travelBLOGueThis is an experience in Pethapur, a town 40 km outside of Ahmedabad, where a handful of artisans continue the 200-year old craft of block making.
A Deep ImpressionBy Anjali Desai
Nearly 200 years ago, Pethapur (about 40 km from Ahmedabad) was the heart of the block making trade, where master artisans transformed teak wood into exquisite masterpieces. An entire community of masons transposed into wood-carving artisans to supply the blocks needed for printing Saudagiri fabrics, which were once all the rage in the province of Siam (present-day Thailand). The flourishing trade engaged hundreds of craftsmen who carved the wood with deft, inconceivable precision required by Saudagiri designs.
Saudagiri takes its name from the Persian word ‘sauda’, which means to trade. The name ties into the story of the Saudagiri fabrics, which were produced in large volumes solely for export to Siam in the 19th c. The designs were sent from Thailand on pieces of paper, which were then tweaked, illustrated and carved by the block makers of Pethapur. Saudagiri was characterized by miniscule floral patterns in geometric arrangement framed by beautiful borders embellished with the tumpal or flaming leaf motif borrowed from the temples of Thailand. These designs were a fusion of Thai and Indo-Islamic aesthetics. The Saudagiri trade thrived until the arrival of the Second World War when Japan sealed off the land route and trade by sea grew dangerous.
When Saudagiri died, the trade of Pethapur also suffered. Today a handful of block makers in this quaint town continue to practice the craft form, supplying to printers across Western Gujarat for various styles of block printing, such as Ajrakh in the photo above. In the home of Dayabhai Prajapati one can still witness the orchestra of sandstone polishing teak and chisels chipping away meticulously to create elegant impressions. Dayabhai’s son is one of few from the new generation who continues the family trade; most have chosen alternative livelihoods that provide better compensation. It is interesting to note that the demand for block printing has actually increased even as the number of block makers quickly dwindles.
Dayabhai and his son graciously shared the story of their trade, pulling out blocks (old and new) and pattern books (some nearly antique) with vibrant hand-illustrated designs of various styles of block printing. They explained and demonstrated the process of converting teak wood into a finished block and then escorted us to the home of Maneklal Gajjar, a living legend amongst artisans. Partial blindness in both eyes forced Manek Kaka, now in his mid-eighties, to retire his passion. However, his spirit and love for the craft shaved away the years as he grew animated with stories of his hey-day. He ran workshops to teach young people the craft and travelled to Belgium to showcase and teach his art. The deep contrast between Pethapur and Belgium rose in my mind for a quick second, but was washed away when Manek Kaka suggested we head to his workshop, upstairs.
The climb up a flight of steep steps led to a room covered in dust and silent memories. Articles, awards and impression of his blocks hung on the walls. In one corner, shelves and a few crates filled with old blocks sat quietly while his tools waited patiently in an opposite bend. Everything was layered under time. Dayabhai assisted his friend by pulling out visitor books for us to leaf through and a beautiful calendar printed on silk, for which Manek Kaka was commissioned to create the blocks. He also pointed out a vibrant impression of Mumbai, with depictions of its renowned buildings. It was a creation for which he was felicitated. The friendship and camaraderie between the two men, with only a decade between them, was also endearing to watch.
As this craft tradition slowly fades away just as Saudagiri once did, or perhaps takes a new path under the guidance of the next generation, it was a remarkable blessing to spend time with Dayabhai and Manek Kaka, rich with experiences, anecdotes and links of a bygone era.
Carving a Block
A block of teak is first smoothened and polished with sandstone, water and a file. Teak is the wood of choice since it is strong, seasoned and wateproof. The block is then painted white to make the design more visible to the artisan. The design is first hand-illustrated, then transferred onto tracing paper. From here it is engraved on the wooden block by using a small pin that is pierced through the design and onto the wood. Following the pin-holed design, the wood is carved with the help of a hand drill and a range of chisels with painstaking perfection. A single mistake would render the block useless. The blocks range in size from a few centimeters to several inches and require anywhere from one day to one week to complete. For a single motif, several blocks are prepared, based on the number of colors to be used. Three different styles of blocks exist, one for the outline, one for the background, and several for filling in the various colors of the motifs. These blocks have to fall on one another flawlessly to complete the pattern.
The blocks of Maneklal Gajjar are on display at the Calico Museum, Sarabhai Foundation, Shahibaug, Ahmedabad and the City Museum, Sanskar Kendra, Ahmedabad.
Posted on: Aug 04, 2011