Textiles: Block-Printed

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Textiles: Block-Printed

A practical difficulty in tracing the history of technological processes in India is the paucity of archaeological evidence. Ethnological evidence based on an extremely efficient method of transmission, however, helps to bridge this gap. Added to this is the strong element of social continuity engendered through the workings of caste and jati (the endogamous group into which a person is born within which marriages can take place) in the Indian social fabric. India has a great tradition in wool and silk, but the fabric that has received the greatest degree of commercial exploitation is cotton. Cotton, being a cellulose fiber, has not only a lesser affinity to dye than silk, but its light reflection capacity is also inferior. Ornamentation can thus be introduced more through variation in color and, to a lesser extent, through diversity in weave. The presence of a fragment of mordanted cotton yarn in Mohenjo-Daro, circa 3500–2500 b.c., attests to the mastery in dye chemistry achieved in South Asia since early times. It is evident that once the dye process had been understood it would be easy to embark on the next step, that of selective application of mordant and resist through block or pen to control the range in color and pattern. When the term "block printing" is used in relation to natural dyes, it is important to remember that the block controls the application of resist and mordant on the material. It is on the basis of the application of mordant and resist that the desired color spectrum is developed. Turmeric and saffron, for yellow, and indigo, for blue, do not require the imposition of mordant.


Merutunga, who recorded conditions in Gujarat (c. 884–1194), suggests that block printing was by then well established in the area. Hemachandra, born 1089 and hailing from the same region, also supports this. However, the earliest block-printed fragments of western Indian provenance found in Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt, have been dated to the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries.

The practice of block-printed textiles is spread over a large area in northern, western, and central India, inclusive of the Gangetic belt. The northern belt includes the Jammu region and Punjab. The printing is unrefined and shares the characteristics of the tradition of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Gangetic belt is represented in Mathura, Tanda, Lucknow, and Farrukhabad. Jafarganj, near Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh, was a celebrated center of printing in 1908. Its characteristic feature was color: vibrant red and striking blue. Mathura, being a pilgrim center, catered to an all-India market; a specialty was the nāmavalī, a printed shoulder cloth for ritual use. The background color ranged between yellow and ocher, and the names of deities and sacred symbols were printed on this. Tanda reflected the Mathura tradition and had markets in Nepal and Bhutan. Lucknow and Farrukhabad specialized in the "tree of life" motif and were influenced by the Persian style in ornamentation. West Bengal, having a superlative tradition in weaving, diversified into printing only in the nineteenth century. A description of cotton manufacture in Dhaka, dated to 1851, refers to the community of chipigur, who printed lines or passages from the Vedas on cloth for the Hindu community. The Muslim community utilized their services for the printing of appropriate Qurʾanic texts on their winding sheets, or kuffan.

The western Indian belt, characterized by the use of mud resist, comprises printing centers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. Individual centers, each having variations in technique, comprise the Ajrakh (a type of mud resist printing practiced on the western part of the subcontinent) printing centers of Kutch (Gujarat) and Barmer (Rajasthan); ritual cloth (dedicated to the Mother Goddess, the Māthāji ne Pacheī) is printed in Ahmedabad; Bagru, Sanganer (Rajasthan), and Rajapur-Deesa (Gujarat) share a common technique, while Bagh and Bhairongarh represent two variants in Madhya Pradesh. Mud and lime resist are well suited to somewhat coarsely woven cotton. However, if more delicate work is required, wax resist is preferred. Georges Roques, of the French East Indian Company, noted the printing of wax resist in Ahmedabad in 1678. Wax resist was the dominant mode in South India, but it was kalam (brush) painted rather than block printed. The practice of kalamkari block printing in Masulipatam is a nineteenth-century innovation.

There is also evidence of clamp-resist printing on silk in Gujarat. This technique is also practiced in Nepal and Tibet for decorating the mounting of Buddhist ritual paintings, or thankha. A characteristic feature of this form is the outlining of motifs in a white aura, rather than defining the outline in black. The sumptuous textiles depicted in Jain Kalpa Sūtra manuscripts share the former characteristic and could be taken as depictions of silk ornamentation through the procedure of clamp resist.


