You may be surprised to hear that, block printing still faces various challenges to its very existence, despite block printed fabrics enjoying plenty of love on the international scene.
An ever increasingly competitive domestic marketplace and the wholesale uptake of environmentally damaging new practices has left block printing communities with somewhat reduced opportunities. Whilst allowing some market players to flourish it has also left others struggling, unwilling to pass on their skills to future generations, for want of opportunities.
Fierce competition has also seen the introduction of some troubling environmental issues. Traditional (natural) dyes were made from the rich selection of regional Rajasthani flowers, flowering trees and shrubs. These non polluting dyes were somewhat labour intensive and have therefore been replaced in favour of the wholesale adoption of quick setting, chemical dyes.
Widespread use of these chemical dyes within a water intensive process has contributed to the pollution of the already diminishing fresh water supply of the Thar desert region. This has only compounded the woes of the local communities.
These environmental issues are slowly being addressed and certain harmful dyes and bleaching agents have been banned. Community owned water treatment plants have also been constructed and further solutions are still being sought, although, only with the help of increased pressure from a global clientele demanding eco -friendly products will widespread solutions be reached.
Protecting the trades and livelihoods of the cottage industry printers from the vast forces of capitalism seems like an almost insurmountable task and it appears as though very little can or will be done. With the current government unlikely to return to a Royal patronage system that saw the craft through previous tough times.
The Indian government has introduced the “Geographical Indication” scheme which aims to distinguish the uniqueness of each area’s speciality prints. This also stops competitors passing off screen printed garments for authentic block printing. According to local filmmaker Akash Kamthan’s documentary, Dekha Andekhi – Kaal aur Kala this well intentioned scheme lacks co-ordination and has unfortunately failed to engage the block printing communities whilst managing to achieve very little since its inception.
There are signs of hope though, with a number of leading Indian clothing companies putting sustainable and ethical practices at the centre of their businesses. (Woop, woop). One, in particular, having championed the cause of the humble block printer and their art.
The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing has been introduced in an attempt to safeguard the heritage craft for future generations. This cultural hub was designed to “provide an in depth look into the complexity of this ancient tradition” one which allows the printers to see their work in a wider context and one that aims to “address(es) this fragile situation primarily through education.” :) This is a great step in the right direction and if you’re ever in Jaipur it’s well worth a visit. Watch out for their delightful publications too, if you’re looking for further reading. Picture courtesy of their website.
Another notable mention is Craftmark, an initiative, that’s been working hard to “develop sector-wide minimum standards and norms for labelling a product as a handicrafts product.”It also, “increases consumer awareness of distinct handicraft traditions and strengthens the supply chain from manufacturer to end consumer.” Not bad, eh!? Watch their short video here.
In a word, yes.
India’s artisan and craftwork cottage industries are very important because they run deep within the fabric of Indian society, offering trade, identity and livelihoods to millions. This is especially true of block printing and its communities. India simply wouldn’t be the vibrant, colourful place that exists today without the centuries of continual creation from its talented artisans.
The many challenges faced will only really be surmounted when the artisans, government and civil society work together to find solutions. If a conscientious, co-ordinated effort is made, India might just find a sustainable future for block printing and it’s communities. I am hopeful, at least.
Well, you read this far, you obviously care…
For starters, recognising the beauty of the craftsmanship and the unique qualities of genuine hand block printing for the labour of love that it really is. Your recognition of a craft that’s deeply rooted in the culture and the lives of the humble Rajasthani people really does help, because each purchase from the artisans goes a long way to making a real difference.
Shop sustainably, it’s the information age, you have the whole world at your fingertips and believe it or not, ignorance has now become a choice… so chose wisely my friend! Open your heart and your eyes the world and become aware of the consequences of your actions. If you’re getting cheap clothes, that usually means someone else (or the environment) is paying the price for them.
In fact just reading this post helps, because …. hey, at the end of the day, I’ve written it for you, hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading it, taken some of it on board and maybe even learnt a little something… I know I have. So there we go, thank you for that. A better understanding of the situation and an increased sensitivity to the areas in which you operate is never a bad thing, eh!?
So please, let me know how you feel about the situation, do you have any ideas on how to help the block printing communities? Do you have any further light to shed on the subject, any further areas of research you can point me towards? Do you just love handmade products? or are there any other topics you would like me to write about? Just give me shout in the box below and I’ll get back to you.