Development of Printing in Rajasthan

Craft, Handloom, Art

Development of Printing in Rajasthan: Reflections

Gaur, Sonal


“……. It would seem that the author of nature, as a set-off against other advantages which Europe enjoys, has granted India ingredients, and above all, certain waters, whose particular qualities have much to do with beautiful combination of painting and dyeing presented by Indian cloths.” -Father Coeurdoux

Wisely spoken words draw many a comparison of the geniuses of Indian craftsperson in the whole world. Their mastery on the colour is truly appreciated by the wearers of colourful textiles who look equally mesmerizing to the novice eyes of the foreign land.

Versatility of the fabrics produced in India can be estimated by the classification done by John Irwin in his article titled, “Indian Textiles in Historical Perspective”. He divides the cloth manufactured in following categories; (a) clothes that are woven & dyed by professional skills of craftsperson’s of India; for local communities, (b) articles of luxury made under court patronage or in the court tradition, (c) embroidered textiles and (d) fabrics of indigenous tribes. Here the dyed articles in first category also include the printed textiles. Printing and dyeing are the two techniques that go hand in hand in India.

Of Indian Art, printing constitutes a large part of textile art manufacture of India. Printing being done on almost every textile base, it has attained the highest level of perfection. Printed cloth is a cloth of commoner and there is no single village in India where one can’t find bright coloured fabrics all around. Of all the states, Rajasthan constitutes the most number of styles of printing. Each region has its own specialty. Most of the uniqueness is based on the different techniques applied. From direct block printing to discharge and to resist style of printing all are practiced in the state of Rajasthan.

There has been a shift in the technology with the changing economic, social and political environment in Rajasthan. The state has seen numerous successions from ancient times of anarchy to the modern day state government. All these exchanges had a direct influence on the make and shift of the cultural traditions. What is visible today is the coalescence of the changing convention.

Tracing the culture of Rajasthan

Rajasthan covers 10.41% of the Indian Union. In terms of total area Rajasthan takes only 2nd place next to Madhya Pradesh. The state of Rajasthan covers 26 districts of which Jaipur comes 7th in terms total area. This pink city is the capital of the state and also represents the culture of this region to its extent. Jaipur constitutes 4.11% of the total area of the state. Rajasthan, the name of the state has leaded on through slow successions from ‘Rajwara’, ‘Raethana’, ‘Rajputana’ or ‘Rajpootna’.












Physically the Arravalli Range can distinctively divide Rajasthan state into two geographical parts. This divide brings about a major cultural variation amongst the two parts. The western part of the divide is dry and arid and constitutes The Thar Desert and Eastern part, not devoid of flora and fauna is hilly and rocky. There is an interesting exchange of material and philosophical ideas between the two regions.

To trace the origins of present Rajasthan’s culture of craftsmanship it will be a mountainous task for there was no one group or community that stayed long enough to prosper. It was the continuous invasion through Iranian plateau that one community swiped another successively. This resulted in the amalgamation of different cultures. Each invasion brought new traditions, which were imprinted, with the older ones.

From Persians to Arabs, Mughuls, Mauryans, Aryans did not resulted in much of civilization than continuous successive possession of land. The reasons were simply to exploit the resources of the land. Rajasthan is rich in mines of minerals and stones. The craftsmen of Rajasthan therefore use natural mineral stone colours wether it is for meenakari (enamelling), lacquer work, dyeing and printing of cloth, pichhwais of Nathdwara, Phad paintings etc.

It is only with the rule of Mughal’s that some stability was seen in the land. The first ruler of Mughal Sultanate, Babar was a descendant of Changhez Khan and Temurlane. He, with his every succession spared the skilled craftsmen, artists and men of learning. He would either send them off to his homeland or bring his craftsmen to the newly conquered land to build new craft centers. At this era we could say that a stability in the community brought evolving culture of craft.

