BLOCK PRINTED TEXTILES OF INDIA:
Imprints of culture describe how one of the subcontinent's foremost crafts has played a key role in the creation of visual identity in India and has also been a significant source of revenue through centuries of international trade. It reveals how block prints are integral to both caste dress and modern urban style. Used nowadays for soft furnishings and fashion, they have become a perennial favourite with Indian designers and in the global fashion market. Contemporary production and use of block prints is explained, and the social and historical roots of the craft are outlined.
These textiles embody richly diverse histories shaped by trade, conquest and colonisation, technological innovation and entrepreneurship; they are part of an ebullient visual and material culture that absorbs all influences and makes them Indian. It reflects the author's extensive field research over the past twenty-four years- working with block printers, block makers, dye producers, entrepreneurs, designers, government agencies, and non-governmental organisations, in museums and private collections all over India. The book is lavishly illustrated and creates a vibrant account of the development and recent regeneration of the craft, confirming that block prints are stamped with the imprints of an ancient, diverse and ever-evolving culture.
ElLUNED EDWARDS is Reader in Global Cultures of Textiles and Dress at Nottingham Trent University, UK, and also contributes to the Royal College of Art MA Design History programme and the V &A Arts of Asia course. She was previously Victoria and Albert Museum/London College of Fashion Senior Research Fellow in Textiles and Dress (2005- 2009). She has a PhD in Art History and Archaeology (Manchester University, 2000).
Her dissertation analysed how social change was reflected in the material culture of Rabaris - pastoral migrants in Kachchh district, Gujarat - focusing on their textiles and dress. Since 1991, her research has concentrated on aspects of textiles, dress, fashion and craft development in South Asia, notably India and she has published widely on these topics. Her research has been supported by the British Academy, Nehru Trust, Pasold Research Fund, and Leverhulme Trust (Research Fellowship 2012-14). It has been widely disseminated through publications, teaching, conferences and exhibitions.
Some of her previous publications include The Idea of Gujarat (2010), British Asian Style (V&A, 2010), and contributions to The Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non- Western Cultures (2014).
It is not often that a book comes along that makes a truly original contribution to the well-trodden field of Indian textiles, but Eiluned Edwards' new publication succeeds in doing so. India's block-prints are some of the country's most familiar textiles, both at home and around the world, and are inevitably included in exhibitions and books on this wide subject. But rarely does their coverage stray beyond the courtly prints of Sanganer, the skilled printed and dyed ajrakhs of Gujarat or the studies on the early trade in western Indian printed cottons which form a cornerstone of India's textile historiography. Dr Edwards has been one of the foremost scholars in the field of Indian textile studies for many years, and her exhaustive (and no doubt exhausting) field-work has already contributed a great deal to our knowledge, especially of Gujarati textiles, through her books and articles. As we might expect, this book gives her a chance to explore in depth several different centres and styles of printing in western India, a tradition she is uniquely qualified to document. But this book goes far beyond the well-known haunts of block-printing, and explores for the first time other, less familiar parts of India where block-printing is (or has been) also carried out.
Beautiful and informative illustrations bring out the regional variations in design and technique, and the concise text tells the story not just of India's local printing traditions, but their importance to global trade and their links with European Companies and the wider world. This is not just a historical story, of course, and the book brings us up to the present day by examining commercial enterprises for large markets, NGOs, government initiatives and innovative creations by individual designers, as well as today's threats to the craft, such as shortages of both water and labour. The many laborious steps and processes of preparation, printing and dyeing cloth in different centres have been described in detail, as is the fundamentally important craft of block-carving.
This book provides a compelling overview of a tradition that has been present in the Indian sub-continent for millennia and which continues to this day. Whether readers seek to learn the Latin, Hindi and local names for scores of dye plants, discover a wealth of technical and historical details about the block-printing tradition or find out more about textile design in contemporary India, this will be an invaluable addition to the bookshelves of textile scholars and enthusiasts alike.
The activity of block printing is accompanied by a gentle but persistent percussion; the thud of the wooden block hitting the print table is the rhythmic backdrop to the emerging pattern as the printer works his way down a length of cloth. Workshops tend to be dimly lit and motes of dust dance in the shafts of sunlight that penetrate the pervading gloom, illuminating patterns produced by an antique technology for contemporary consumers around the globe. Just as complex combinations of blocks align to form intricate patterns on cloth, so too the materials, processes, producers, entrepreneurs and markets for block prints come together to reveal a rich strand of Indian history and culture. The combination of blocks, artisan, imagined market, and entrepreneurship evident in a single workshop speaks to the larger context that all those things are necessary for the survival of this craft into the present day. Although the antiquity of the craft and technology is alluring, the ingenuity and variety of contemporary adaptations, modifications and interpretations, shaped by consumer desires on the one hand and market forces on the other, have ensured the enduring vitality and contemporary relevance of block printing.
