India reinvents its vibrant colors

Exports revived India's iconic hand-block textile industry in the 1970s; now labor and water woes threaten it.

By , Contributor

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    Women hang freshly washed hand-block-printed fabric near Jaipur, India.
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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.

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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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.

Skilled artisans like Titanwala are increasingly rare. "We have to go further and further afield to find printers," says Andrée Pouliot, the Canadian cofounder and design director at block-print retailer Soma, which has 12 stores in India. "The good printers are fading off."

There are other challenges, too. Water sources are dwindling or vanishing, a perennial problem in India. Centuries ago, block-printing washers settled in Sanganer because of its flowing river. Today the river is choked with sewage; washers have moved to man-made washing areas on roadsides. Wells are running low. Rubble lies in Titanwala's yard where a well was drilled after one in the opposite corner ran dry.

Mainstream customers sometimes opt for cheaper, screen-printed or machine-made fabrics. Exporters and retailers struggle with rising costs for material and the vagaries of government regulation and taxation. Cotton prices rose 20 to 35 percent last year; prices for some silks jumped 80 percent, says Radhakrishnan Nair, chairman of Soma. "Last year was really scary."

This isn't the first time block printing has faced challenges. From the mid-20th century, when block printers relied on local markets, "their earning was low and so was their economic standard. But the export of their printed fabric has suddenly given them a fillip and increased their earnings many-fold," according to the book "Study of Contemporary Textile Crafts of India," published by the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad.

Through the 1970s and '80s, international demand revived block printing. In the mid-1990s, the Indian market began to grow. About a decade ago, block-print exporters began to focus more on their home market. Since 2004 India, not Europe, has been Anokhi's largest market. Soma also started as an exporter but began selling retail in India in the 1990s. Today the Indian market accounts for 60 percent of its business.

Designers play an important role in stoking consumer demand by creating modern prints and styles. "In some ways the only way to keep the tradition alive is to contemporize it," says Rachel Bracken-Singh, a designer with Anokhi and director of the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur. Soma puts new designs into its stores every 15 to 30 days.

Craft goes from cheap to chic

Another change is happening in India as crafts move more upmarket. William Bissell, managing director of Indian retailer Fabindia, notes that "10 to 15 years ago, the cheapest thing was a hand-loom[ed] shirt," he says. "Now craft is becoming more of a luxury – an item that is special. The advantage is that it is appreciated in a different way. The disadvantage is that high-quality craft is not so easily available for [the] average Indian." Fabindia has 146 stores in India and specializes in hand-woven garments and contemporary home furnishings, but it sells some block-printed items.

Mr. Bissell's father founded Fabindia in 1960 as an exporter to the United States, but today India accounts for 95 percent of the company's business. "The future of our brand is in India," says the younger Bissell.

Block-printing retailers such as Anokhi and Soma are both using more organic cotton to satisfy customer demands. More expensive materials such as silk or handwork like beading and embroidery also push prices up. Still, block-printed clothes are affordable by Western standards, ranging from 150 rupees ($15) for a simple cloth bag to 5,000 rupees ($100) for a quilted jacket.

India is a historic hub for textiles and today is the second-largest producer of cotton after China. The textiles industry is also the second-largest employer and accounted for 17 percent of India's export earnings in 2010-11, according to India's Ministry of Textiles. Block printing by hand is just a small fraction of an industry dominated by fabrics made in mills.

Apart from government-backed city craft markets, there are virtually no government programs to support block printing by hand. However, a special privately funded industrial park for block printing in Bagru is in the works. It aims to get block printers to work together in an eco-friendly environment and encourage new artisans.

"We definitely need to train more printers," says Mr. Nair of Soma. "In 15 to 20 years, most printers will be retired. Then what?"

What does Titanwala think of the future of his craft? Will his grandchildren continue the tradition? "If we have water and labor, then we will do it," he says.

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