Like the patter of raindrops on the window, like the beat of gentle drums, a rhythmic, repetitive pattern spreading across fabric like a web of motifs… Such is the marvel of a fabric, hand printed by a block that creates identical patterns, seamlessly merging into each other so gently, one cannot follow where the pattern begins and where it ends.
Block printers all over India make gorgeous textiles in many colours and designs, using a variety of techniques and materials. Some prints are so intricate, that they seem like they are hand drawn with a fine brush, but are actually colour impressions of pieces of wood, deftly carved by expert craftsmen.
Pethapur village in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is a hub of wood block makers, who supply customized blocks to the centres of block printing. Wooden block making has been a popular profession among the inhabitants of Pethapur for about 300 years.
The craftsmen use only teak wood (locally known as Sagwan) sourced from Valsad (near Gujarat-Maharashtra border). Teak is the perfect base for carving as it is strong and doesn’t absorb water or distort in shape or size. The craftsmen cut pieces according to the required block size, careful to cut away from any knots in the wood. The wood is painted white and then the design traced on to it, to increase contrast and visibility. The craftsmen use a hand drill arrangement that involves a bow (Kamthi) and a driller (Saarardi) to drill out larger portions from the block; and for the finer shapes, they use a variety of chisels in different shapes and sizes. They make their tools themselves according to their requirement.
These expert craftsmen can carve blocks with lines almost a millimeter thin and so close together, that it is a wonder how even one chisel stroke, that could leave the design spoiled and useless, does not go wrong. They make blocks for printing designs in one to four colours, sometimes more, but the craftsmanship is so precise that the fields and outlines of the motifs match flawlessly.
Wooden blocks range from as small as 1” to 16” in size and while a basic block, 3 to 4 inches across takes a day or two to make, an intricate one can take almost a week’s work.
Printers of different areas use different motifs or techniques and these block makers are experts in making all kinds of blocks. While Ajrakh prints have geometrical and star patterned motifs, the Sanganeri prints of Rajasthan have simple abstract or floral ones. The Bagh prints of Madhya Pradesh also have abstract florals, although more intricate than the ones in Rajasthan.
Even more intricate were the Saudagari prints, from which the block making art is believed to have started in Pethapur. It is difficult for a person to even hand draw those, let alone carve, but these experienced craftsmen are able to make perfect blocks for the prints, although the Saudagari prints are not done anymore.
A craft as old as printed textile, which can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, has few patrons left now. Although hand block printing still flourishes, ironically, block carvers have decreased in number and continue to do so, with younger generations moving on to more profitable careers. From almost 500 craftsmen who used to work in Pethapur some decades back, today only a handful are left, trying to preserve this craft, as well as their livelihoods.
A sight one sees while leaving… Wood dust crumbling away, leaving an intricate design behind, symbolizing how the fading eyes and wrinkled hands are trying to hold on to a craft degenerating under sharp laser cuts and digital images, leaving behind the marvel that gives richness to other crafts.