JAIPUR, INDIA — From the roof of the mansion comes the rhythmic sound of clinking metal. Mujeeb Ullakhan, a wood block carver, sits on the stone floor with a small hammer and delicate chisel. With each tap, he carves part of the outline of a flower into a block of teak.
Wood carving is one step in the Indian tradition of hand-block printing, which for centuries has adorned royal robes, religious cloths and flowing skirts. Mr. Ullakhan, 50, began learning the craft from his father when he was 8. His grandfather was also a wood block carver. It takes Mr. Ullakhan 10 days to carve a large and intricate floral block.
Image credit: MATTER
The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing, which opened in Jaipur in 2005 and touts itself as the only museum in India dedicated to the art of hand block printing, gives a rare peek at the work of Indian block print artisans like Mr. Ullakhan.
The small museum is housed in a restored 16th-century haveli, or traditional Indian mansion, near the historic Amber Fort in Jaipur. Exhibits spread over three floors display the intricate workmanship and painstaking process of different styles of hand block printing.
The museum was started by the founders of Anokhi, the popular Indian retailer of block printed clothes, to create a venue to learn about the history and techniques of the craft, rather than showcasing a collection of antique textiles. (Anokhi clothes are also sold in Britain, Japan, France, Mauritius and Spain through various distributors.)
“Until the museum opened there was no simple way for people to observe a block printer or carver at work — there was no easy access to information,” said Rachel Bracken-Singh, director of the museum and a designer at Anokhi.
Glass cases display textiles and garments, with an emphasis on the production process and technique. For instance, one case displays a row of vests to document the 14 steps in a complicated printing and dyeing technique similar to the one used in Ajrakh, in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
The museum opens with the history of the craft then progresses to displays about technique and contemporary clothing. A voluminous hippie caftan with bell sleeves and a sleek quilted jacket is one example of how designers revived and reinterpreted the tradition. Displays of tools like hammers, chisels, rasps and saws highlight the craftsmanship behind beautifying a simple piece of cloth.
The museum focuses on the work of several block printing communities and artisan partners in northern India and their distinctive techniques and styles. For example, block printing flourished in the town of Sanganer from the 18th century and royal patronage fueled domestic trade. Indian royalty wore the finest block-printed fabrics while ordinary citizens, mostly men, wore simpler designs.
In the village of Bagru, patterns traditionally denoted marital status and caste. For example, gardeners wore cloth patterned with flowers, widows could not wear a dagger pattern and middle-aged women wore marigold patterns.
In spite of the legacy of block printing in India, demand diminished in the early 20th century with the advent of cheaper, machine-made fabrics and chemical dyes instead of vegetables dyes. By the 1950s, even the market for Sanganer hand block printed fabric had sharply declined.
The tradition, however, was revived in the late 1960s when Western designers arrived in India as part of the “hippie trail” and began using hand-block print textiles to make modern, fashionable clothing for export.
Until exporters entered the market there was little innovation in production, design or color. But new tastes and a viable market helped jump start creativity. “In some ways the only way to keep the tradition alive is to contemporize it,” Ms. Bracken-Singh said.
Anokhi’s own relationship with Sanganer spans more than four decades. The company began sourcing textiles from the community when it established itself in Jaipur in 1970. Faith and John Singh, a husband-wife team, founded Anokhi initially for export to London shops (she is British and he is Indian). But about a decade ago Anokhi began to focus on its home market. Since 2004 India has been Anokhi’s largest market as incomes rise and taste for stylish block-printed fabrics develops. Prices for hand-block print clothes range from 700 rupees, or about $15, for a cotton shirt to 2,500 rupees for a caftan.
Although new orders helped revive hand-block printing, craftspeople still struggled. In 1981 Sanganer was ravaged by floods and artisans’ tools and workshops were swept away. Many in the village turned to the less labor-intensive process of screen printing.
The Anokhi museum aims to preserve the craft; it is also a monument of preservation in itself. When the Singh family bought the haveli on a whim in 1989, the building was in ruins. Restoration using traditional techniques was finished in 1995, though the concept of a museum would come several years later. With its apricot-colored walls and carved windows, the haveli is remarkable; it received a Unesco award for building preservation in 2000.
It took two years to design and build the museum, with funds from Anokhi. The French architect Stephane Paumier was hired to design the museum’s interiors and display cases.
By creating such a venue, Anokhi Museum hopes to both cherish and energize traditional block printing, said Ms. Bracken-Singh. “The craftsperson needs to have pride in his or her work to continue and the work needs to be respected.”