Though the origins of block carving are lost in the folds of history, we have examples of block printed fabric dating back to 2000 B.C. Evidence has been found that the art of dyeing fabrics was practiced in the Indus Valley Civilisation. According to the 1961 Census conducted by the Government of India, the craft was developed and specialised by the Suthar artisans who were traditionally carpenters. The document also mentions that the craft might have been adopted from Iran at the time of the Mughals and concentrated in Shikarpur in Sindh from where it spread to Gujarat. This is in keeping with the theory that the skill of block printed fabrics travelled from Sindh to the modern Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Western Madhya Pradesh.
The block makers of Pethapur believe that many centuries ago, women got tired of their white unembellished clothes and began using their bangles dipped in colour to pattern their garments. The carpenters noticed and decided to provide the women with various designs and so gave rise to the tradition of hand block printing on textiles.
Most of the craftsmen engaged in this work belonged to the Gajjar Suthar caste who believe that their ancestors settled in Pethapur some 200 years ago. The caste believes it is the progeny of Vishvakarma, the architect of the gods1.
Like the hand block printers, block making is an endangered craft. These talented craftsmen, similar to so many other craftspersons in India, face the problem of situating themselves within the contemporary market economy, in attempting to create and develop products which might curb the widening divide between greater supply and diminishing demand.
The block makers had a few prominent clusters in Pilakhuwa, Farukhabad and Ahmedabad which supplied the printers of the country. It is from Ahmedabad that the block carvers migrated to Pethapur, which today is the only remaining centre in the country solely making wooden blocks. It supplies to all the hand block printing communities from Sanganer (Rajasthan) to Bagh (Madhya Pradesh). In other centres, Pilakhuwa for instance, the block makers have applied their carving techniques to making wooden tables, boxes, photo frames, pen holders etc to broaden their market and continue their trade.
Pethapur, situated 40 kilometres from Ahmedabad, is the only surviving centre of wood block carving. Blocks are ordered and sold directly between the printer and carver with no middlemen or agents. Either the block maker travels to the printing centre with his directory of designs on which orders are taken or the printer goes to the carver, either ordering from the block makers design repertoire or giving his own design layout.
1 Census of India 1961:7.
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