India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century and the creative processes flourished as the fabric received royal patronage. Surat in Gujarat became a prominent center for trade of painted and printed textiles. The art of hand block printing was passed from generation to generation and employed use of natural colors. Today, this art has again received revival and has spread to the new centers like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.
Hand block printing is practised in India mainly for Sarees and dress materials. It is still a popular way of printing in Gujarat and Rajasthan on account of the fine and intricate designs in use in those regions. Block printing craftsmen use wooden or metal blocks to create beautiful designs; sometimes, linoleum blocks are also used. Ahmedabad, Sanganer, Bagru, Farukhabad and Pethapur, are the main centers of hand block printing in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The Bagru and Sanganeri prints are not easily distinguishable but on a closer observation the difference between the two are revealed. The Sanganer prints are always on a white background, whereas the Bagru prints are essentially in red and black. Artistry and intricacy characterize the designs of Farukhabad. Other notable centers are Pethapur near Ahmedabad and Banaras. Banaras block prints which makers design their blocks to suit fine silk printing - sometimes each design has seven colors.
Block designs get bigger and bolder and the delicacy is lost as one moves towards the south or towards Calcutta. Today, Andhra Pradesh is a large center for hand block printing. Lepakshi prints of Hyderabad are very popular. Ajarakh prints, primarily intended for garments for men, originated in Gujarat is popular even today.
In Gujarat, this form of hand printing has been practiced and perpetuated by the Paithapur families. They make intricate blocks, and print their textiles using the mud resist-printing method. These prints are called Sodagiri (trader) prints.
Dhamadka village in Gujarat is known for a block printed fabric called Ajrakh. The popular designs of block printing in this village are geometric. The artisans use natural colors such as red from the madder root, black from a rusty iron solution and blue from indigo.
In Kutch, the popular patterns are black and red designs of birds, animals, and dancing girls. The sarees of Ahmedabad and Baroda have large mango patterns against a red or blue background.
The other well known centers for block printing in Gujarat are Bhavnagar, Vasna, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Jetpur and Porbandar.
From Gujarat, the art of block printing spread to Rajasthan. Here colorful prints of birds, animals, human figures, gods and goddesses are popular. The important centers for this form of hand printing are Jaipur, Bangru, Sanganer, Pali and Barmer.
Sanganer is famous for its Calico printed bed covers, quilts and saris. In Calico printing, the outlines are first printed, and then the color is filled in. Bold patterns and colors are popular. They are printed repeatedly in diagonal rows. Doo Rookhi printing is also famous here. In this technique, artists print on both sides of the cloth.
Bagru is famous for its Syahi-Begar prints and Dabu prints. The former are designs in a combination of black and yellow ochre or cream. The latter are prints in which portions are hidden from the dye by applying a resist paste.
Barmer is known for its prints of red chilies with blue-black outlines, surrounded by flower-laden trees. The other famous prints are of horses, camels, peacocks and lions, called Sikar and Shekahawat prints.
The block printing from Punjab is not as famous as its Rajasthani counterpart, but is still merit worthy. It was the art of a group of textile workers called Chhimba . The designs were usually floral and geometrical. Today, traditional designs have been displaced, and vegetable dyes have been replaced by chemical ones. The colors are light and pastel. The motifs are usually mangoes, peacocks and nets.
The art of block printing is not traditional to West Bengal, and was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, Bengal's block printing artists have built on the traditional designs and created several of their own. In West Bengal, Serampur is the center of block printing. It is well-known for its bold and vibrant patterns.
In Andhra Pradesh, the block printing method is applied in the creation of the exquisite Kalamkari Painting. Kalamkari, as the name suggests, is artwork (kari) created with a pen (kalam). It is a combination of hand painting and block printing. The two major centers of Kalamkari art are Sri Kalahasti and Masulipatnam.
The Masulipatnam designs are Iranian in character; the most popular motifs are Persian motifs like trees, creepers, flowers and leaf designs. In Masulipatnam, Kalamkari work is mainly done on bed covers, curtains and garments, using a combination of wooden block printing and hand painting.
In Sri Kalahasti Kalamkari work, temples are a major source of inspiration. It was because of the demand for scrolls and wall hangings with Hindu mythological stories that Kalamkari flourished in this village. These themes are painted in the panels, and there is a script painted along the border. The popular motifs are Hindu gods and goddesses . The work is done entirely with a brush-like pen.
Block printing is popular because of the rich and vibrant colors. Originally natural dyes were used but today they have been replaced by chemical and artificial colors. The main colors used are red, yellow, blue, and saffron.