Of Rajputana history, at about 500 A.D. Huns who were the descendants of Turks of Transoxiana, complete barbarians from the Iranian Plateau overthrew Gupta’s. They were also based on tribal communities. The Gurajara tribes of the Huns adopted Hinduism and their leaders were responsible for the origin of Rajput families.

As terrain of Rajasthan favoured resistance, the enclaves of the old culture survived here more easily than in other parts of the country. The weather conditions on the other hand also played a vital role in the favouring of certain resources than the others. Due to climatic conditions, cotton cannot be grown in this area. Therefore weaving of cotton is quiet uncommon. The only loom operation that happens around is the manufacture of blankets from locally produced wool. Probably that is the reason why Rajasthani craftsmen have excelled at surface ornamentation technique.

Block printing, tie-dye and embroidery are the basic techniques, which gives Rajasthan its distinctive character. Decked in bright colours like red, yellow, green, blue & black, men and women of Rajasthan, make the most colourful picture of arid and dry land.

Blocks for printing

Before probing further into the background of printed textiles it is necessary to know what printed textiles mean. A textile on which a pattern is produced after the completion of weaving, the pattern achieved through dye-stuff and wooden blocks of design.  The wooden hand blocks are used to make patterns of design on the fabric. In Rajasthan following processes have been in use for decoration.

  1. Direct application of the colour and design; hand blocks were used earlier. Today silk screens have mostly substituted hand block. Hand block printing is not obsolete though but very few craftsmen are practicing the same.
  2. Resist process, which means application of colour at first stage; resist application at second stage and again second application of the colour. Resists like gum, clay and wax have been used in Rajasthan. Resist is stamped with the block in place like Bagru near Rajasthan. The resist is named as Dabu which is made of mud or clay.
  3. Mordant process or the modern discharge process is used when the direct application of dyes is not possible. Most of the printers in Rajasthan have started using this style of printing using synthetic alizarine.
  4. Pigment printing with gold or more commonly known as Tinsel printing. This style of printing is most commonly found in Jaipur. Also known as Warak/Gold leaf printing this style is also used in Pichhwais of Nathdwara.
  1. S. Demand in relation to printing has accounted that, “Two methods of decorating fabrics are of ancient origin. These are block printing and resist dyeing, which in the Mughal period were brought to a high degree of perfection and combined with painting.”

Today also the processes and technique remain the same except the change of raw materials. Natural dyes have been replaced by synthetic dyes. Materials like natural wax, gum have been replaced by their counter parts in synthetic and man-made materials. Hand block printing has been replaced by silk screens.

Printing in history

Studying the origin and development of printed textiles is a difficult task. There are no hard evidences to support the beginning of textile printing industry in the country. As we go down the history lane there are many evidences that prove printing to be an art for appreciation since long time.

The word ‘Print’ comes from old French preinte ‘pressed’ or from Latin premere, ‘to press’.Motichandra in the text from Journal of Indian Textile History V had mentioned Chitrapata in 11th century source as a possible form of printed Calico. Further the word Chimpaka for a Female calico printer and chhipa for a calico printer in 14th& 15th century source respectively.The term chhapa for calico printing has been evident in Jaisi, 16th Century. An 18th century text named as Bahar-i-Ajam has accounted ‘chhapa’ to be a Hindi word for printing block which in Persian is known only as chapa.

Old Sanskrit literature refers to words like ‘phuttak’, ‘pushpvat’, ‘hansalakshyukt’, ‘dhukul’ and the text written by Gorochan known as ‘kadambri’ talks about printed and painted textiles. Use of ‘Hans’ motif in printing of textiles in ancient India is visible through the paintings in Ajanta and Ellora caves, Jain miniature paintings and fragments excavated from Fostat.

‘Chhint’ the Hindi word was modified/adapted to ‘chit’ in Persian which is also indicative of the primacy of Indian block printing industry.

Words like ‘chints’, ‘printed’, ‘calicoes’ and ‘pintadoes’ were quiet in use for the Indian textiles during the middle ages. Also words like uchho (printing industry) and chimppayy (printers) were prevalent in the dictionaries in middle ages. This denotes that printing of textile was an evolved industry during that time.

