Hand Printed Fabric
Few design patterns can boast of being as integrated within Indian culture as the humble, yet elegant hand block print. Not only has it embedded itself so deeply into our culture that for many, it is synonymous with words akin to ‘textile’ and ‘traditional patterns’, but it has also transcended the very fabric of time itself – as is evident by its humble origins that date all the way back to the 3 rd century CE – and maybe even before. The hand block print has gone through a long, somewhat turbulent journey – one that spans across centuries, cultures and even civilizations!
Speaking of longevity, it would be almost criminal to not acknowledge the community that, in many ways, has been serving as the guardian of the craft of block printing since time immemorial. Traditionally, a village printing community worked in harmony to produce this exquisite pattern – and, like any community, there were clear demarcations of who would be responsible for what – the chhippas did the actual printing, the rangrez were responsible for the dyeing, and the dhobis handled the washing. Together, these groups worked meticulously, much like a well-oiled machine, to produce the much sought after block print. It was such a desired skill, that some women claim that girls did not learn the special patterns to protect certain family trade secrets from future in-laws!
The block carvers too, lived in similar, tight knit communities – though their proximity to the community of chhippas wasn’t a factor, as the location was not really a necessary factor to supply blocks to regional areas. The skills that went behind the patterns were passed down orally, from one generation to the other – like an ancestral treasure. And treasure it was indeed, for the communities flourished through thick and thin, as the intricate hand block print was virtually always in demand.
The communities would go on to enjoy prosperity until the Industrial revolution shook the table in quite a significant way – for the advent of machines spelled only bad news for artisans who dedicated their entire lives to working with their very own hands. For a few companies, the quality of the hand printed block print was quite irrelevant – for they thought that a machine could churn out the same design (more or less) faster, and more importantly, cheaper. The communal living still goes on today – though the fast pace of the economy, and the ever growing invasiveness of business continues to threaten the traditional way of life that has been passed down over centuries.
Still, like all forms of art, art still perseveres. Despite the lashings of time, despite the winds of change, art goes on to carve its own story. Likewise, the block print has definitely found a place even in our modern world, and will continue to not just survive- but thrive, the whiplash of time not withstanding.