Poetry in Block Prints
Traditionally, blocks made in Ahmadabad and Pethapur in Gujarat had the handle carved out of the same wood. This box also had holes drilled along and across the grains of wood to stop the color from being trapped in the fine carved area because of capillary action. The holes also reduced the weight of the block, as these were carved from the central core of the stem of the tree. Generally, sagwan, seesham (a kind of Indian teak) were the most popular woods among the fine carving community called Kharawadi or Bhat Ghad. Felt (namda or wool fibre) filling was also used in these blocks.
A very special feature of Gujarat and Rajasthan blocks is the use of namda (felt wool fibre) for the use of absorption of colors uniformly from the printing container. Sometimes, the thick and thin part carved in a block makes it difficult for the printer to take the colors uniformly from the printing color tray, so that felt part acts like blotting paper to absorb the color and transfer it onto the fabric.
In the 19 century a Gujarati trader from Surat saw finally printed textiles meant for the Royalty of Thailand, which were exported from Coromandel in south of India. These printed fabrics were very brightly colored and very expensive. He saw this is an opportunity to design and develop equally brightly colored textiles for the common people of Siam, which he would export from Gujarat. He returned to India with some fragments of the textiles and gave it to the printers of Ahmadabad to be copied.
Since these prints were “ordered” by a trader, they were called Saudagiri prints- sauda, as the word suggests, means trade, which is a Persian word. These prints were printed in Ahmadabad and Pethapur by the Khatri community. They were 5 m long fabrics with borders on either side, or very small geometrical designs in the central part. These were called phanung, worn by men and phanungnang, worn by women. Later, some local designs were also adopted in these prints and for years these became a part of Saudagiri prints.
The fabric was inexpensive, and to make it look illustrious and shiny after starching, the fabric was rubbed with agate stone. The Saudagiri blocks were made by block makers of Ahmadabad and Pethapur (a small town 40 km away from Ahmadabad). Since the printers needed many blocks for production, and as the wooden blocks wore out roughly after 600 m, many carpenter families from nearby towns and villages came to Ahmadabad and Pethapur and settled there to make blocks, for what was then a sunrise industry. Suddenly, after World War II, the Thai community stopped buying these prints from India in order to encourage their homegrown domestic clothing industry and Saudagiri prints became history.
Sirakh ‘bedspread meant for the first night.’ In the Khatri printers’ community in Ahmadabad, a newlywedded couple was gifted Sirakh palangposh (bedspread) that the bride’s family prints especially for them. After the first night, the spread was kept aside as this was considered the auspicious spread of the house and only used it occasionally. Since it’s not produce commercially, one can hardly find it in the market. Printing and creating Sirakh was a collective family project in which each and every member of the bride’s family would choose a design to be printed. Often, these are grid based, and interestingly the spread would have all possible print designs that the family possessed.
Occasionally decorated with bright colors, the Sirakh used to be one of its kind. The spread would also have some embroidery or mere work to make it look more special. Whenever some guests what arrive, the spread (like jajam or dari) would be laid out in the chowk (courtyard) and guests would be entertained and served food on that. Sirakh would sometimes have a chaupad (board Game) printed in the center for the guest to be kept busy till food was served. Indeed, Sirakh is a lot more than just a palangposh or floor-spread; it is truly a special piece of textile full of nostalgia and the family’s collective memory.
Farukhabad & Bijnore
A special combination of blocks called Darakhti) (tree of life) was carved in Farukhabad, and were large and often a singular design like a bird or monkey. These blocks were made out of seesham wood and were probably an inexpensive version of Palampore. The history of Farrukhabad was founded by the first Bangash nawab Muhammad Khan. Nawab Ghazangar-Jang, Muhammad Khan Bangash (1665-1743) became the first Nawab in 1715. He was a Bawan Hazari Sardar (Commander of 52000-men force) in the Mughal army and served as governor of Malwa and Allahabad provinces of the Mughal Empire.
The Nawab made special provisions and constructed separate quarters for the city’s calico printers. Farrukhabad designs and patterns range from the classical booti (polka dots) to the famous Persian Darakhti, which uses more than 100 blocks of various designs.
I have not come across any block maker who has the full set of Darakhti blocks even though close to 100-150 block designs were required to complete one bedspread. One of my Farrukhabad printers who witnessed his grandfather printing Darakhti, once told me that there used to be baskets full of one design with filling blocks placed in some sequence. An assistant printer wood keep on placing the basket close to his grandfather, who knew exactly where to print and what would come next.
We can only appreciate the skill of the printer in remembering the sequence and placement after looking at the Darakhti picture. One of the original block printed Darakhti was given to me by one of my English buyers, who got it from her grandmother, who received it as a present from the famous Farukhabad printer during the colonial era.
Block printing in Lucknow is about 200 years old. The designs on the blocks along to the Mughal tradition and the motifs for chikan embroidery made of clay (Multani mitti) were printed on find muslin for the chikan integrators to follow the pattern. The blocks were also carved in Varanasi, Tanda and Pilakhua.
Benaras or Varanasi Blocks:
Very fine carving blocks, especially for printing silk fabrics, were made out of seesham wood. Another special feature of the Benaras blocks was that brass strips and nails were used in the blocks for printing find design details.
Kalamkari blocks from Mansulipattnam had a special feature of carving the grip to hold the block of the same wood. These were large motifs, and very often had two or three sections or parts to complete the form. These blocks were used largely for printing carpets, prayer rugs and wallhangings. Kalam (pen) and kari (workmanship) means designs painted with brushes. The craft came from Persia and large families in Mansulipattnam in Andhra Pradesh use to paint, and partially hand block.
The artists and printers who practiced this art later started using their skill to paint and print palampore. These were detailed designed bedspreads that were produced in the Coramandel region. Palampore we’re regularly exported to Europe and Dutch colonies in Indonesia to the wealthiest classes, as these were hand painted with natural colors. Only few pieces have survived as these were limited edition and only few people could afford them. The design inspiration was Western chintz and often had tree as central large motif depicting flowers, plants and animals. Of all the textiles exported from India to England and Europe in the 17th and 18th Century Palampore or perhaps the most spectacular. These were the painted and dyed cotton bedcovers and wall hangings. Often, the Palampore was known as tree of life as there was a strong influence of birds, monkeys and flowers.