Printed cotton textiles from India were known with various names like chidneys, chites, scriltores, toiles, peintes, indinnes, palampores and salampores which also prove that Indian textile were not only famous throughout India but there demand was indispensable in the whole world.

We can say it is though very difficult to find the exact source of origin and date of printing in India but it can be surely said that printing industry did existed from a very long time. Few examples mentioned above promote the existence of printing industry and that too in a much evolved state. Though there is no physical evidence available in India due to the weather conditions which could not conserve the old textiles but fragments found at Fostat provides us with enough proof for the same.

Evidences of Significance

The earliest specimen of the Indian resist dyed cloth is said to be discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in 8th century which was a fragment of cotton cloth with a floral motif. Silk specimen of block printed style was also discovered by Sir Stein in Central Asian sites.

Long standing tradition of dyeing and printing in Rajasthan can be seen through the evidence of an old printed cloth found in Jaisalmer Jain Bhandar. The cloth was probably made with madder process and found wrapped around a manuscript. The design of the cloth was found similar to the stylized boota found in Egyptian Tomb which dates back to 12th century A.D. The printed fabrics found in Central Asia made in resist techniques probably dating 8th century A.D. were said to be produced in India. Old banner paintings from Tibet were coloured in Indian red, black & yellow a very common colour combination found in India and the design patterns seem typical contemporary Sanganeri designs.

The most noteworthy and exemplary evidence of printing history of India is the madder dyed fragment pieces found in Al Fustat, Egypt whose origin is sourced to India. The earliest specimen dates back to 12th century. It provides with an ample proof that by 15th century block printing and dyeing were the two arts that Indian craftsmen excelled at. Not only were they being used in home but they have reached the outer world through trade. The analysis of these fragments mentioned in the book, “Les Toiles Imprimees De Fostat” authored by R. Pfister gives an impression that the fragments were originated in Gujarat. Gujarat port however catered to all the near-by centers for printing like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh. By observing the prints visually it will be difficult to decide the exact provenance of the specimen.

Fragments of printed textile at Fostat Place of Manufacture: Gujarat

These specimens allow the textile historians to speculate the origin of the printing in the world.

Some scholars argue the origin of printing to China but the claims are not confirmed but it is established that first paper printing was practiced in China. Sir Aurel Stein had discovered Chinese hand printed silk dating from T’ang dynasty (7th century) in the “Cave of the Thousand Buddhas” at Tun Huang in Chinese Turkestan. R. Pfister recorded that printing was practiced on silk by Iranians in 11 the century.

It is also been claimed that it is from China that the art of printing spread to middle Asia and Persia. From Persia hence it travelled with Muslims to Western India. Although an account by Chardin (1666) opposes this argument claiming that Iran’s cotton printed textiles were not as fine as that of India.

Irfan Habib in his article ‘The Technology and Economy of Mughal India’ has also mentioned two methods of pattern dyeing as basic to Indian craftsmen in 17th century. These were application of resists to confine colours and of mordants to take colours.

Various anecdotes and accounts ascertain that printing existed in India even before the arrival of Mughals. It can be attested to the favourable conditions in India like water resources that printing has reached its zenith. Though there are no evidences or fragments available of wooden block but there is one stone block from 5th century as mentioned by Dr. Motichandra in her book titled, “Jain miniature painting from western India”.

The Ajanta and Ellora caves are very significant to the textile historians. Some of the frescoes in Ajanta are illustrative of block printing of cottons.

“In an illustration of the Mahajanak Jataka from Cave I, the chowri bearer has an upper garment decorated with the “hamsa” motif- similar motifs have been found both in Fostat specimens and in costumes detailed by Dr. Motichandra in his book on Jain Painting.”

