Blocks & Prints – A love affair with block printing

There are several ways to acquaint ourselves with our national heritage – be it a road trip, learning a cultural dance form, music, visiting monuments and last but not the least block printing. As an art form, block printing dates back to the 12th century where plain fabrics are given a theme with certain motifs specific to a region.

Block printing is done in several parts of India such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Each state offers a distinct flavour, style and essence of block printing that is a signature in itself.

We’ve seen so many beautifully designed bedspreads, table cloths and even cotton saris come alive with the gorgeous art of block printing.

For instance, the famous Kalamkari style of block printing originates from the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh is the most widely seen art form on saris and salwar kurtas, as are the famous Jaipuri quilts (razai) and bed covers with the popular paisley block prints, or the Ajrakh prints from Gujarat that are the epitome of India’s textile heritage.

We caught up with 58-year-old Shyamala Rao a Bachelor in Sociology from St Xaviers’ College who runs a ‘Blocks and Prints’ studio in Mulund, Mumbai. For her block-printing is an essential part of our culture and customs.

Once on a visit to Ajrakhpur, Dr Ismail Khatri, the award-winning designer and block printer had explained to her how each village was self-sufficient.

She explains to us how cotton is locally grown and with a combined effort put in by the weavers, dyers, printers how these prints were essentially used by the local community, where the colour and motif denoted a complexity of caste, community and even marital status!  Now, of course, with connectivity, and the global village syndrome, times have changed forever.

When did it all begin?

“I have dabbled in textiles since the last 25 years.  A cousin and I used to design salwar-kurtas and hold exhibitions at various locations across the city. We used to embellish them with embroidery, tie-dye, hand painting – the works,” recalls Shyamala.

Shyamala also attended a block-printing workshop conducted by none other than Panna Dossa and she instantly fell in love with the craft. Watching the karigars print, was like ”poetry in motion”, and Shyamala was completely hooked on to this art form.

Panna Dossa designed Khadi saris for the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the ’70s and they were a rage. The designer had advertised block-printing classes in the papers and she conducted her classes in a huge workshop in an industrial estate in Wadala, which Shyamala attended in the 1990s.

Then to kick start her craft, Shyamala needed a printing table, colours and blocks. This initial investment was around Rs 25,000 and fortunately, she was introduced to an owner of a boutique, who was and even today, is extremely encouraging in all her endeavours.

“He encouraged my creativity, to step out of the mundane to try something new every time. He has stores in Pune and Nasik, so there’s always abundant work for me. Besides, I work with other designers and boutiques as well. They come over, select the blocks, decide the layout, the colours,” recalls Shyamala.

Armed with a karigar in Kurla from whom she gets all her bed sheets done, Shyamala books his table for the entire day to complete her orders. In fact, her passion for block printing has taken her to different parts of India especially in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh.

She recalls that during her trip in Bagru, she stayed with a family and was able to document the dyeing and printing process in detail.

“I went to Bagru, Jaipur in 2009 and again in 2011. Bagru is famous for ‘dabu’ printing where a local material just like clay is used for block printing, which acts like a mud-resist. Just like wax is used in batik, this mud-resist prevents colour from entering the parts that are covered, so it gives the design a layered effect,” explains Shyamala.

She further adds, “My travels and experiences allow me to show my students the various stages, right from the white fabric to the final finished product of block printing. For many, this is a revelation, they see how much effort goes into the making one-off print, and they look upon the unknown artist and his technique with a new found respect.”

She has also picked up blocks from Gujarat and Rajasthan, so the motifs are also different.  Of course, any design drawn on paper can be carved into a block; so geometric, abstract and floral designs, even African/Celtic/Greek patterns can be used on a bed sheet, table cloth or dress material.

Block printing can be done on all kinds of fabric such as crepe, georgette and silk; if done on cotton it should be starch-free cotton, otherwise, the starch prevents the dye from penetrating onto the fabric.

“I use pigment colours with a basic water-based binder. Big printing houses use various kinds of chemical colours, like Naphthol, Rapid and Procion dyes, but some of the Azo dyes have been banned because prolonged exposure is harmful to the karigars and the dye waste is harmful to the environment,” explains Shyamala.

Spreading the word

Shyamala had recently been to the US to meet her children and paid a visit to a textile museum that had held an exhibition on Ikat with only a fleeting mention about India.

“That inspired me to spread an awareness about our great textile crafts which include weaving, dyeing, embroidery, painting, and of course, my specific interest, block-printing. I had the opportunity to do a demo at two textile colleges in Lawrence, Kansas, and in Raleigh, North Carolina and various other textile hobby groups, boutiques and Craft outlets. I had also taken plenty of samples of Kalamkari, Dabu and Ajrakh printing and put together a slideshow, with pictures of my visits to Bagru and Gujarat which not only included the printing process, but pictures of their life and customs, and give it a context.”

Block printing workshops

“I received many requests to teach, and that is how the workshops came about. Typically, I conduct one-day workshops from 10 am to 6 pm, with lunch included. In the morning, I speak about the origin of this craft, how it evolved over the centuries, the different styles of printing, like Dabu, Kalamkari and Ajrakh,” explains Shyamala.

This is followed by a demo, after which the students try their hand at block printing. All of them enjoy the hands-on part the most.

Then, they can print on any small item they have brought along, most of the time it is a t-shirt, jhola-bag, or cushions. Shyamala takes 4 people in a batch, so there is enough place for all. The charge is Rs 1250/- per person for a workshop.

If at the end of the day, you want to print more, then you can visit her again and use the table, the blocks and colours for a fee.  Then she accepts only one person at a time, who can print a dupatta, a sari, whatever you want.

Get in touch:

If you’d like to attend one of the block printing workshops, get in touch with Ms. Shyamala Rao through her Facebook page:

What’s your Story?

If you have a similar story to share just like Shyamala where you’re single-handedly doing your bit to spread the pride and art form of our national heritage, do write into us to get featured on The Lifestyle Portal.

Write to us with a short bio and profile about yourself and your work to [email protected] today!

Comments (33)
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  2. Meenakshi
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  4. Lakshmi
  5. Shyamala Rao
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  13. Shyamala Rao
    • Nidhi Goyal
  14. Ajrakh Dupatta
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  27. Mrs.Vasudha Rao

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