Bagru block printing is a community-based livelihood practiced by the villagers of Bagru, Jaipur district for many centuries. If you are looking for day trips from Jaipur, try Bagru and you’ll appreciate why this Indian craft is laboriously beautiful.
What is Block Printing?
The mention of India will easily bring ones imagination to a country full of vibrant colors. A predominant image would probably be that of Indian women draped in bright-colored saris. Now, imagine 651 million of Indian women, each wearing 5 to 6 meters long of fabric making up one sari. It wouldn’t be surprising to know why textile industry is one of the leading sectors in Indian economy.
Despite the age of automation and mass production in textile, block printing in India is a renowned ancient craft that remains to be practiced today, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan states. So what is block printing? It is a method of manually printing a fabric using carved wooden blocks covered in dye. The wooden blocks are repeatedly stamped along the length of the cloth to create patterns.
Because block printing is done by hand, the process is very much slower than machine or screen printing. However, the meticulous effort and skillful artistry imprinted by local artisans in every fabric renders so much value in each block print product.
The Bagru Block Printing Community
Bagru is a town in Jaipur district in Rajasthan region, which can be reached through a 30 km-ride from the main city of Jaipur. Bagru block printing is a well-known specialty in this town, handed down from generation to generation as far back as four centuries ago.
As we entered Bagru from the Jaipur - Ahjmer highway, the scene changed into narrow streets lined with one to three-storey concrete buildings. These structures comprise of home-based printing workshops to small-scale enterprises which are into the woodblock printing process.
The area of the Bagru block printing community is known as Chhipa Mohalla or the printer’s quarters. Chhi means to print while pa means to stretch out something under the sun. Your senses will affirm that you’re in Chhipa Mohalla asyou see large spacious area where dyed textiles are laid on the ground or laid down from rooftops to be sun-dried. The air smells of dyed fabric, as well. Going inside a printing workshop, you will hear a rhythmic “tock tock” sound of woodblocks stamped by artisans onto the fabric.
Interestingly, chippa also represents a caste group that has been connected with the woodblock printing industry and is also used as a last name by Hindus. Families of the Chippa community have their own “job description” in the woodblock printing process. There are those designated as chhipas or printers, rangrez or dyers and dhobi or washerman. To complete the Bagru block printing’s value chain, other people are also involved as designers, block carvers, tailors, raw material suppliers and dealers.
Also read about the 10 Things I Learned in My Ten Days in India. I wrote this article in 2017 after my first travel to India.
The Block Printing Process
The manual labor and craftsmanship, the inherent variation in color of vegetable dyes, and the reliance to uncontrolled natural conditions such as water quality, weather, wind and dust, make every finished product of the Rajasthan block printing process unique. Let’s appreciate this ancient craft even more by reading on below how painstakingly demanding of time and labor the Bagru block printing techniques could get.
1. Woodblock carving
Let’s start the woodblock printing process with how the wood block, the most basic tool in woodblock printing in fabric, is done. The design is meticulously traced with chisel by expert carvers using a drawn pattern attached to a perfectly flat wood block. The wood block will serve as a stamp to create patterns in the fabric. Seeing the finished blocks reminds me of the intricate wood carvings embellished in the temples of Kathmandu, Nepal.
A separate wood block is needed for each color in the design. Depending on the intricacy of the pattern, about 4 or 5 blocks are needed for each fabric to be printed. Carving could take one or two days for each block. These are soaked in oil for 10 to 15 days to soften the wood.
I haven’t seen the actual woodcarving but looking at the elaborate design of finished wood blocks alone represents an art that only skilled workers can produce.
2. Preparation of Fabric for Dyeing
The plain fabric is scoured with a mixture of cow dung, soda ash and sesame oil to remove impurities such as starch, oil and dirt for even and good penetration of color. After scouring, the fabric is washed with water then sun- dried.
Prior to dyeing, the fabric is soaked in a solution made from the fruit of harda. Harda serves as a mordant or a substance that will improve fixation of dyes to the fabric, enhance color and light fastness. After harda treatment, the fabric is washed again and laid flat on open spaces or hung from rooftops “Rapunzel” style to dry under the sun.
I haven’t seen the actual washing but further research has shown me that the process is done in a knee-deep water bath where the washer stands inside the bath. I could imagine the washers standing there all day, their feet soaked in an alkaline water (due to the soda ash) and their backs bent while doing the washing.
Bagru is one of the few areas in India where natural dyes are still predominantly used for printing. Sources of natural dyes include leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, barks and roots. Another interesting source of dye in Bagru is a fermented mixture of rusted metal scraps, molasses, gum and tamarind flour. When applied to harda-treated fabric, the cloth will magically turn into black as it is oxidized.
However, nowadays, non-toxic chemical dyes are sometimes used in combination with natural dyes to produce brighter colors. The fabric is soaked in a vat of dye solution. Washing follows after dyeing to remove excess dye. The dyed fabric is then dried again under the sun.
4. Color mixing
Dyes to be used to print patterns on the fabric are mixed with appropriate proportions of thickener and binder to produce the right consistency for even application of dyes onto the fabric. The mixture is spread in a rectangular tray and then overlain with bamboo nets to prevent over-dipping of the woodblock.