Not just the historical architecture but travelogues and accounts of famous foreigners have mentioned the art of hand block printing. There is a reference of export of cotton printed goods from Coromandel coast to Baruch in Gulf of Cambay in a book named “Periplus of Erythrean Sea” written in 1st century A.D.From the anonymous Greek text it is clear that the trade from India to Roman Egypt included spices and aromatics, gems, ivory and especially textiles, in exchange of which were sent metals, wheat, glass and silver, but also linen from the Nile Delta. It is interesting to note that Duarte Barbosa who was serving the Indian government in 1500 AD, almost 1500 years after wrote about the same export centres; Gujarat, Coromandel Coast and Bengal. The centre’s were producing patterned textiles for export since then.

Megasthenes in 4th century writes about the costumes of Indian’s.

“Their robes are worked in gold, ornamented with precious stones; they wear flowered garments made of finest muslin.”

Francois Bernier in his famous work of “Travels in Mogul Empire” has mentioned of his meeting with Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in his tent which was beautifully lined with hand painted cotton manufactured in Masulipatnam.

“The outside was red and the inside was lined with those chittis or cloths painted by a pencil of Masulipatnam, purposely wrought and contrived with such vivid colours and flowers and flowers so aturally drawn, of a hundred several fashions and shapes, that one would have said it was a hanging parterre.”

Frenchman Jean Baptiste Tavernier talks of cotton floral printed canopies. He has used the words chintz and calicoes for the printed wall hangings and bed spreads used in the Mughal times which were exported from Coromandel Coast.

Memoirs of kings and queens also form a very important source of historical evidence for textile researchers. Abul Faizal’s, Ain-i-Akbari which is an account of the Mughal king Akbar’s life has mentioned printed textiles of 16th century. There is a mention of printing of cotton textile too.

“…….in stuff as zardozi, kalabatun, kashidah, qalghai, bandhanun, chhint, alchah, purzdar to which His Majesty pay much attention.”( Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari translated by Ibn Mubarak)

Records of East India Company show the trade of printed cloths of Baharanpur or either pintadoes of Masulipatnam as curtains and quilts to western countries. Various trade records of different places have illustrated the chintz of Ahmedabad and Pintadoes of Baharanpur and Surat which proves the 17th century existence of printing industry in India.

Thevenot, a French traveler in his account of Agra from 1666 has mentioned the use of printing block for direct colour impressions. He also mentioned the same process being used in Iran but further mentions that the cloth used to come from Indies.

Development of printing in Rajasthan

Of how the printing centers were developed in Rajasthan we only have speculative data. As discussed earlier Rajasthan was dealing with various excursions by foreign rulers as well as tensions from domestic front. The social upheavals that occurred during the wars of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb during the mid17th century, followed by incursions of raiding Marathas, must have forced the Gujarati printers to abandon their land and shift to Rajasthan. Therefore we can say that Gujarati and Rajasthani designs have so much of similarity in terms of colours and designs and yet they manage to sustain their individuality with the course of time. With new avenues and resources available the printers settled at various places in Rajasthan. Slowly and gradually each printing center developed its own unique style of printing.

There is also a story related to how printing actually started in Sanganer region of Rajasthan. The elders recite the tale of Sant Namdev.

Sant Namdev an otherwise popular saint of Maharashtra has been known to be a son of a textile printer in Maharashtra who gave the knowledge of dyeing and printing as he travelled towards north-west region of India. Other story relates that one night Sant NamDev had a dream about the processes of dyeing and printing, which he conveyed to his friends and relatives in the morning. In this way the process of dyeing and printing came into practice.

: The uniqueness of the printed cloth had pale background in light pink or cream, designed in delicate floral designs, which were outlined in black giving it a bold appearance. The patterns were further detailed through shades of red. Bed covers, quilts, bed spreads were designed in large floral patterns while the borders were in pure white colour and the scrolls made on this ground were either of hibiscus type or Palmyra types in an expanded form. The flowers were alternately of dark and light red. The end pieces of clothes like saris had pillars panelled and flowers in cusped arches.Traditional patterns and designs are still in existence in Rajasthan. Each center of Rajasthan has its own unique style of printing. We can clearly distinguish the centers of printing with their unique styles in terms of colours, techniques and designs.

