A History of Blockprinting in India

Read Below for an excerpt from a Scholarly essay written by Kushagr


It is important to note, now, that for nearly 1700 years from 1 CE, India constituted approximately 30-40% of the world economy- with a rich trade-history borne of Spices and Textiles- its main exports. It is also important to note that the ending of this glorious period coincided with the very first rumblings of the industrial revolution.

It is no coincidence that the sudden drop in Ancient India’s GDP coincided with the 18th and 19th Century, especially as demand for Indian textiles faded.
Now, it is clear why Spices were brought in to Europe and The Middle East- India’s leading trade partners, their environment was not conducive to the growth of crops such as pepper or cumin or saffron but why were textiles imported from such far-off nations as India, as early on as 45CE. This was no mere luck of Geography but a direct result of Indian ingenuity.

According to Susan Bosence, Block Printing, at its basest level, is the pressing of colouring matter or indented pattern onto cloth, clay or plaster.

Evidence of Indian textile technologies have been found as early as in the Harappan Civilisation; albeit not referencing block printing directly, they did show the explicit use of mordant (which will be discussed later on), which is a crucial part of contemporary block printing. Though there is no agreed-upon origin of block printing in India, there are speculations about Indian textiles having found their way into the early societies of Mesopotamia, Siam, Egypt, Rome and China by as early as 3000 BCE.


However, there is concrete evidence that Indian Textiles were part of the world economy by the First Century CE, carried by land into China, Africa and the Mediterranean, via land routes like the Silk Road and Spice route or maritime trade out of ancient ports on the western and southwestern coasts. Moreover, significant transportation advancements by both Indian and Arab Seamen drove trade further.

Fragments of Gujarati blockprints dating back to the First Millenium CE have been excavated, preserved by the hot sands of Fustat, Egypt, documenting an ancient trade.


Fragments of a blockprint excavated in Fustat, Egypt; originating in Gujarat. c. 10th Century CE. Courtesy: The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


However, the question as to why Indian textiles were so coveted is yet to be answered.

The value in Indian textiles lay in the multi-coloured patterns that craftsmen achieved and in their permanency of colour, no other civilisation, whether it be middle eastern, Asian, European or African had been able to make colours stay on fabric, something Indians achieved by using mordants- chemical agents that made fabric fibres receptive to dye.
And this knowledge helped the ancient economy survive... until the 18th Century, where advances in chemical dyes, In Europe, rendered the labour-intensive processes in India obsolete and relatively expensive due to the slow manufacturing process and the long journey to foreign shores.

label f synthetic indigo dye from a german manufature. 1865.
Label for synthetic Indigo Dye manufactured by a German Company founded in 1865. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

This coupled with the British Raj’s view that cloth should be sold to Indians for profit- flipping the cycle so that Indians would now wear imported cloth which would double the size of the looms of Manchester- effectively doomed the craft.
After independence in 1947, India arose as a nascent power in the new world order and its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru embraced westernism, convinced that science and technology would drive the nation forward, and crafts, as a result, firmly took a back seat.

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