India has been renowned for its printed textiles since millennia. Accounts of travelers, writers and poets have extolled the brilliance of its colors and patterns and its value as a trade good traversing the Silk Road and maritime routes to markets across the world. This continues to be true as the array and variety of hand printed textiles continues to be quite literally mind-boggling. The multiplicity of traditions and techniques and profusion of design vocabularies and forms has but one thing in common – the wood carved block used to imprint the pattern. This even in these technologically evolving times continues to be the very bedrock of the craft of hand-block printed textiles
The skilled carvers of these blocks are usually located in geographic proximity to the printer community; this close-knit synergy of mutual dependencies has long linked both professions. Yet when tasked with a complex print assignment requiring just that extra detail and finish the printers seek out the perfect block, for this they need to make the long trek to a small quiet overgrown village in the heart of Gujarat – Pethapur.
The mastery in Pethapur is a well-kept secret in the textile world. Its exceptionality also lying in the fact that there is no local printing activity conducted here. This was not always the case and we are fortunate that unlike other oral traditions the 1961 Census tracks the history of change and metamorphosis over the past century. According to the Census, Pethapur’s rise to fame can be credited to one Tribhovan Khushal. In the early 1800’s this enterprising block maker and printer designed a print that found great favor in Siam (now Thailand). Further experiments inspired by the British chintz patterns also proved to be a rage in the export market. However a downturn in his fortune led Kushal to concentrate on only making and supplying blocks to other centres. Gradually Pethapur was overshadowed as a printing center although the blocks continue to be made and sourced from there. In the 1960’s this trend continued and the craft was controlled by the Gujjar Suthar community of carpenters who constituted the majority of the 122 households employed in the workshops. Pethapur had by sheer excellence of its handwork transformed itself to achieve the status of a craft village dedicated to a singular tradition – a bespoke block supplier of high excellence to printers across India.
The Pethapur of today is a sleepy place where little seems to stir. No addresses are needed as residents know exactly where visitors are to be directed. The craft is now practiced in about 8 to 9 workshops that have an average of 4 to 5 craftsmen employed in each. Of the Gujjar-Suthar community – Ghanshyam Bhai Popatlal and Chetan Bhai continue their hereditary profession, the legendary National Award winner Maneklal Gajjar having passed away in 2010 leaving no professional heirs. The craft is now dominated by members of the Prajapati community – Govindlal Prajapati (now in semi-retirement), Mukeshbhai and others who provide continuity and mastery.
While it takes years to develop a mastery over carving, the block-makers learning needs to extend across a wide breadth of other subjects too: An understanding of wood ensures a long-lasting, hard-wearing block; the knowledge of print technologies is needed to render a sharp, precise and level imprint. Familiarity with dye chemistry and dye absorption helps to create clean prints without blotches or drips. Additionally, expertise over the principals of geometry is essential to carve fields and outlines that are flawless matched giving a precision fit to the intricate details and multiple color combinations of the block.
The number of blocks required can range from one to more than fourteen depending on the pattern and the number of colors and detail fillers. A basic set however consist of the main outline block – rekh; the filler detail pattern blocks – gadh and the datta that forms the solid color backdrop to the pattern. A set can take anywhere between 2 to 8 days to make with blocks ranging in size from a small of 1” to 16”’s though the average size is usually 4 to 6” across.
The craftsman starts by choosing the wood. In Pethapur only seasoned Sagwan – teak will do as it works best for printing being both long-wearing and with a low dye absorption rate. After shaping and smoothening the wood a white chalk base is applied on the carving surface onto which the design is traced for increased visibility. The craftsman starts with carving the rekh before moving on to the subsidiary blocks. Carving the deep recesses with a fiddle-drill they use an array of chisels and files for the finer high relief shaping.
These expert craftsmen carve with such exactness that their fine lines, often just a millimeter thin can be set in close proximity to each other. A small slip, a wrongly angled stroke is all that lies between a perfect block and irreparable damage. Their knowledge of geometry ensures that the datta and gadh block fit precisely into the rekh with no runoff or overlap. An equally skilled task is to guarantee that the ends of the block are carved in a manner that links it to the next block without even a hairbreadth gap. Finally they drill air passages into the body of the blocks to aid air circulation during printing ensuring that the fabric does not adhere to the block when lifted. The craftsmen maintain a master copy of each block carved, an invaluable design directory and reference for themselves and their clients.
Despite such continuities the Pethapur story is one of precipitous decline. With a high speed highway connecting it to Ahmedabad and the state capital – Gandhinagar now abutting this hamlet, property agents roam the streets tempting block-makers with huge sums for their land. Rapid change is in the air and perhaps the time has come for these living repositories of knowledge and technique to become teachers –gurus to the next generation of block-carvers. Making their learning accessible to other centres, improving skills, raising standards and teaching those who wish to join their trade.
First published in the Sunday Herald.