery and salt. Boiling of pomegranate skin provides green. Apart from these, a hand block print artist also uses the bark of mango tree, vinegar, slaked lime, etc.
Delicate motifs, pretty colours, and skin-friendly fabric
What makes the Jaipur or rather Sanganer hand block print so popular is the loveliness of its motifs. Usually printed over white or cream cotton cloth, the designs of Sanganeri motifs are inspired by nature. Flowers are very popular though plants, fruits, animals, human figures, and geometrical patterns are used as patterns. More than one motif is used in a Sanganer hand block print and a finished product may have different patterns on its base, border, and body. Floral motifs are inspired by sunflowers, narcissuses, roses, rosettes, lotuses, lotus bud, lily, plumeria, canna, daffodils, marigold, hibiscus, and chrysanthemum. Fruits like banana, dates, grapes, and pomegranate are also quite common. In some traditional prints, dagger and other weapons are also used as motifs. Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur was a huge devotee of Lord Shiva and during his reign, there was a rise in hand block print motif of a trident.
The process of hand block printing
The hand block print process includes the following steps: washing, marking, printing, drying, and washing. First, the lengths of fabric are treated with bleach and water before being boiled and left to dry in the sun. This removes the starch and dust from the cloth. Then the textile is stretched on the printing board and the areas to be printed are marked out with chalk. The hand block print process begins with the printer setting up his chosen ink trays, dipping the block in colour and stamping the design on the cloth. Solid systematic “thump thump” resounds as he prints from left to right, as per the custom, and the number of blocks depends on the various colours used in the design. According to the hand block print thumb rule, the outline color is always applied first and then the rest of the design is filled out. This stamping process is called chapaai. After the printing process, the fabric is sun-dried for the colours to hold fast and then it is steamed in special boilers before drying out in the sun. A finished, dried fabric is ironed out before getting ready for packaging and the entire process takes more than a week.
Hand block print workshop tips
The hand block print process involves the artist stamping a treated fabric with wooden or sometimes metal blocks, each of which has a different design carved on it, to create a harmonious pattern on the cloth. Usually, several layers of patterns in many different shades are printed over each other to create intricate designs. India is one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of block printed fabric in the world and Jaipuri hand block print fabrics are popular all over the world. Most hand block printed fabric from Jaipur are printed in Sanganer and attending a workshop is one of the immersive cultural experiences in Rajasthan. It is quite a fun learning creative activity and kids enjoy a hand block print workshop as well. So, here are a few tips on how to go about it.
- Reach Jaipur – The capital city of the state of Rajasthan is well-connected by road, railway, and flight from all over India. Jaipur has an international airport as well and it is just a couple of hours drive from Delhi or Agra.
- Get settled – Stay at any of Jaipur’s atmospheric hotels or gorgeous Airbnb’s to soak up its atmosphere and get oriented with the city.
- Book yourself a course online or hire a local driver to take you to a workshop – Most people opt for the second option and I got lucky with my autorickshaw driver, Dinesh. He doubled up as my local Jaipur handicrafts tour guide and it was an amazing experience. He is a very safe driver and extremely honest. He can be contacted at +91 93-09-269889. For those looking for a more in-depth and/or multi-day course, then check out the options at Jai Texart. You can also stop by at Heritage Textiles to get a quick class on hand block printing.
- Hoard the gorgeous artisanal fabrics – You will find good quality cotton hand block print fabric available at nearly every corner of Jaipur. Many of them are nowadays pigment dyes and pretty enough. However, for natural dyed cotton hand block print textiles, shops like Anokhi and Fabindia are your best bet. There are also many exclusive hotel shops which sell high-quality hand block print fabric, scarves, quilts, furnishings, and stationery. Many shops even offer courier service of bulk purchases.
Though most Jaipur hand block prints are produced in Sanganer, art or fashion lovers should check out Dabu or mud resist print of Rajasthan. It is also an ancient indigenous art and produces beautiful hand block printed fabrics in earthy colours. The Wabisabi Project many specialized courses on hand block printing at Bagru near Jaipur. For more information, check out the following posts on hand block print tour in Jaipur by Travelcollecting, Maiwa, Adventure, and NYTimes.
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