American poet novelist and social activist Marge Piercy says so while writer philosopher and Robert M Pirsig dedicates a whole book to it. The virtue of using your hands. A case for respecting physical labour has been made again again in the context of hyper mechanised time such as ours.
Deeper psychological motivations for creating and submitting ones senses to materials and manual processes aside, I am always one for using my hands. Provided it is not too complex, there is plenty of help at hand and nobody is judging the misadventures that usually result in trying some thing entirely new!
Motorcycle maintenance unfortunately does not qualify for me then. But with a little help from the experts, block printing my own piece of fabric should not be as hard? I had pre booked an appointment at the Anokhi Museum workshop days in advance. Imagine being able to engage with materials and processes of an age old craft in the sunlit environs of a 14th century Rajasthani haveli?. Quite naturally I was excited !
Only when in that sun dappled heaven two and a half meters of cotton mul fabric was stretched neatly onto a padded work table ahead of me did it strike. A familiar fear of blank white space ! It was going to be a long day of effort and learning an entirely new thing.
Luckily for me, the workshop has an unsmiling, but extremely competent and helpful master printer ready to assist me through the afternoon's work.
Muhammed Iqbal, the no-nonsense lord of the workshop calmly drew a tray of blocks and laid them on the table. '' You can choose a simple one or two-block pattern or make something more intricate with more colours," he suggested.
Having waited to try my hand at block printing for this long, I was under tremendous pressure to create a masterwork instantly. So no one colour and two block set for me as I reached for a full four block pattern. (Although I really wanted to see some of my favourite Anokhi blocks, the Poppy flower or Imperial peony designs, none of the two were available at that time) Rummaging through the pile, a little too assiduously in the hope of getting my nerves together, I arrived at a lotus Jaal pattern finally.
Iqbal, a skilled craftsman who has been in the trade since he was a tiny 8-years-old, walked me through the preliminaries, cutting down all drama instantly: what to print? How many blocks and how many colours?
Prep in place, began the arduous but utterly engrossing actual printing process.
The number of printing blocks needed in a design often depends on the number of colours desired. To begin with the background of the fabric is printed onto the fabric with the help of the Gudh or the background block. I chose a dull moss green colour for the same. The block needs to be dabbed on the dye tray in one deft motion, so that the right amount of pigment adheres to the pattern. The printer then aligns it on the fabric and discharges the dye from the block with a sharp tap on the back of the block. Care needs to be taken to match the design of the first block so that the design falls into place for the entire length . If this sounds simple, I must add it took me a good amount of concentration and effort to get it just about right.
Soon the workshop filled up with the sweet thump thump of blocks hitting the padded table. A kind of musical, set of thumps that transport one instantly into an absorbed, focused state. An hour into the deal - right upto the time a cup of tea materialised like a miracle, I had all but lost myself to the rhythmic, repetitive motions. The deep state of peace achieved actually had very little bearing on the number of mistakes I was inadvertently yet continuously making! Mercifully Iqbal generously and deftly kept correcting after me all the time making light of my mounting sense of inadequacy . " Wait till we finish," he kept saying and I very wisely decided to take his advice.
Once the Gudh is successfully executed, the Rekh or the outline block needs to be applied. This stage gives definition to the design and requires a lot of precision. I watched the demo attentively. But no amount of attention can make up for the lack of experience. In spite of my valiant efforts I continued to go horribly off the mark in a number of places.
Barely half way through my arms throbbing with the effort and outlines already a mess, I felt a tremendous respect for the people who actually do this for a living. For the commercial patterns can demand way more than just four blocks. Iqbal told me of something he had printed with ten blocks! Only before I could start ruing the decision to undertake just the four block design, he promised that the next two blocks were not going to be all that hard. And he was right!
The remaining two blocks Called Datta, are essentially those that fill in colour in the outlined design. I choose bright blue and red pigments. The design begins to emerge with each colour applied. The final, red coloured lotus petal blocks being the crowning glory of all exertions of the day !
The day done, I chose to feel exhilarated in spite of the tiredness. The plain white fabric had been transformed with colour and pattern. As for the imperfections and mess, I decided to love them all; after all if there is going to be just this afternoon of printing and just these two meters of cotton mul I will take back home. Until another such afternoon and another length of fabric that is!
Rajasthan has been an important centre of hand printing since the 12 century. Where at the workshop we get to work with carved wooden blocks, numerous techniques of hand printing and dyeing have been popular in areas in and around Jaipur. Traditionally the block prints of Jaipur and its surrounding villages were known not just for their quality of printing but also for their use of natural dyes. The advent of commercial screen printing in the early 1960's bought with it new chemical colouration processes', which block printers were fast to adapt to their own printing styles.
It is also possible to participate in a block carving workshop at the museum by appointment.
For details about the workshop, timings, booking etc visit the museum website here : Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing.