Arati Monappa, textile designer, entrepreneur, founder of the clothing label Arati that specialises in hand block-prints with natural dyes and founder of Serenity, a lifestyle store in Bangalore, shares her thoughts on the art of hand block-printing. She has been deeply involved with hand block-printing for 25 years.
Bringa Gill – Please could you explain what hand block-printing is:
Arati Monappa – Simply put, hand block-printing is a method of printing patterns in cloth using wooden blocks carved with designs. The designs on the blocks vary from simple patterns to intricate designs, and differ in size depending on the pattern. Hand block-printing is one of the oldest textile arts. There is evidence that the art was known as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization. A fragment of a printed fabric found in Fustat, Egypt, whose origins are traced to Gujarat, is dated to the 9th century B.C. With the patronage of rulers of princely states and the Mughal rulers, the art received added impetus. A fresh design vocabulary of distinct floral designs - that are in use even today-developed under Mughal patronage.
Brinda Gill – Please could you tell us about the blocks
Arati Monappa – The blocks are made of hard wood. In India they are commonly made of sheesham or teak wood, in the West of pear or sycamore wood. The blocks are `plane-ed’ to a smooth finish, intricately carved by hand using a traced design and then soaked in oil to soften the wood before being used for printing.
Hand carving of the block is a specialised craft and skill, especially given the fact that alignment of outline, filler, and colour has to be carefully coordinated as different blocks may be used for each of these elements of the motif/design. The number of blocks is finalised based on the number of colours in a motif/pattern.
Carving the design on the wood block is no mean skill. It needs an artist’s eye and a talented carver’s precision. The size of the block depends on the design. However, thickness of the block is important to prevent warping. The blocks should be at least two to three inches thick to prevent warping. The designs are traced onto the block, identifying portions to be left in relief from those that form the outlines. Fine details are often done with brass or copper blocks, which are not possible with wooden blocks.
Brinda Gill – Please could you describe the technique
Arati Monappa – Hand block-printing is a slow process. By its very nature it uses multiple blocks to create diverse patterns. A printing table is a framework of wood over which layers of cloth and, ideally a woollen blanket, are stretched to ensure that the block makes a firm impression. The padding below the fabric that is printed is very important. Layers of fabrics like jute in combination with a woollen blanket provide ample pressure to make a good printing impression. Each printer has their own unique method to achieve clear prints.
The cloth is stretched over the table and a mark is made to indicate the positioning of the first block. The printer applies pressure on the handle, taps it a few times, to make a good impression. The handle often has holes in it to allow air flow. Each succeeding impression is made the same way until the cloth is covered with the print. If several colours have to be printed, each colour is printed individually. The fabric is then washed, dried and boiled, before being dried again. There are different techniques within the genre of hand block-printing.
Brinda Gill – Which are the different techniques of hand block-printing?
Arati Monappa – There are three basic kinds of hand block-printing. These are hand block-printing directly on the fabric, resist printing and discharge printing. In some cases blocks are dipped in dye and printed directly to create the design, whereas in most cases the blocks are dipped in mordant and this mordant is printed on the fabric. The cloth is then dyed. The sections of the cloth that have the mordant get dyed in the required colour as the mordant helps to bind the colour to the cloth, while the rest of the cloth that does not have the mordant takes on a different colour or hue from the dyeing.
With discharge prints, popular with Western designers, the block is dipped in a bleaching agent and then block-printed. This design will remain white even after the fabric is dyed and steamed. Resist prints use wax-resist or mud-resist to hand block designs so that after dyeing the design that is printed in clay or mud does not absorb the dye colour.
Brinda Gill – Is hand block-printing an art?
Arati Monappa – Hand block-printing is an art. However, people don't consider it so because of its repetitive nature. To create a design that becomes a focus of attention on a garment, furnishing or fabric needs artistic skills usually provided by the designer. Composing a design using blocks is like composing music!!
Brinda Gill – What types of fabrics and materials can block-printed?
Arati Monappa – According to records, hand blocks were used for printing on paper in China about 4,000 years ago. Wooden blocks can be used on a variety of fabrics like silk, linen, cotton, hemp and even jute! Block-printing with natural dyes is easier with natural fabrics like cotton, linen, silk and hemp due to their porous nature that allows the dye used for printing to be easily absorbed. The even texture of these fabrics also gives clearer prints unlike wool, for example, where the print could be fuzzy.
Brinda Gill – Which types of colours can be used for block-printing?
Arati Monappa – I have only used natural dyes in printing so have really no expertise in synthetic colours and their application. Today azo-free dyes are commonly used to print large orders that need eco-friendly methods of printing.
When working with natural dyes the printer and dyer, often the same person, has to be mindful of properly scouring the fabric, so it does not retain any starch or chemicals used in processing that could impact the dye colour. Also the mordant used with different dyes will change the colour differently, that means, the same mordant will react differently with different natural dyes. This knowledge comes with experience and practice. Shades in natural dye can vary from batch to batch. It also depends on the local weather as dry weather is preferable for printing and on the pH values of the dyes. As I often say, “When the fabric comes out of the boiling process it can leave you ecstatic or in tears!!”
Brinda Gill – Are different block-printing centres are synonymous with particular techniques?
Arati Monappa – There are different centres in India where block-printing is practiced. In Bagh in Madhya Pradesh the Khatri community prints on a white background using red and black natural colours. The presence of the Bhagini River helps in the washing of the fabric. Printers in Sanganer in Rajasthan also print on a white base, mostly floral prints in smaller intricate designs. In Bagru, also in Rajasthan, the background varies in colour; it could be red, indigo or green. In Gujarat the printing of ajrakh patterns is widespread. There are various explanations for the word ajrakh but the simplest seems that azrak in Arabic means blue and is a prominent colour in ajrakh prints along with madder red.
Brinda Gill – Could you comment on hand block-prints in other countries
Arati Monappa – Block-prints are used in Bhutan to print prayer flags. Initially the Chinese developed wooden blocks for letterpress printing and soon cloth was being printed in China and India and exported all over the world. Today, printed fabrics are produced in many countries.
Brinda Gill – Can block-printing be done with several blocks?
Arati Monappa – I do not recall the maximum number of blocks I have used in a design. Sometimes it is 8 or 10 blocks, especially in sari pallus. To use a number of blocks in saris always created excitement for the designer and printer. It is an exploration! There are no limits. Even with one block and one colour, for example black on a white fabric, a striking design can be created. Further, one block used in multiple angles can create a unique design. One can also use the same block for different colours. The possibilities are endless. Geometric patterns or floral motifs or a combination of the two can be used for designs.
Brinda Gill – Can hand block-printing can be done on a range of garments?
Arati Monappa – I do not think there are boundaries for hand block-prints. They can be used in traditional Indian or Western garments, on garments for men, women and children. Any motif can be carved on the block. For instance, animal motifs are used by Dastkar Ranthambore to print shirts and pyjamas. The prints can also be used effectively in home furnishing and rugs. The list is endless and only restricted by ones imagination!
Brinda Gill – What are the challenges faced by hand block-printers?
Arati Monappa – Since hand block-printing printing is a long process, it is time consuming. Ajrak is a 16-step process. This requires time and effort, and thus the block-printed fabrics are expensive. Digital or screen printed fabrics require less time, are less expensive and cater to the mass market. As in all areas of art and craft, hand block-printed fabric with natural or azo-free dyes have to be marketed in a niche market with higher prices. I am sure there is an audience that will pay the price for handcrafted textiles. You can buy a bag off the street, or you can buy Louis Vuitton! Handcrafted textiles need to be given the designer status that they deserve and marketed as such.
Images Avesh Verma, & Meera Curam