The historical art of block printing in modern Jaipur

Beautifully printed patterns and designs on garments and bed sheets, are always a treat to the eyes. While some of these are digitally made, nothing can match the traditional art of hand block printing. Luckily, this is still practised by the Chhipa Community in Rajasthan. Read on to know more.

 

Jaipur is known to be a textile hub with block printing being one of the most celebrated art forms. It is still practiced by the Chhipa community, who are a group of people who live in the small town of Bagru in Rajasthan.


The word Chhipa means “to dye” or “to stamp” and as the connotation indicates, the community primarily consists of people who dye and print cloth. Some of the members are also present in Gujarat, and even parts of Pakistan.


The process of block printing involves hand-carving of wooden blocks preferably using rosewood owing to its durability. They are chiseled into intricate patterns and designs and are then dipped in dye and stamped onto long lengths of cotton fabric.


A group of chiselled wooden blocks, used by printers in the block printing process (Image credit: Abhishek Bali/NYT)


There are about 250 families still involved in traditional block printing in Bagru.

Jeremy Fritzhand of Studio Bagru explains the amount of time “One chhipa can print anywhere between 50 to 80 meters per day, depending on the complexity of design and number of colors.”

While large scale or industrial block printing involves the deployment of synthetic dyes (sanganeri printing is a form of hand block printing using synthetic or chemical dyes) practitioners of the traditional Bagru style use natural dyes.


The creative process

Hemant Sethia, and his brother Udit Sethia have been leading their family business of hand block printing under the name of Jaitex Art. They own a fully integrated set-up close to Jaipur, in the suburbs of Bagru and Sanganer where workers are involved in dyeing, printing and stitching.

Talking about all the efforts being put in, Sethia says, “The entire process of production is done at Jaitex Art - right from dyeing and printing to stitching. Once done, in most cases we supply the printed fabric to manufacturers and designers who generally refine it and display it in showrooms so that they can be sold to customers.”

The block printing process underway (Image credit: Shopify)


80 percent of their products are estimated to reach the domestic market and 20 percent usually hits global customers.

“Our printed fabrics and other items are shipped to 165 locations across India. They are even exported to 14 countries including US, Europe and Asian nations,” says Sethia.

The price of the product depends on the nature of the fabric but the starting amount is pegged at Rs 106 per metre and upwards. Most of the time, the fabric is later used to create new items like bedsheets, quilts, carpets, bags, garments for men and women.


The role played by weather conditions

Mother nature can have a huge influence on the making of a block print. Sethia explains this further. He says that there are two time periods in the entire year that are unfavourable for the process - monsoons, winters.

“It is very difficult to dye and print during the rainy season. To ensure the prints are right, it is important for the colour to dry quickly. If there is a lot of moisture in the air, the process of drying tends to slow down. And, if the colour does not dry properly, the prints in the fabric appear dull”, notes Sethia.

The absence of sunlight also stalls the drying process during winter.


Is block printing a luxury or an attainable commodity?

The production cycle for hand block printing is short both in terms of the pace of printing and manufacturing However, when designers come into the picture, demand is often augmented and this speeds up the progress.


Some of the block printed fabrics manufactured and exported by Jaitex Art (Image credit: Jaitex Art)


Sethia terms hand printed clothes a luxury product, since it mostly attracts high-end customers.

“Designers want exclusive products and in order to attract more buyers and increase their financial viability they establish branded labels born out of the hand block prints”, adds Sethia.

Nonetheless, the co-existence of block printers and designers is important and mutually beneficial for both parties.


That said, not all is lost for the middle class buyers. Some of the hand printed garments are restricted to showroom buyers, but they are also replicated using reasonable materials. In addition to this, technological advancements have led to mass production (digital printing) of the original designs which are then sold at local markets and clothing stores at much lower rates.


Is the art of block printing dy(e)ing today?

If we delve into history, the origin of the art of block printing can be traced to the Mughal period. It later gained steam in the 16th century, when the then-Maharajas of Jaipur allotted lands at Bagru and Sanganer for the Chhipa community. From then on up until the 1980s, these locations remained the foothold for the community and block printing kept flourishing.


Roshan Chhipa, a businessman who sells block printed clothes and hails from the Chhipa community in Bagru, explains the similarity between the erstwhile and present day printing process.

He says, “While there is a change in design patterns now, the making of colours is similar to that which was practiced 400 years back.”

Sethia too delves into the depths of this.

“From the 1990s, the block printers from this community wanted to make cheaper prints, and this began to hamper the final output. There was an overall dearth of creativity - repetitive prints and no new concepts or designs. Most of the printers shied away from taking risks”, quips Sethia.

During the same time brands like FabIndia and Anokhi acted as outside traders in an attempt to drive sales and business.

“While they did not venture into the printing cycle, they managed the export and trading cycles. But coordinating between printers and traders was an issue”, says Sethia.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, a slew of new firms sprung up. Presently, the market is booming with high demand for block printed fabrics. This is being seen as a sign of prosperity for the Chhipa community.


A traditional hand block printer in Bagru (Image credit: The Stories of Change)


While there is an immense demand for the work of skilled artisans from the community, mass production in factories has taken away the luster of the indigenous craft.

Rinku Chhipa, a block print artisan from Jaipur, says, “The work, which used to provide employment to about 100 people, can now be done with the help of only two people. If people stop this (use of chemical colours and screen printing) then a lot of people can get work. So many artisans have become unemployed because of screen printing.”

However, brands such as Aavaran and firms like Jaitex Art, among others, are attempting to be a saving grace by sustaining the conventional handicraft and textile styles and also providing livelihood to the practitioners.


 

Edited by Roshni Shroff

 

Some resources and links to help you learn more about block printing -

Preserving The Art Of Natural Block Printing In Bagru, India - Eco-Age