The courtyard at the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi was dotted with clusters of workshops recently, where master craftsmen taught eager students the craft secrets. In one corner, 52-year-old Manzar Husain from Pilakhuwa, a village in Uttar Pradesh, sat with a slab of wood on the table in front of him, skillfully engraving delicate patterns on it with a fine tool.
“This is a family occupation,” he said, pointing to the beautiful wooden blocks laid out on a table nearby; something that he learnt from his father.
“Some of these designs that I make are from my father’s and grandfather’s times, and the rest are my own. These blocks have been traditionally used for printing designs on saris, ladies’ suits and quilts. Now they are no more used for creating designs on quilts and sarees. Till a few years ago, wooden blocks were used by rural women for their products of domestic use. Nowadays, in comparison, such work has gone down,” he added.
Referring to the impact of workshops as such, he said, “This workshop is for five days only, but to master the craft of creating wooden blocks for printing, one needs about a year-and-a-half or two.” Nonetheless, he admitted that it was heartening to see enthusiasm among youngsters, and how those from foreign lands were trying to create their own designs by learning his techniques.
Block printing is an ancient Indian craft. Uttar Pradesh has been an important centre for hand block printing with the classical butis (dots), paisley designs, and the ‘tree of life’ motif being widely used. “Hand block printing is appreciated in the West for its patterns and vibrant colours. Traditionally, the practice has been to use natural vegetable dyes. But synthetic colours are also used now,” revealed Manzar Husain.
“Besides, with machine-based printing capturing the market, the demand from garment and quilt factory owners for wooden blocks have come down. They now churn out finished products much faster and therefore stand to gain in the process. Also, machine printing is cheaper than hand printing. This has adversely affected the artisans who practise the art.” Nonetheless, he said, “there are people ready to pay for it. That keeps us going.”
These wooden blocks have been put to various uses. Women by the roadside and in the markets in Delhi are seen applying mehendi on eager customers with these blocks. “It’s easier for us because patterns can be made in less time. With a tube of mehendi, one takes at least 10 minutes to draw a pattern on one palm. With these blocks, we need only two-three minutes,” a woman with a basket of wooden blocks and mehendi paste at Dilli Haat recently told me.
Interior designers now employ the blocks in decorating walls. “I often use these wooden blocks with ‘tree of life’ or paisley patterns to decorate my clients’ walls. They come cheap. The aesthetic value is also immense,” commented interior designer Urmimala Bhuyan Bora. Celebrating its annual event, the design institute displayed exquisite traditional Indian crafts amongst a host of other things. “We look forward to such events,” confessed Manzar Husain, “They give us good exposure.”