Barmer: This region forms the desert circuit with three other regions namely Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. Amidst the arid desert land, Barmer brings out the most brilliant of printed cloths in bold patterns. The katar buti design is actually famous from the region. The technique followed in Barmer is Ajrakh done on both the sides of fabric. It is done on both the sides of the fabric in the usual blue and red colour combination. Balotra is another centre of Barmer region known for Ajrakh printing as well.

Jaisalmer: Here we can find the oldest designs and techniques. Wax resist printing is famous for Jaisalmer region which is done only in three to four months of winters and that too at night time. The cold weather cools off the hot wax immediately on the fabric. The cloth is then dyed which causes the resisted area to take lighter tone of the dyed colour. This technique creates effective tonal end result on the cloth.

Udaipur: It is home to famous Nathdwara Temple of Lord Krishna. The influence of Nathdwara painters is quite evident on the printers of Udaipur. Many of the distinctive designs have found Pichhwai to be the source of inspiration. Cloths in white or almond colour background were seen printed with sandalwood blocks which leave behind sweet fragrance after printing.

The cloth was decorated either with dark red colour or if dyed in lighter background it was decorated with bands of green colour and flowers on it with yellow colour. The printed clothes mostly included dupattas and odhanis.

Kota: This centre is known for its yet different style of printing. Dabu is applied on a white cloth which is then dyed in red or blue colour. Kota though is more famous for its unique woven fabric which has its name from the place itself; the kota fabric. Block printing is done on this fabric mostly in Indian red and indigo. Today the market is flooded with the fabrics of Kota. The products are mostly stoles, duppattas or odhanis and dress material.

Mendh Printing, Akola

Chittorgarh: This district has numerous small printing centers one such is called chhipo ka Akola. This center is famously known to print ghaghra for local village women. Also one of the largest printing communities of Rajasthan, the ghaghra printed is usually in dark blue indigo with a famous traditional mirchi buta design.

Jaipur: is one of the most popular printing centre. Being the capital of the state, this pink city portrays the entire culture of Rajasthan. Two famous printing centers of Jaipur region are Sanganer and Bagru. Both the places are known for distinct styles of printing.

“The Sanganer town of Jaipur State must, however, be regarded as the very metropolis of the calico-printing craft of India so far as art-conceptions and techniques are concerned” – Sir George Watt.

Sanganer is known for intricate and detailed floral design done in direct style of printing. While Bagru is known for dull coloured clothes designed in single buti design done in resist paste. Mostly earthy colours are used in this style of printing. Established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh printing succeeded after settlement of printers in Jaipur. Sanganer was already producing printed clothes but there is no evidence. Kaladera, another centre of printing near Jaipur prints pharad on bue background whereas Jairampura centre prints in red and black colour. Bassi near Jaipur was known for printings of bed sheets but today it also produces garments.

The center’s so mentioned became popular and sustainable for some reason. It is the available resources that make this printing industry viable in some centers only. For example, Dhund river of Sanganer and Nargaasar river of Barmer had special minerals in the water that produced brilliant colours. Being a desert state, Rajasthan weather influenced the use of bright and bold colours. Availability of raw materials also caused the development of printing in few centers only. Most of the raw material came from the tribals who travelled between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan for food and resources. They bartered the wax, gum and wood like material with essentials like food and grains.  Another very important reason for thriving of the industry is consumers. Most of the tribal population of Rajasthan wore printed textiles.

In eastern Rajasthan Meena, Jat and Gurjar men wore white sash and Meena women wore Mein pharad or Jammardi pharad. Today Meena and Jat women both wear the ghaghras of Mein ki pharad. Pipad, in western rajasthan produces textiles for village population of Mali and Bhishnoi community.

