Delicate floral patterns in soothing hues block-printed on fabric with precision and finesse. This is what makes Sanganeri textiles so famous all over the world. Did you know that these textiles were once so popular that they are said to have been a major export of the British East India Company?
Even today, the small town of Sanganer, close to the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, is a hub of block-printed textiles, continuing this tradition for more than 200 years.
Their popularity can be gauged from the fact that they stand out in a land known for its art forms and crafts traditions, whether paintings like Phad and Pichhwai, or terracotta crafts or Blue Pottery, the storytelling forms of Kathputli and Kavad, or even other textile traditions such as Leheriya and Bandhani.
The practice of block-printing in India goes back to the ancient period. The Ajrakh of Sindh or Kutch traces its history to the Harappan civilization, which flourished 4,000 years ago. But block-printing in Sanganer is said to have originated in the 16th-17th century CE. Sanganer is situated around 13 km from Jaipur. Take a stroll in the town and you will still see dyed fabrics hung out to dry in some lanes and corners of the town.
Besides its famous textiles, Sanganer is also known for its handmade paper industry and Jain temples. It is said that a river, which once passed through the region, had helped the town develop as a major centre of dyeing and printing as water from the river could be used for these processes.
It is also believed that water from the river added a special radiance to these dyed fabrics. The availability of soft water and clay suitable for the process of bleaching fabrics under the sun were other factors that might have led to the flourishing of the block-printing industry here. Besides Sanganer, Bagru, also near Jaipur, is another famous centre of block-printing.
Origin of Block-Printing in Sanganer
The tradition of block-printing in the region is said to have flourished during the 18th century CE under the patronage of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who founded the new capital of the Kachhwaha clan, Jaipur, in 1727 CE, and named it after himself. A patron of the arts and architecture, Jai Singh wanted to develop Jaipur as a thriving centre of trade and commerce. He is said to have invited artisans and craftsmen from all across India to set up shop in the city, and many of the crafts that survive to this day owe their history to this time.
It was the same with Sanganeri textiles, which are said to have received great patronage under Jai Singh. It is said that the block-printing artisans from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh were invited to Sanganer, and some still trace their ancestry to cotton-printers of Gujarati descent.
Some scholars also suggest that during social and political upheavals in the 17th-18th century CE, people from what is modern-day Gujarat and Maharashtra migrated to Rajasthan and other parts of Northern India, which were comparatively safer. Their arts and crafts contributed to the already wonderful mix the region was now identified with.
The artisans who practice block-printing in Sanganer belong to the Chhipa community. The dyers are called rangrez and the washers dhobis. The Chhipas are predominantly Hindu and are believed to be followers of a mystic, Saint Namdev.
How It’s Done
The process of making a block-printed fabric involves various steps. First, the fabric that is to be printed, which is usually cotton, is treated with a solution of bleach. It is boiled and then washed. It is then left to dry. Traditionally, white was the most common background colour for printing but today many colours are used as the base for printing.
For this, the fabrics are dyed. Earlier, only natural dyes were used and, even today, artisans use sources like iron rust for black and red alum for red. Red, black and brown used to be the most common colours for Sanganeri block-printing. Today, chemical dyes are also used.
Once the fabric is dyed, it is pinned to a long table for printing or chhapai. Carved, wooden blocks are used for printing designs on the fabric. An artisan uses a tray, which has the colour prepared from dyes. He first places the block on this tray to colour it and then stamps the block on the fabric. Sometimes, to complete one design, a variety of blocks is used as each contains a different element of a single pattern.
For example, in a floral design, the petals might be carved on one block, the stem on another, and together they complete the flower motif. The number of colours used in the design also determines the number of blocks that will be used.
Two techniques of printing – Calico Printing and Do Rookhi (Two-Sided) – are widely used at Sanganer.
The Calico style involves printing the outline first, which is followed by filling in the colour. In Do Rookhi, printing is done on both sides of the fabric.
Once the fabric is printed, it is either treated with chemical solutions or left out to dry to retain and reveal the colour, depending on the dyes and pigments used. The dried fabric is then washed and dried and is ready to be used for stitching.
Floral and natural patterns dominate the motifs used in Sanganeri textiles. In fact, they have become a signature element of these beautiful fabrics. These motifs are called butas or butis. A wide range of traditional paisleys, flowers and leaves and birds is used. These motifs are said to have been inspired by Mughal designs, as the court of Jaipur enjoyed a close connection with the Mughals.
Author Rosemary Crill, in her book Arts of India 1550-1900 (1990) writes that Sanganeri printed textiles were used for robes and turbans of the royal families, as well as for the linings of brocade coats and armour. She also writes that these textiles were occasionally overprinted with gold, to add extra glamour.
With modern design needs, geometrical patterns and abstract motifs have also found their way into the Sanganeri textiles. The textiles are used to create a wide range of apparel, from home linen, to tapestry and a lot more.
The Sanganeri block-printing received the Geographical Indication tag in 2010. While Sanganeri prints have global appeal, they have their share of challenges. In order to make a quick buck, many artisans have moved to screen printing, instead of traditional hand block-printing. Natural dyes while still in use, find fewer and fewer artisans using it as acquiring natural dyes is tedious. With the efforts of e-commerce platforms such as Peepul Tree, the art form of Sanganer is reaching a large domestic as well as global market. You can shop for beautiful block-printed Sanganeri bedsheets at Peepul Tree, sourced directly from Sanganer in Rajasthan.
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