The bedrock of printed crafts

gujarat's art village

The bedrock of printed crafts

India is renowned for printed textiles since millennia. Accounts of travellers, writers and poets have extolled the brilliance of their colours and patterns, and their value as a trade good traversing the Silk Road and maritime routes to markets across the world.

The multiplicity of traditions and techniques, and profusion of design vocabularies have one thing in common — the wood-carved blocks used to imprint patterns. This, even in the times of technological dependency, is the bedrock of the craft of block-printing on textiles.

The skilled carvers of these blocks usually live in geographic proximity to the printer community; this close-knit synergy has long linked both the professions. Yet, when tasked with a complex print assignment requiring just that extra detail and finish, the printers seek out the perfect block. So, they trek to a quiet, overgrown village in the heart of Gujarat — Pethapur.

In the textile world, Pethapur’s mastery of this craft remains a well-kept secret. It’s also exceptional, as in the fact that there is no local printing activity conducted here. This was not always the case, and we are fortunate that unlike other oral traditions, the 1961 Census of India has tracked this artistic tradition’s metamorphosis over the past century. According to it, Pethapur’s rise to fame can be credited to one Tribhovan Khushal.

In the early 1800s, this enterprising block-maker and printer designed a print that found favour in Siam (now Thailand). Further, his experiments, inspired by the British chintz patterns, also proved to be a rage in the export market. However, a downturn in his fortune led Khushal to concentrate on only making and supplying blocks to other centres. Gradually, Pethapur was overshadowed as a printing centre, but the making of the blocks continued. Throughout the 60s this trend continued and was controlled by the Gujjar-Suthar community of carpenters, who constituted the majority of the 122 households employed in the workshops.

Pethapur had, by sheer excellence of its handiwork, transformed itself to achieve the status of a craft village dedicated to a singular tradition — a bespoke block supplier of excellence to printers across India.

The Pethapur of today is a sleepy place where little seems to stir. No addresses are needed as its residents know exactly where visitors should be directed. Carving blocks is now practised in eight to nine workshops that have an average of five craftsmen employed in each. Of the Gujjar-Suthar community — Ghanshyam Bhai Popatlal and Chetan Bhai continue their hereditary profession, the legendary National Award-winner Maneklal Gajjar having passed away in 2010, leaving no heirs. The craft is now dominated by members of the Prajapati community — Govindlal Prajapati (now in semi-retirement), Mukeshbhai and others who pass on the art.

Essentials of art

A block-maker’s learning must extend to include other subjects as well — an understanding of wood ensures a long-lasting block piece; a knowledge of print technologies is essential to render a precise and level imprint; familiarity with dye chemistry and dye absorption helps to create prints without blotches or drips; additionally, expertise over the principals of geometry is essential to carve flawless fields and outlines, fitting together the intricate details and multiple colour combinations of the block.

The number of blocks required to form a set can range between one and 14 depending on the pattern, and the number of colours and detail fillers. A basic set consists of a main outline block — rekh; and the detail-filler pattern blocks — gadh and datta, which form the solid backdrop for the given pattern. It may take two to eight days to complete a set, with block sizes between one inch and 16 inches in length, though the average size is usually four by six inches. The craftsman starts by choosing the wood. In Pethapur, only seasoned teak (sagwan) will do as it works best for printing — being long-wearing and having a low dye-absorption rate. After shaping and smoothening the wood, a white chalk base is applied on the carving surface onto which the design is traced for increased visibility.

The craftsman starts with carving the rekh before moving on to the subsidiary blocks. Carving the deep recesses with a fiddle-drill, they use chisels and files for the finer high-relief shaping. These craftsmen carve with such exactness that their lines, often just a millimetre thin, can be set in close proximity to each other. A small slip or a wrongly-angled stroke is all that lies between a perfect block and irreparable damage. Their knowledge of geometry ensures that the datta and gadh blocks fit precisely into the rekh with no runoff or overlap.

An equally-skilled task is to guarantee that the ends of the block are carved in a manner that links them to the next block without an hairbreadth gap. Finally, they drill air passages into the body of the blocks to enable air circulation during printing, ensuring that the fabric does not adhere to the block when lifted. The craftsmen maintain a master copy of each block carved, an invaluable design directory and reference for themselves and their clients.

Despite such continuities, the Pethapur story is one of precipitous decline. With a high-speed highway connecting it to Ahmedabad and the state capital Gandhinagar now abutting this hamlet, property agents roam the streets, tempting the block-makers with huge sums for their land. Perhaps the time has come for the artists — living repositories of knowledge and techniques — to become teachers to bring up the next generation of block makers.

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