You may not realize how crooked your perspective is until you try your hand at block printing. Steady hands and precision are challenging when holding a wooden block dipped in vibrant dye, over a pristine white stretch of fabric. I am standing alongside a group of craftsmen, part of generations of hand block printing artists who work in Sanganer, a town outside Jaipur in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Gentle, quick, and precise, they are creating pieces that will find their way into popular clothing stores across India and abroad. An unremarkable looking place, Sanganer’s dusty streets are indistinguishable from small towns around the country. But its distinctiveness lies in being the hub for blue pottery, hand block printing, and recycled and handmade paper. Here visitors get a glimpse into the engrossing journey of these products as they make their way from ‘hand to home’ and the challenges of keeping these industries alive.
That’s Why They Call It the Blues
A sea of blue, interspersed with some yellows and greens, glimmers in the shop windows. Decorative objects, painted with swirly floral motifs, geometric patterns, and mythological figures. Though there is robust demand for this handmade pottery in glossy cobalt blue – using no clay but a mixture of quartz stone, Fuller’s Earth, powdered glass, gum, and water – the industry is potentially in danger of dying out with meager incomes and dwindling interest by the next generation of artisans in Sanganer. “It’s a long process. Now there are fewer people interested in getting into this work.” says one of the craftsmen, skillfully painting a swirl of flowers onto a tray. “Demand is good, but this work doesn’t pay much. Our children are unmotivated to work here. There are some government training institutes, but only about five to six blue pottery factories remain, from around 30 over a decade ago,” he elaborates.
The process takes 15 to 20 days, starting with the raw material being crushed using a mortar and pestle. After kneading this into flattened patties and putting them into moulds, the ‘dough’ is dried. Cleaning, shaping, and polishing follows, after which the outline of the design gets painted and coloured in with different metal oxides, and finished with a final glaze. Fired in ovens at over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, around 50 percent of the items break. Those that make it into the stores shine forth with an irresistible allure.
Block Beauty of Sanganer
The hand block printing artisans, on the other hand, seem more optimistic about their industry in Sanganer. “Unlike in blue pottery, where it is a dusty and harder environment, there are more artisans interested in hand block printing.” says a craftsman. One can visit the large workshops where wooden blocks etched with floral motifs, like sunflowers and roses, fruit, folk scenes and deities are deftly stamped onto large swathes of fabric. Over 500 years old, this style of printing reportedly originated between the 16th and 17th centuries when the continuous wars between the Mughals and Marathas made several craftsmen shift to Rajasthan from Gujarat. They settled in Sanganer, with ample space and a river, with a community of cloth dyers and bleachers in proximity.
Initially, only a few natural colours were used, like black derived from soaking iron, horseshoes, and jaggery in an earthenware vessel. But chemical dyes brought in a larger variety. However, with consumer consciousness and a growing demand for natural and organic products, artists and organizations are working with the artisans to use extractions from vegetables, fruits, and herbs. There is a greater variety in design as well, not just Indian apparel, but Western wear and home décor.
Paper, Paper Everywhere
A mind-boggling variety of paper is produced here, much of it from different kinds of waste. Handmade paper making in India reportedly originated with Turkish papermakers in the 1450s making parchments for the Mughal court. They developed into a guild, membership restricted by birth into the clan, adopting the last name of ‘Kagzi’. With abundant water and space, prerequisites for paper making, Sanganer attracted the Kagzis, now one of the only surviving settlements of this community. At the factory there is still an emphasis on the human touch. Machines may help in processes like pulping, but from threading diaries to producing different effects, the process is manual. The products come in interesting textures and finishes. There are floral schemes using dried flowers, leathery ‘crocodile paper’, sheets made with the sugarcane or vineyard waste and even scrap denim. Much of it is exported around the world, but there is enough of an array to choose from here with diaries, gift boxes, wine bags and wrapping paper.
No two pieces are alike in these slow and handcrafted processes. With a growing appreciation and better understanding of the meticulous work and skill that goes into making artisanal products, there is hope that these craftspeople will be able to continue their work for generations to come.
Text by Reem Khokhar, a Delhi-based writer. She is a musical theatre buff, belting out show tunes enthusiastically in the audience. She enjoys homestays, walking around, copious amounts of gelato, and collecting Christmas tree ornaments as souvenirs from her travels.