The Art of Block Printing
Block Printing is one of the oldest types of printmaking, and has been around for thousands of years. There is evidence that it existed as early as the fifth century BC, with actual fragments found from as early as the fifteenth century.
It has been done around the world, with roots in India, China and Japan.
Since there is such a long history of block printing, there are many different techniques, but it is essentially using a carved material covered in ink to transfer an image on to paper or fabric. Block printing can be done with wood, linoleum, rubber, or many other materials Block printing is also known as “relief printing” because the ink leaves a raised texture on the paper or fabric.
Block making in itself is an art that constantly evolves with the changes in the printing or the textile industry.
With the development of textile printing the basic structure of the block changed considerably. Earlier blocks were very simple wooden structures without any handle, and were simply pressed on the fabric with hand or a wooden mallet. The result was not very even. Later on blocks with handles were developed for the ease of printing.
Another system of creating an impression on fabric was the clamping the fabric, where in the cloth was pressed between two identical blocks. Later on iron hammers were used to apply pressure on the block, while the huge blocks could be pulled up and down by a pulley.
There is considerable diversity in the materials used for making blocks and in the techniques of block printing.
Many factors decide what kind of block should be made for a particular situation. The most basic factor is the kind of wood. Teak is considered best for the purpose and thus remains the most preferred wood. It is found in abundance in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Perhaps the fact that this wood is easily available locally makes it popular with local block makers.
Wood needs to be seasoned before being used for any kind of constructive purpose.
Even the well seasoned wood has proportion of water, which can be removed by hot air drying. Seasoning is quicker when wood is kept in water for a long time and then dried. In villages often people keep the wood in village ponds or lakes for months for the same purpose. The design of the block is created on a piece of paper. The wood is then mechanically cut to the required size of the block. Once the wood is ready to use, then the design or the pattern is transferred to the wood. This is called “likhai”, drawing the design on the block.
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The next stage is the carving of the design. When one wants to print a single colour design then only one block is required to print this design. This could be the Rekh (the outline block), or the “Jaal” a kind of block, which has a geometrical, floral or lattice work.
The key outline block defines the form of pattern.
Normally Rekh in considered the “key block” which gets printed first in order to give ‘clue’ to other block to fit in. In some cases Rekh is split into two blocks in order to print two colours. This kind of block is known as ‘chirai’ (splitting) block.
Block printers all over India make gorgeous textiles in many colours and designs, using a variety of techniques and materials.
Some prints are so intricate, that they seem like they are hand drawn with a fine brush, but are actually colour impressions of pieces of wood, deftly carved by expert craftsmen. Pethapur village in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is a hub of wood block makers, who supply customized blocks to the centres of block printing. Wooden block making has been a popular profession among the inhabitants of Pethapur for about 300 years. The craftsmen use only teak wood sourced from Valsad (near Gujarat-Maharashtra border).
Teak is the perfect base for carving as it is strong and doesn’t absorb water or distort in shape or size.
The craftsmen cut pieces according to the required block size, careful to cut away from any knots in the wood. The wood is painted white and then the design traced on to it, to increase contrast and visibility. The craftsmen use a hand drill arrangement that involves a bow and a driller to drill out larger portions from the block; and for the finer shapes, they use a variety of chisels in different shapes and sizes. They make their tools themselves according to their requirement.
These expert craftsmen can carve blocks with lines almost a millimetre thin and so close together, that it is a wonder how even one chisel stroke, that could leave the design spoiled and useless, does not go wrong.
They make blocks for printing designs in one to four colours, sometimes more, but the craftsmanship is so precise that the fields and outlines of the motifs match flawlessly. Wooden blocks range from as small as 1” to 16” in size and while a basic block, 3 to 4 inches across takes a day or two to make, an intricate one can take almost a week’s work.
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Printers of different areas use different motifs or techniques and these block makers are experts in making all kinds of blocks. While Ajrakh prints have geometrical and star patterned motifs, the Sanganeri prints of Rajasthan have simple abstract or floral ones.
The Bagh prints of Madhya Pradesh also have abstract florals, although more intricate than the ones in Rajasthan.
Even more intricate were the Saudagari prints, from which the block making art is believed to have started in Pethapur. It is difficult for a person to even hand draw those, let alone carve, but these experienced craftsmen are able to make perfect blocks for the prints, although the Saudagari prints are not done anymore.
A craft as old as printed textile, which can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, has few patrons left now.
Although hand block printing still flourishes, ironically, block carvers have decreased in number and continue to do so, with younger generations moving on to more profitable careers. From almost 500 craftsmen who used to work in Pethapur some decades back, today only a handful are left, trying to preserve this craft, as well as their livelihoods.
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