Block by Block

The art of block making

Gandhinagar is the state capital of Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. With its tall government buildings, wide roads and manicured gardens, the place is a classic example of a modern Indian city. Located at the edge of the grand city is a little settlement called Pethapur. As I swerved my car into the narrow market road off the main highway, I was pleasantly surprised at the stark contrast. Small shops selling everyday wares, vegetable vendors with fresh produce from the local farms, a little temple and children happily playing on the roads are sights from a small place. The grandeur of the big city life that exists just a few miles away seemed very far here.

I walked the last stretch through tiny lanes to reach Mukeshbhai’s house. Bhai and Ben are customary titles taken by all men and women in this Indian state.  It means brother and sister, respectively. I showed a few pictures of the craft to someone in the neighborhood and I was escorted by a five year-old to the master craftsman’s house.  The craftspeople in India mostly work from their homes, enabling the female members to offer a helping hand.  When I entered the lower part that housed the kitchen and living quarters, I saw women painting wooden slabs. Mukeshbhai later explained that seasoning the wood and painting the top surface are mostly done by women.

I took the stairs to the working area, hearing the rhythmic sounds of the chisel. In the workshop that was in the shaded part of the terrace, I met the bespectacled Mukeshbhai and his team of young carvers. In his late 40s, Mukeshbhai is one of the last few master craftspeople in his village. He claims that his eyesight has deteriorated over time owing to the intricate nature of his work. Such work needs to be taught and practiced at an early age. Most youngsters today seem disinterested in such high-skilled work leaving the older folk to practice the art. Being closely knit with the hand-block printed textile industry, the market there predicts the demand for these blocks. Over the years, machine made textiles have flooded the market and are threatening to wipe out the fledgling hand-block printed fabrics. (Ironically, everyone in his household wore machine made fabric.)

The highly painstaking process starts with seasoning small slabs of teak wood which is then covered with a coat of white paint. The white background enables the designs to be clearly stenciled on a grid. Different sizes of chisels and hand-held lathes are used to carve out the designs. The number of blocks for a design depends on the number of colors in the printing. There is a block for every color in the fabric. Mukeshbhai mostly makes blocks for the Ajrakh printers in Kutch. Ajrakh designs require an exceptionally high level of skill. His failing eyesight has prompted him to pass on the craft to the younger family members. Today’s his son and nephews are the only people from the younger generation practicing this art. When I asked his 20 year-old nephew if he plans to expand the business, he was quick to reply that he was an accountant by education and took up the art only to help his uncle.

I spent the rest of the evening going through their design book that dates back several decades and sipped chai from the saucer, a practice in most of Gujarat. As I leafed through the yellowing pages, I was told that some designs are so common that Mukeshbhai does not need the help of the book to trace them. Dusk fell and I left the workshop to catch up on my big city life, albeit with a little sand in my shoes.

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