A chorus of loud, rhythmic thumps fills the air of Suraj Narayan Titanwala’s block-printing workshop in Bagru, a town 19 miles outside Jaipur in northern India. Inside the small room, lengths of white cloth stretch over long wooden tables, and the air is tinged with the sour smell of natural ink made from fermented plants. Workers dip carved wooden blocks into trays of ink. With a swift smack of a hand, a block leaves a dark print on the cloth. The methodical process, repeated over and over, creates a polyphony of drumlike pounding.
In a corner of the workshop, Titanwala, 52, oversees the stamping process. A master printer, Titanwala was just 11 when he learned the craft of block printing from his father. Today, his 29-year-old son, Deepak, helps run the family business. The family has been block printing for seven generations in or near Jaipur, which became a hub for block-print artisans under royal patronage in the 18th century.
The paisley and floral-patterned textiles once used in garments adorning the shoulders of the Indian rajas are now seen on everything from West Elm couches to runway collections by such fashion brands as Maiyet. Before the textiles reach store shelves, Titanwala’s team of 20 artisans undertakes the meticulous procedures of pattern- and dye-making as well as printing, washing, and dyeing. Carvers trace designs onto teak or rosewood blocks using paper patterns and white pencil, then chip out a relief, or tehk, of the pattern using bow drills, hammers, and chisels. An intricate floral design can take up to a month to carve, and one pattern on a print may require anywhere from three to 16 different blocks.
Titanwala is one of the last block printers to use guwar dabu, a technique that can yield deeper shades such as indigo and dark green because it involves multiple rounds of dyeing. Titanwala daubs a special mud mixture onto parts of the cloth to preserve the original color and design while the surrounding cloth is dyed darker. Printers typically spend at least five years mastering the painstaking process; it takes 45 days to print 16 feet of cloth. Simpler methods take only eight days. Today, guwar dabu textiles are coveted by collectors and showcased in the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur, the only museum in India—and perhaps the world—devoted to artisan block printing.
Titanwala’s craft faces many threats: cheaper, less labor-intensive screen- and machine-printing processes that turn out perfectly replicated patterns; higher-paying jobs that lure young people to big cities and away from traditional workshops; and shortages of clean water critical for dyeing and washing cloth. But Titanwala knows that the quality of his artisans’ work still stands out. “Even in a crowd of a thousand people, I can tell what we have made,” he says. “I am proud to see people wearing our prints.”
Photographs by Chiara Goia. This appeared in the March/April 2013 issue.