For India, block prints hold a place of pride—the age-old craft of dyeing and colouring a fabric using wooden blocks has been perfected over generations. Whether it is RAJASTHAN's popular Dabu print, which uses the mud printing technique, or Gujarat's Ajrakh, featuring geometric motifs, each block print is symbolic of the country's vast heritage and rich culture—India is, after all, one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of block printed fabrics. we interacted with local karigars—who help us understand the history of the labour-intensive art form, its uniqueness and how it's being modernised today.

Tracing the history of block prints

“The oldest record of Indian block print cotton fragments were excavated at various sites in egypt, at Fustat near Cairo,” says Anuradha Kumra, chief of products (apparels), Fabindia. “The recorded history of block printed fabrics dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation, around 3500 to 1300 BC. From the Harappan period onwards, the export of textiles , especially cotton, is confirmed. During the Mohenjo-daro site excavation, needles, spindles, and cotton fibres dyed with Madder (a red dye or pigment obtained from the root of the madder plant) were excavated. This proves that Harappan artists were familiar with Mordants (dye fixatives),” she explains.

However, Kumra believes it was only under the Mughal patronage that block printing flourished in India. “The Mughals introduced the intricate floral motifs that are still widely used in the hand block printed textiles from Rajasthan,” she says. According to designer Punit Balana, printing and dyeing of fabrics like cotton originated in Rajasthan, and was then adapted by Gujarat. Today, the art form is practiced in the states of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, apart from the aforementioned two.
The famous centres in Rajasthan are the cities of Jaipur, Bagru, Sanganer, Pali and Barmer, and the state is known for its colourful prints of gods, goddesses, humans, animals and birds. While Bagru is renowned for its Syahi Begar and Dabu prints (that come in yellow and black and are done using the resist printing technique), Sanganer is famous for its Calico prints (recognised by their dual colour prints done repeatedly in diagonal rows) and Doo Rookhi prints (that come on both side of the fabric). Barmer is known for its prints of red chillies and trees featuring a blue-black outline, while Sikar and Shekhawat prints feature motifs of horses, camels, peacocks and lions.

What makes block printing so unique?

The labour-intensive technique of block printing is sure to capture your attention. “From wood carving a block to transferring an impression onto the textile surface, it is the human hand that creates tiny variations and imperfections that are so charming and unique to this process,” says Kumra. “Also, it is a more versatile and sustainable technique—it lends itself well to small bespoke developments as well as large scale productions.”