History of Hand Block Printing in India

  • Article explores Indian hand block printing traditions.

India is a hub of cotton hand-block prints. Almost every state across Northern India has its own hand block printing tradition that has been preserved by several generations of prolific craftsmen. Just to quote a few examples – Gujarat has Ajrakh, Madhya Pradesh has Bagh and Rajasthan has Bagru, Dabu & Sanganeri block printing traditions. 


So let us explore more about Indian hand block printing traditions through this article.


Origin & history

The recorded history of block printing dates back to the Indus valley civilization i.e. around 3500 to 1300 BC.


There are many archaeological evidences that prove that the Harappans were familiar with an early form of block printing. Block print cotton fragments of this era have been found at different excavation sites in India. Various types of needles, spindles and pieces of printed cotton fibres have been excavated from excavation sites of Harappa, Mohenjo Daro and Lothal etc. This gives further boost to the claim that the Harappan artists were familiar with the block printing.


In the early 12th century, several cities on southern, western and eastern coasts of India became trade centres for high quality printed cotton clothes.


Wooden block printing and dyeing of cottons became very common in various parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat as well. In fact, Rajasthan and Gujarat became gigantic economic hubs for trading of block-printed items. The wooden blocks were mostly used for printing fabrics for royal costumes, floor coverings, bed sheets and decorative wall hangings.


Design & Evolution

Some scholars point-out that block printing reached its zenith under the Mughal rule in India. It also evolved in terms of designs. For example, abstract & geometric designs that were used in pre-Mughal era, were replaced largely by floral motifs like plants, tree of life, kairi, vines, fruits, vegetables etc. Apart from floral motifs, paisley motifs in block printing also gained prominence during the Mughal era.


Animal figures also found a place in the design directory of block prints. Some common animal designs were peacock, parrot, elephant, swan etc.

Floral & Paisley motifs popularized during Mughal era. 


Image source – willowandthatch.com and indigenoushandicrafts.com. 


The major difference between the designs of pre and post Mughal era was that the Mughal era designs were way curvier, while pre-Mughal era designs were geometric. Meaning the designs leaned heavily on squares, rectangles, triangles and other geometric shapes. The designs that we see now are a mix of geometric and floral motifs.

Abstract & Geometric motifs

Image source – navyafashions.com. 


Handblock printing process – An Overview 

The block printing process varies slightly across different crafts. However, majority of steps are common. Firstly, wooden blocks are cut and the desired design is carved upon them. These wooden blocks have a handle attached to them – to dip the block in colour, lift & print them on the cloth. Once the blocks are carved, they are soaked in oil for a good 10-15 days to soften the wood. 


The fabrics to be printed are first washed to get rid of the starch, dried in the sun, and then laid down on a large table - fastened using pins. Colours are prepared in separate trays using glue & pigment binder. The block is then dipped in the tray full of colours, and slammed hard on the fabric with fist. The design goes from outward to inward i.e. the outline is printed first with black or dark colour and then filled in using different colours.


Once the printing is complete, the fabric is dried in the sun, then washed again (with acid & water) and dried again. That is how the colour is established.


The process of block printing is totally manual, incredibly difficult and therefore requires precision, artistry of the greatest degree.




Current state of the craft

By the early 18th century, the beautiful art of block printing started fading away largely due to the heavy taxes were imposed on Indian textiles during the British rule. Consequently, many hand block printers from rural India gave up this craft and migrated to the cities to work in cotton mills.

Various products from block printing traditions. Source pinterest.com


However, since independence, the government has launched a number of schemes to support the craft and craftspeople, some of them directly aimed towards block-printing craft. Educational institutions like National Institute of Design (NID) & National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) have helped in spreading awareness about crafts by enabling students to collaborate with craftspeople on projects related to design, marketing & promotion.


Over the years, numerous gigantic design houses as well as small designers within the industry have also worked with the craft to create contemporary silhouettes, making it more relatable. Due to all these efforts, the craft has definitely seen resurgence in modern times.


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Also see pictures of

1. Block printing Sanganer near Jaipur  

2. Village Kutch where block printing is done pics 10 to 14

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