Exploring the People and Processes Behind India's Block Printing Tradition

In 'Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India', Eiluned Edwards shares the voices of craftspeople while also analysing government and NGO programmes.

Our textile traditions owe much to numerous intrepid and indomitable aficionados over the decades who have travelled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, falling in love with, documenting and developing our extraordinary skills. A surprising number of these people have been foreigners and women. Starting with Flora Ann Steel and phulkari, whether it is the research of Stella Kramrisch, Rosemary Crill, Susan Bean, Sheila Paine and Vickie C. Elson, or the design sensibilities of Faith Singh, Judy Frater, Brigette Singh and Maggie Baxter, their passion and insights have added greatly to what has been done by our own textile gurus: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Gira Sarabhai, Pupul Jayakar, Prabha Shah, Nelly Sethna, Jasleen Dhamija, Martand Singh, Jyotindra Jain, Rita Kapur Chishti, Lotika Varadarajan, Aditi Ranjan, Rahul Jain, et al.

Eiluned Edwards <em>Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India</em> Niyogi Books, 2016

Eiluned Edwards
Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India
Niyogi Books, 2016

Eiluned Edwards, the author of Imprints of Culture: Block Printed Textiles of India, is a name to add to this list. A reader in global cultures of textiles and dress at Nottingham Trent University in the UK,  she has been coming to India for decades. Her earlier book, Textiles and Dress of Gujarat (2011), was an invaluable insight into the costume traditions of this craft-rich state.

Block printing is one of India’s oldest forms of surface ornamentation on textile. The Harappans knew how to weave and dye in 2000 BC. Although embroidery, not printing, is mentioned in the Vedas, ornamenting cloth by printing probably followed soon after. Our development of mordants to fix dyes and create different colours, and our varied complex techniques of resist and surface printing, meant that printed Indian fabrics were soon in demand all over the world. Fragments of ajrakh resist prints dating back over 12 centuries have been found in the Fustat excavations in Egypt, and the “sprigged muslin” worn by Jane Austen’s heroines were our familiar delicate Sanganeri and Farrukhabad floral butis. Aristocratic European 17th and 18th-century interiors were full of the all-over floral kalamkaris of Macchlipatnam, referred to as Chintz. So popular were Indian Chintzes that the French, seeing the impact on their own textile industry, banned their import and sale. Sadly, the advent of roller printing in the 19th century and the British substitution of their own manufactured cotton goods for handwoven Indian ones killed this flourishing international trade. It’s ironic that the wonderful British Raj documentations of Indian hand block prints were intended as design references to be duplicated mechanically by British manufacturers. Equally ironic, these records, stored in British museums, now serve in their turn as inspiration for 21st-century Indian block printers.

“Trade and economics are the heart of textile crafts,” says Edwards. Indian craftspeople are among our most skilled professionals, especially valuable since few other countries possess these knowledge systems. Nevertheless, they live an uncertain existence, unvalued, unrewarded and unconsidered. When the Krishna canal is closed by the Andhra Pradesh government every May/June,  there is no work for kalamkari workers.; left waterless, they are unable to print and wash for the two months. When master ajrakh printer Abdul Jabbar Khatri writes to the author, “Sister, business is very good. Inshallah, we will eat goat many times this year”, it is a poignant indication of how little they expect, how much more they deserve.

What I love about this wonderful book is that it is all about “people and processes”, as Edwards says in her introduction. So many similar books have pages of gorgeous museum pieces, but no information on who, how, where or what is happening in these craft areas now. That only works for a coffee table book. This book is not just full of the voices and stories of craftspeople, it also tracks the impact of government policies, NGOs, designers and retailers in the sector, encompassing the Handicrafts Board and Gurjari, the Crafts Councils, Anokhi and FabIndia, and Sabyasaachi. There is even Dastkar.

Eiluned Edwards. Courtesy: Indian Saris blog

All craft history is a composite of the social, cultural, economic, aesthetic and technical. This volume has it all – the influences of caste, region, gender and location that help preserve skills within regions and families, the effect of government and NGO livelihood schemes that have drawn in women and others outside the community who did not traditionally practice the craft, thus increasing numbers but also diluting quality and integrity. Then there are changes that the use of computers, smartphones and WhatsApp have made possible. The potential and perils of a growing but fickle consumer base. The fact that block printing is marketed as “green”, but seldom addresses the issue of toxic chemicals and water pollution.

As I write this, hand block printers all over India are firefighting the impact of the newly-imposed GST. Given that hand block printing, like many other craft traditions, is a series of processes done by different sets of people, and therefore every part of process is a separate transaction that now needs to be invoiced and recorded, and also given that a single craftsperson makes multiple kinds of products, with most of the sales made in temporary bazaars far away from their place of origin, the compliance requirements and additional costs are mind-boggling. Periodically, one has wondered how long these ancient but now alternative forms of production can survive.  This threat seems closer than ever. Books like Imprints of Culture are vital in reminding us of our fortune in still having these living traditions, and how important it is to protect and preserve them.

My only caveat is that it is far too heavy. Impossible to read comfortably, either at one’s desk or in bed. Nevertheless, we owe Niyogi Books a huge debt of gratitude for publishing it.

Laila Tyabji is the founder member and chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India.