India reinvents its vibrant colors
Exports revived India's iconic hand-block textile industry in the 1970s; now labor and water woes threaten it.
The busy street is like any other in India: Cars honk and traffic throngs haphazardly. But there is a refreshing scene at the bottom of an embankment in Sanganer, a town on the outskirts of Jaipur in northern India. In an open area, sari-clad women hang colorful hand-block-printed cloth from tall wooden scaffolding to dry. Swaths of green, orange, and white fabric flash vibrantly in the afternoon sun. The wet cloth was washed in big concrete "sinks" by men standing thigh-deep in water.Skip to next paragraph
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Washing is one step in India's centuries-old art of block printing by hand. Also in Sanganer, just a few minutes' drive from the washing area, one can glimpse the first step of the process: wood-workers carving blocks. Artisans sit over low tables in cramped roadside workshops, carving designs into flat wooden blocks. Master carver Mukether Khan says it takes 12 days to carve an intricate floral design. From start to finish, it can take weeks to beautify a piece of cloth with block-printed designs.
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A 300-year-old tradition
Since the 1700s, Indian nobles and villagers alike have worn block-printed textiles. Today, block-printed designs adorn contemporary clothing and home furnishings, which are sold in popular Indian shops and exported. But the centuries-old craft faces modern pressures, ranging from fewer skilled artisans and competition from less labor-intensive screen-printing to water shortages and rising costs for materials.
Although a traditional craft, block printing's survival is in fact entwined with globalization. In the 1960s and '70s, Western designers who followed the "hippie trail" to India revived the craft, which was threatened by the rise of inexpensive machine-made textiles in the 20th century. They modernized block printing with new designs, techniques, and fashions that appealed to export markets in Europe and North America.
Today, block-printed clothes and home furnishings are so ubiquitous among expatriates in India and discerning middle- and upper-class Indians that it is hard to believe the craft's existence was in doubt not long ago.
The craft's future will be shaped by the tides of a shifting global economy. In the past decade, as incomes rise in India and consumer tastes change, the domestic market is increasingly important, especially in the wake of the global economic recession. At some leading Indian block-print retailers, the domestic business has surpassed the export one. The tastes and buying power of Indian customers rather than just Western ones will influence the future of the craft.
Suraj Narain Titanwala, a master printer in the block-printing town of Bagru, 19 miles from Jaipur, has been making block-printed textiles by hand for four decades. Inside his workshop at the rear of his spacious home on a quiet lane, lengths of cloth are stretched over tables. Printers dip carved wooden blocks into trays of ink made from natural ingredients. With great precision, they loudly thump the wooden blocks onto the cloth. It can take three to 16 blocks to complete one design.
At the workshop, other artisans mix inks, dye cloth, and spread wet fabric to dry in the grassy yard. Mixing the inks and dyes is itself an art. Ingredients such as pomegranate skins, indigo, iron, cane sugar, and various flowers and fruits are combined to create yellow, black, red, and other colors.
For seven generations, Mr. Titanwala and his forebears have been block printing in or near Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, where artisans flourished under royal patronage centuries ago.
A slight, gray-haired man, Titanwala learned the craft from his father when he was 11. His son Deepak is also a printer and helps run the family business. Their workshop supplies cloth to stores throughout India, such as well-known block-print retailer Anokhi.
Titanwala is also one of the last printers who can make guwar dabu designs – a painstaking block-printing technique using "mud-resist" to preserve printed designs through several rounds of dyeing. It takes 45 days to print and dye 16 feet of guwar dabu cloth, versus eight days for regular designs.
The best artisans 'are fading off'
When asked about the future of block printing, he points out that there aren't enough skilled artisans. "The young generation wants easy work," he says.