Characteristics of Indian block printing
Use of mordants and resists
Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture examines the people and processes involved in block printing in order to explore the rich social, cultural and economic context in which this antique craft survives in the present day. While it outlines the processes of block printing and discusses regional variations, it does not set out to be a technical manual - the classic work of Susan Bosence is to be recommended in this respect for its clarity, insight and accessibility. Although the focus of the book is block printing which at its most basic level is the 'pressing of colouring matter or indented pattern on to cloth, clay or plaster' (Bosence 1985: 25), the craft can really only be understood in association with closely associated textile processes like dyeing and cloth painting; indeed many of the artisans featured in this book are accomplished in these fields as well as printing. The earliest surviving block prints from India are fragments of medieval trade cottons discovered in Egypt (see fig 1.11: Indian cotton fragment retrieved from Fustat, Egypt. Newberry Collection, Ashmolean Museum, acc. no. EA1990.1129). Some of these textiles reveal patterning that combines block printing and painting-this combination of techniques is also evident in later textiles and will be discussed in subsequent chapters. But the use of engraved wooden blocks to stamp a pattern on cloth - usually cotton - was the most widespread means of printing textiles in India for many centuries. It was eventually displaced in terms of volume printing by the advent in India of roller printing in the 19th century and commercial screen printing in the 20th century.
Historically, what set Indian block prints apart from the rest of the world were their multi-co loured designs and, crucially, their permanency of colour. Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture discusses the 'secret' of their colourfastness which lay in the artisans' knowledge of mordants - chemical agents that make fibres receptive to dye and fix colour on cloth - which archaeological evidence suggests dates back to the late phase of Harappan Culture in the Indus Valley (2000-1300 BCE). Until the 19th century, all dyes were from natural sources: flora, minerals and even fauna; the use of mordants, or 'metallic salts' was essential for the dye colour to bond successfully to fibre or fabric. It was a technology that eluded much of the rest of the world until innovations in the chemical industry in Europe in the mid-late 19th century resulted in the commercial development of colourfast synthetic dyes which, in effect, signalled the end of Indian dyers' supremacy. The book contextualises these developments in the textile industry in terms of their global impact as well as their visibility in India. It also identifies another notable characteristic of Indian block prints: the use of resist media such as wax, mud, and lime and gum paste. The resist is printed (also painted or daubed with a rag) on to the cloth to reserve areas of the design from the dye. It is the combination of mordants and resists that enables Indian block printers to build up complex patterns through different stages of resist printing, mordant printing and subsequent immersion in a vat of dye such as madder or indigo, producing textiles of great technical and aesthetic accomplishment. Still widely practised today, these painstaking processes that render natural colours on cloth are illustrated in the chapter 'Contemporary Block Printing in India'.
History, entrepreneurship and innovation
The book presents historical evidence of the craft and describes how block printing - one of the subcontinent's foremost crafts - has played a key role in the creation of visual identity in India. Block printed textiles were integral to the dress codes of the subcontinent, with particular designs signifying membership of a specific caste, as well as gender, age and marital status. In addition to dress, block prints were used traditionally for a variety of purposes throughout the home, as well as in ritual settings. The printers supplied a highly diverse clientele, enjoying the patronage of emperors and princes as well as supplying the affluent middle classes, and the pastoral and farming communities of rural India. Apart from the demand on the domestic market, block printed textiles have been a significant source of revenue through centuries of international trade. They became part of the history and material culture of diverse nations, from the medieval trade in cottons to Egypt (late 9th to 17th centuries), to the chintz of northern Europe (17th to 19th centuries) and the heirloom textiles of Indonesia (16th century) (see fig 1.22: sacred cloth from Toraja, Central Sulawesi, 16th century. V&A). The union of block printing and Indian cotton, and the dynamism of entrepreneurial merchant classes, resulted in a highly lucrative commodity of enduring popularity and infinite variety. Referring to trade records, mariners' logs, and historical accounts, Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture shows how the printers' ability to calibrate production in accordance with the tastes of diverse clients sustained extensive trading networks over many centuries.
As a result of government and private commercial initiatives, patterns of trade have changed since the 1950s, and block prints have transitioned from the domain of caste dress to become part of modern, urban style. Used nowadays for soft furnishings and fashion, they have become a regular feature on the catwalk-a perennial favourite with Indian designers and their increasingly global market.
Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture reveals a panorama of contemporary block printing production, trade and consumption. At its heart are the personal narratives of people involved in various aspects of the craft across India. Extensive interviews were conducted by the author with hereditary block printers and dyers, also block makers, dye manufacturers and retailers, entrepreneurs and designers, carried out over more than two decades' research in India, as well as in North America and Europe. By following the trajectory of block printed cloth from village workshop to end use, Block Printed Textiles of India: Imprints of Culture delineates the actual relationships that exist between artisans, state agencies, NGOs, traders, designers and consumers. Names recur across the chapters, networks are made explicit. Nearly every block printer interviewed for the book was engaged in production for Fabindia-indicating the company's commitment to the craft, and also the profits to be made from block prints. Anokhi and Maiwa Handprints were also mentioned regularly, companies established by women of vision and determination, that have transformed artisans' lives. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya's name was revered in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, similarly that of Brij Bhasin in Gujarat-people whose commitment to uplifting craft went beyond mere duty and whose interventions have made a lasting and significant change. At a local level, extraordinary artisans took chances and showed leadership when it was needed-the late Khatri Mohammad Siddik of Dhamadka and the dynamic Brij Ballabh Udaiwal in Sanganer come to mind.
This richly illustrated book illuminates the historical roots of the craft through a selection of textiles, paintings and photographs held in museums, galleries and private collections. At the same time, it celebrates the endeavour of contemporary producers, designers, and more through the author's own photographs detailing the social context of current production and use of block prints. Like few other objects, Indian block printed textiles embody richly diverse histories that have been shaped by trade, conquest and colonisation, technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Part of an ebullient visual and material culture that absorbs all influences and makes them Indian, these textiles are stamped with the imprints of a culture that is ancient, diverse and ever-evolving.
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