How a 4000-year-old textile became a ubiquitous design accessory
Block print is a common sight in home design, whether it’s covering cushions, upholstery, or decorating napkins on a table. Despite all its beauty and popularity, this textile tells a complicated story that spans the ages and shows the power of craftsmanship in the face of colonization.
Block printing is believed to have its origins in China over 4,000 years ago, before spreading throughout Asia and the world. The earliest record of block printing, however, is not on fabric but on a book known as the Diamond Sutra, which was printed 300 years before Gutenberg’s Bible. The story of India’s journey to become the epicenter of block printing, however, is complicated.
“The story is uneven,” says Preeti Gopinath, director of the MFA textile program at the New School, because “the story of the Indians comes from what the invaders wrote.” But as the best historians can piece together, the story begins in today’s Uzbekistan with Bābur, a descendant of Genghis Khan. He invaded India in the early 16th century, securing power to the burgeoning Mughal dynasty, whose rule lasted more than 200 years and its influence even longer.
Mughal rulers widely patronized the arts throughout their dynasty, and the Mughal style came to define huge parts of Indian art as we know it today, touching everything from printing to block at Taj Mahal. “There is a very distinct flavor in Mughal art and design,” Gopinath explains. Block printing was a particular favorite of Mughal emperors. Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was known for his strong taste for textiles. The entire textile industry flourished under Mughal patronage, and many artisans still work in the same historic centers of Gujrat and Rajasthan that supported the Mughals during their reign.
Block printing techniques have remained largely unchanged since the days of the Mughals, at least where printing continues to be done by hand. Most block printed textiles come in one of three ways: direct, resistance, or discharge printing. All prints begin with a block of wood hand carved by artisans who usually learn the trade from their families. The work requires a delicate but skillful hand. Sculptors create a block for each element of the design, which means that in a design there are blocks for each border, group of leaves or style of flower.
The dye is then applied using one of three methods. The straightforward method is the simplest: dip a block in a dye, then dab it on the fabric. Discharge printing is used to create a white pattern on a colored background. Printers place a simple bleach on wooden blocks and dab them to achieve it. Resistant printing occurs in reverse. The wood blocks are dipped in a waxy paste and stamped to create a pattern before the entire piece is stained the final color. Once dried, the dough is removed and the pattern remains intact.
The post-Mughal era saw an increasing consolidation of power among Europeans in India, culminating with the British Raj, who ruled until 1947. The rise of European industrialization meant that Britain began to exporting its textiles to India, forcing national weavers and printers to shut down and people to buy cheap imitations of their once iconic textiles. The British desire for total control has often turned violent: “They literally cut off the fingers of many weavers in India,” says Gopinath. He also threatened to crush the once flourishing industry.
A 2015 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, titled “Indian fabric: textiles in a changing world», Related the state of Indian textiles during the British Raj. The craft is akin to a political statement, according to the museum. Mohandas Gandhi even encouraged people to weave their textiles and don a khadi, a traditional garment that quickly became the symbol of Indian nationalists.
After the end of the Raj, the textile industry took on new life. Writer and activist Pupul Jayakar traveled to New York to attend an exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art on Indian textiles in 1955, where she met Charles Eames. The two became friends. Soon after, Eames and his wife Ray toured India and presented the newly formed government with a document titled The India Report, which examined ways in which India could support and improve its traditional cottage industries. The resultant National Institute of Design was founded in 1961 and today is considered the leading authority on Indian handicrafts, working tirelessly to protect and proliferate this art form.
In the 60 years since the creation of the NID, design enthusiasts have sparked a resurgence of interest in block-printed textiles. As their worldwide popularity cemented during the Mughal period, Indian textiles experienced a kind of renaissance abroad, with reverberations being felt in India. “So many young men are going into printing,” says Shreya Shah, founder of an Indian textile company. Living worry.
This celebration of craftsmanship and exuberant patterns fits perfectly with the maximalism that has faded (and returned) over the past 60 years. The chintz and block print is a classic combination. As the National Institute of Design gained momentum, more and more Westerners turned to printers in Jaipur or Ahmedabad. John Robshaw, famous textile designer and lover of block printing, was among them as he spent time at the NID. “These textiles are to me the same as art,” says Robshaw. “It’s art that you live with and use. ”
Art is what these textiles should be considered, says Gopinath. “When I think of block printing, certain things come to mind: the exquisite design, the color, the composition, as well as the hand and heart of a craftsman. For Shah, it’s pretty much the same. “As Indians we know how much we live around beauty,” she said, “and I want the world to know that too.”
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