There are several stages in cloth printing. These include initial preparation of cloth by removal of impurities, smoothening the texture, bleaching by dunging, a natural agent, and preparation of the fiber for enhanced penetration of the mordant. There is no application of the block at this stage. The cloth is then thoroughly washed, preferably in the flowing waters of a river or stream.

The next stage is that of mordanting. Mordant is a chemical substance that enables cotton to absorb and retain certain dyes. Mordants can either be acid or basic (alkaline). Acid mordants are tannin based. The most common source in India is either myrobalam (Terminalia chebula) or catechu (Hindi, katha; Acacia catechu). Basic mordants are derived from salts of various metals, particularly aluminum, chromium, iron, copper, zinc, or tin. Alum is the one most commonly used in India. Alkali from surti kar (saltpeter) or sapan kar (carbonate of soda) has been used for al (Morinda citrifolia) dyeing in Berar. After mordanting, the fabric is boiled in a cauldron along with the dyestuff. The vessel can be of earthenware, copper, or iron. In the latter two cases, the metal containers themselves contribute an element to the mordanting process, thereby introducing variations in shade and hue.

Other aspects of the dyeing procedure include the use of items such as jajakku (Memecylon edule) in Tamil Nadu, or padvas (Narigama alta) in Gujarat, which act as carriers during the dyeing operation. In the case of al, on termination of the dyeing process alum or dhā (Woodfordia floribunda), is used as a fixing agent.

The application of resist is associated with indigo dyeing. The resist is derived from wax, mud, or lime. The dye is reconstituted in the vat through a process of fermentation. A cold vat is used. Although indigo blue is a stable color, it tends to rub off. Rubbing fastness can be improved by a final soaking in catechu. The technology of indigo printing had also been developed and practiced in India. Jean Ryhiner in 1766 referred to the Indian method of indigo printing with the use of orpiment, sulfur of arsenic, the liquid being further thickened with gum.

Design and Use

Although there is some congruity between woven and printed design, the latter offers a much greater degree of freedom in terms of layout and pattern. The costume of traditional India has been the multifunctional unstitched garment. It remains so in many sections of rural India. The patterning, whether woven or printed, is composed of two borders along the horizontal edges and cross-borders defining the two vertical end alignments. In the female costume, the sari, the cross-border at the exposed terminal end can be elaborately designed to set it off from the inner field.

The Mānasōllāsa, authored by the Chalukyan king Sōmeshvara III (r. 1127–1139), provides comprehensive coverage of textile design in the section titled Vastrōpabhōga (using or enjoying of clothes by the king). In addition to geometrical motifs, floral, vegetal, animal, bird, and fish motifs could be used. Ikat and plangi motifs (which indicate the method by which the yarn to be used in weaving is tied according to pattern and dyed) could also be duplicated in block print. With the introduction of Islam, stitched garments became popular, leading to more elaborate all-over patterning. The buteh and the badam (popularly known as paisley) now emerged in a more distinctive manner. Tinsel printing, in which gum was applied with the block, was another innovation. Draperies began to emerge as a separate category. The forest was a place of retreat and contemplation in Hindu imagery, while the hunt had symbolic overtones in Islamic culture. The palace was no longer fixed in location, and the roving camp of the king became the shifting imperial capital, with tent hangings providing much play to the imagination in the area of block printing. It was against this background that block-printed chintz design materialized with the advent of the Europeans, heralded by the arrival of Vasco da Gama on the Malabar coast.

Today the impact of the export market, accompanied by the onset of globalization, has led to many changes. Masulipatam has managed to sustain an export market without a total loss of identity. Screen printing has begun to make considerable inroads. The expanding middle classes and a Westernized lifestyle have widened the market in block-printed textiles, despite severe competition from other emergent forms and materials.

Lotika Varadarajan


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