5. Woodblock printing on fabric
The wood block is then dipped on the tray then manually stamped on the fabric, with sufficient pressure to register the design to the cloth. The wooden blocks are repeatedly stamped along the length of the cloth to create patterns, one color and design at a time. Precision is needed to align the blocks to the right spot by eye.
The method described above is called a direct block printing method. In Bagru, a special technique called dabu or mud resist printing is prevalent. It starts with the preparation of dabu paste which is made my mixing clay, lime, natural gum and water. The mixture is mashed into a thick paste using their bare feet and left overnight. This is then strained into liquid paste, which is the final mixture that will be used for woodblock printing.
Instead of dipping the woodblock in dye paste, the block with the print design is dipped in dabu paste and stamped to the fabric. A layer of sawdust is sprinkled to the cloth to avoid dabu from sticking with each other. The fabric is then dipped in a vat containing the dye then dried in the sun. The patterns covered with dabu will remain uncolored while the rest of the fabric is dyed. The fabric is sun-dried once again after this. Get it now why it’s called resist printing?
6. Dye fixation
After dabu printing, the cloth is rinsed in a cooled solution of boiled promegranate skin that is prepared a day before the washing is done. The cloth is next washed in a solution of alum to fix the color and remove dabu paste. As the cloth dries, the dabu resist prints will magically appear.
7. Final steps
The final steps in the woodblock printing process involve boiling the cloth in water to increase color fastness. Rinsing follows and finally, drying and ironing.
Threats to This Ancient Art
The Bagru block printing industry is undoubtedly a life-giving resource for the community, in which families work inter-dependently not only to make a living but also operate to keep the ancient tradition alive. However, the woodblock printing community is faced with challenges that threaten both its economic and environmental sustainability.
The good thing about the Bagru block printing process is that the use of natural dyes is a safer, non-toxic option compared to chemical-based dyeing. The locals claim that washings containing natural dyes are not harmful to the environment and can be re-used, for example, for irrigation. Likewise, it is safer to humans than synthetic dyes.
However, the slow shift towards chemical dyes, which are cheaper and produce brighter shades of color will require treatment of the wastewater from the washings before it can be safely recycled or discharged in the environment. On the other hand, the advantage of using synthetic pigments is that it entails much fewer need for washing operations.
As you may have noticed, the woodblock printing process involves a lot of washing in between process steps. This is why the greatest environmental issue in Bagru’s woodblock printing remains to be depletion of water resources in an already water-stressed location.
The river has already run dry so the people resorted to groundwater extraction and water tank delivery. Hence, the community needs to implement water reduction practices and gain access to technologies for recycling of wastewater to reduce the intensity of water usage for block printing.
Competition with mechanically-produced textiles
Much like a wall art painting, no two chhipa prints are alike. The sad news is that this form of art is threatened by a stiff competition with cheaper and faster process of making mass-produced print fabrics, such as screen printing. Clearly, this has caused a dilemma between keeping a centuries-old tradition and increasing productivity with technological development.
A practice that involves a shared community livelihood is slowly shifting towards machines or tools that can now be operated by much fewer people. What used to take two weeks to create can now be completed in a few hours. These economic forces are placing pressure on the sustainability of this laborious yet beautiful art.
What is the future for woodblock printing industry?
The rhythmic “tock-tock” sound of the hand block printing industry may sound like a diminishing form of art but hope is still around the corner for this dying craft. While more advanced methods are threatening the hand block printing industry, I believe that it is also technology, coupled with an open mind, which can contribute to helping save this traditional art.
My work in the Philippines involves providing assistance to small scale industries on how they can improve their processes while reducing wastes and increasing productivity. I have recognized a lot of potential for improvement seeing how the hand block prints are made in Bagru, India. Processing times, process techniques, workers conditions and wastewater management can still be improved to address the issues mentioned above.
While doing this article, I am happy to stumble upon Jaipur Bloc, a cluster of textile producers in India. The organization aims to preserve the traditional hand block printing art while reducing the environmental impacts of textile production, improving working conditions of artisans and craftsmen and promoting woodblock printing products to the international market. In other words, Jaipur Bloc is working towards the sustainable production of handcrafted textiles.
Had I known earlier, I would have visited the Jaipur Integrated Texcraft Park, Jaipur Bloc’s demonstration facility in Bagru. Based on their website, the facility is equipped with world-class effluent treatment and water harvesting.
As travelers visiting India, what we can do is to support the woodblock printing community by patronizing authentic hand block prints. I encourage you to visit communities where hand block prints are made and buy products directly from them.
How to Get to Bagru, Jaipur?
The driving distance from Jaipur city proper to Bagru is 30 kilometers via the Jaipur-Ajmer Highway. You can get there by car, taxi or bus. I took the car rental option and used the services of India by Car Chauffeur and travel time took about 30 minutes to get from my Jaipur homestay to Bagru.
A cheaper but not the most convenient option is to go there by bus (Line 26). Bus to Bagru leaves from Sodala bus stand in Jaipur. Travel time by bus may take up to 1 hour 30 minutes.
Other Day Trips from Jaipur
Check out other places to visit near Jaipur and other great experiences to try as day trips from Jaipur.
Where to Stay in Jaipur?
I stayed at a homestay hosted by Giriraj Sharma, which I found through Airbnb. The family was very welcoming and friendly and served good food. If you are looking for hotels or hostels, compare rates in all top online booking sites and read reviews through Hotels Combined here.
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