Monday, July 25, 2011

Thumping Nature

The art of block printing in India might be one of the oldest forms of aesthetic decoration in the world: in fact we think it began when civilization did. The ancient Indus Valley civilization from 3000 BC is said to have used block printing to ornament both their houses as well as their clothes.

Traditionally, wood was cut into 'blocks', and in it were carved intricate patterns of leaves, flowers, fish, peacocks and other curvaceous forms of nature. Through the centuries, this art form flourished, not only because of the ready availability of wood and carvers (in some case even temple sculptors) but also because of the universal appeal of its motifs.

Carving a wood block
Carved blocks
It is, however, an arduous process, from the carving of the wood blocks, to the creation of the organic dyes from diverse plants to the preparation of the right fabrics that will imbibe the print. The carving can take a single man up to ten days to complete, and each pattern, depending on the complexity of style, can use up to 50 blocks to create a complete story. Conversely, even if a single pattern is being used but in different colors, each dye requires its own wood block. But generations of genetics later, watching the men and women use the blocks, moving fast as an efficient chopping knife, never once spilling ink onto its neighboring pattern, is a wonder. They use strength, precision, speed all at once. Once a pattern is completed, the fabric must dry in the sun for a few days before the finishing process to sale. The total time to create a single piece of block printed cloth, therefore, can range from a few hours to a week.

On a visit to the famous town of Sanganeri outside Jaipur, I was witness to some of the oldest block printing studio work in Rajasthan. I remember leaving with a visceral sense of physicality, the thump thump thump of the blocks, the rhythm and the beat harmonizing with the fresh smell of crushed marigolds and indigo paste. I can still feel the damp darkness, the light in the color, the sound-that thump thump thump-and the eternal mystery of the application of the block to the final product.

Once the blocks are carved, they are drilled with a few tiny holes to let excess dyes out--but these now figure as patterns too. Atop the block is a small piece of wood that allows the hand to grip the block right, and after a few days of oil and use, the wood block begins moulding to the artists hands.

The fabric is stretched out onto a large table, and secured with pins. This fabric is bleached and pre-dyed, and then the printing begins. The block is dipped in dye, and then presses, gently, from one tip to another, the block onto a pre-drawn grid. Then the craftsman applies his other hand atop the one below and slams the back of the block. The edges of the block become maps, landing references for the block-printer to continue a large-scale pattern.

This process is repeated until a whole scene is created, a story, often about the way of the natural world. A common technique of traditional block-printing is to first create a border for the design. This border 'frames' nature, applies a constructed frame onto leaves and flowers that could otherwise grow wild and off the fabric.

After the pattern is done, the fabric is dried in the sun, and then steamed to remove excess fibres. It is re-dried, and ironed. This makes the colors both more vibrant as well as delivers a chic faded look to the block print. Accessories of all kinds are made in contemporary India using block printing, albeit with machines. The way to differentiate is with the borders. A machine can make a perfect border, but a block print will have a small error. It is in that little error that the beauty lies.

Perhaps, despite the lengthy arduous process, block printing is still so fashionable is because, very simply it is beautiful. Leaf patterns often instill within us a sense of fertility, of growth and life and shade and balm. In nursery school, we used to print with our thumbs, with potatoes. It is instinctive for us, childlike even, to dip into paint, and go for it.

Inspired by this process of block printing our designers attempt to take them a step forward in design as patterns for our floor furnishings. Here are some to share with you.


Text: Wooly Eyes
Image & video courtesy: Google images and Youtube
The block print design patterns are a copyright of Raj Overseas and no part whatsoever in form, colour and layout can be replicated. 

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