Significance of printing in Rajasthan

Textile printing had enjoyed the royal patronage in centers like Sanganer and Bagru. After the beneficial alliance between the then Raja of Amber, Raja Bharmal and the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562, the royal court adopted the Mughal style administrative system. 36 karkhana workshops were established of which two were rangkhana; that supervised the dyeing and chapakhana; that managed textile printing. The royal collections now available in Indian museums and private collections were collected through various ways. Some of them were gifts from the clients or subordinates while some were a part of military-political alliance. The finest example of this type is what is called ‘khilat’ or the robe of honour.

Craftsmen worked for the three types of patrons; nobility, courtiers and temple devotees and everyday clients or commoners. The depiction of exotic flowers in a most exquisite manner was the emphasis on courtly cloth while the everyday client’s cloth was adorned with flora, fauna of local habitat. The temple textiles included red coloured duppatta’s that were offered to the diety along with the sweets. These gifts to the diety were then offered by the priests to the prominent devotees. As an act of veneration craftsmen printed naamwali textiles. The artisans would chant ‘pancha namaskara chants’ while stamping the cloth in a unison.

The court patronage provided with all the facilities to the artisans. These artisan printed clothes as per the royal demand only. The independent printers were not supported by the royal courts and they were not facilitated by the perks which were otherwise available to printers associated with the court.

Rajasthan till date is the most extensive printing center in India. The charm of the bright colours still finds place in the hearts of people of Rajasthan, compensating for the otherwise dull terrain. Printing happens in almost all the places in Rajasthan. Though many centers are now obsolete due to lack of demand and availability of resources but some centers like Sanganer have flourished beyond the boundaries of India. The printing styles so unique to their places are known by the place only. ‘Sanganeri’ is one such example. Other styles are ‘Daabu’- the mud resist printing, ‘mendh’- the wax resist printing, ‘Ajrakh’- a complicated yet beautiful printing style.

Hand bock printing industry faced a blow with the introduction of mechanized systems of printing. Screen printing overtook hand block printing at most of the printing centres. The speedy new method in combination with modern pigment inks enabled large scale factories to produce enormous quantities of inexpensive patterned cloth. This had a three way damage of the industry. Consumers shifted to less expensive products, printers were gaining more profit through cheap raw materials yet marginal profits even in cheaper good they sell and decline of the age old traditional skill. The demand increased with the increase in production.

In recent years there have been issues of increasing environmental concerns. The trade of artificial dyes started in around 1980’s in Sanganer region. There was also an introduction of pigment and binder systems for screen printers. The 1990’s witnessed the introduction of discharge printing methods and newer forms of pigment systems including revolutionary new Procion colours which were highly reactive and specially made for screen printing. This easily availability of cheap raw material triggered the printing activities and therefore increased the levels of pollution in the rivers.

Hand block printing is dependant on clean water supply. Pollution in water causes the changein mineral water content and it effects the dye uptake on clothes. There has been no awareness about environmental concerns and the situation is getting worst every time.

In the census done in 2009 it was established that screen printing units outnumbered the hand block printing units. There were 350 block printing units in comparison to 423 screen printing units.

There has been an effort by the government and private organizations to change the disappointing scenario. In 2003 All India Artisans and Craft Workers Association (AIACA), a membership group of craft NGO’s established a Craftmark to educate the consumers and establish the local craftsmen in the global market. This branding has helped the printer community in improving their sales enormously.

United Kingdom’s fair trade organization, Traidcraft, in partnership with AIACA, is working on the ‘Switch Asia Project- Promoting Sustainable Consumption and Production’. The project is exploring environmental concerns as well as issues like ethical work standards, labour laws, health and safety standards etc.

The future of the industry therefore stands in the hands of block printers community and the efforts of private and government organizations in creating a sustainable environment for hand block printing industry.

This review paper was a part of the Ph.D course work written under the supervision of Dr. Simmi Bhagat, Associate Professor in Department of Fabric and Apparel Science, Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi.


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