The Wonderful Art of Batik Block Printing

By: Shanthi Kumar

The art of Indian block printing is a labor-intensive, painstaking process that has survived the test of time because of the beauty of the handmade fabrics. The art flourished in the 12th century under the patronage of the Rajas (Kings) and today it continues to be practiced by artisans all over India, each of whom brings to it a distinctive identity, depending on the region he or she comes from.  Some block printers use a resist such as wax to get a different effect.  The following outlines batik block printing.

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Above are the Bunta, the wooden blocks that are used for printing.  These teak wood blocks are hand carved by skilled artisans with a variety of designs and motifs and range in size from around one inch square to five or six inches per side.       On the back of each block there is a wooden handle for the artisan to hold while pressing the block onto the cloth.  There are also 2-3 holes that are made for air circulation during the printing.  Before they are used, the blocks are kept in oil for 10-15 days to protect the wood from warping.

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The printing table is prepared with approximately 3” of wet sand, evenly leveled.  This provides a soft bed for the fabric that allows an even impression when the fabric is stamped with the blocks.  This is done 2-3 times a day.

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The fabric to be printed is washed to remove any starch and then bleached and dried. Once completely dry, the fabric is stretched onto a printing table and secured to it with pins. There should be no ripples in the fabric.

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For Batik block printing, Wax is melted on a stove and the blocks are dipped in the wax.

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And then stamped on the fabric.  The artisans are so skilled that it is difficult to tell where the block starts and ends.

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Wax-stamped fabric

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The fabric stamped with the wax is dyed.  The wax acts as a resist and the dye does not penetrate the waxed areas.  The dye bath is usually hot and care has to be taken when dyeing  that the wax does not melt.

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The wax is removed by dipping the fabric in very hot water to melt the wax.  Afterwards, the fabric is dried.

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The wax is removed by dipping the fabric in very hot water to melt the wax.  Afterwards, the fabric is dried.

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This is an example of a single printing which was dyed twice.  The rosewood areas were printed with wax and the fabric was dyed in black.  After the wax was removed the fabric was dyed in rosewood.

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Some designs require the fabric to be stamped with wax twice.  After the first dyeing and removal of wax, the fabric is stamped with wax a second time.

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Sometimes the fabric is hand painted with wax rather than block printed

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Here the white stripes between the yellow lines were printed with wax and the fabric was dyed yellow.  Then the fabric was again printed to cover the yellow lines as well as the white around the maroon and it was dyed maroon.  Finally all the wax was removed.  This is called double batik process.

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This is double batik.  In this technique, the fabric is printed with wax, dyed, and the wax is removed.  It is then printed a second time and dyed a second time before the wax of the second printing is removed.

After the printing is complete, the fabric is dried in the sun to fix the colors. The fabric is then rolled in newspapers to prevent the fabric layers from adhering to each other and the bundles are steamed in boilers constructed for this purpose. After steaming the material is washed thoroughly in water and dried in the sun. Finally the material is ironed in single layers, which helps to fix the color permanently.

From the hand carving of the blocks through all the steps involved in hand block batik, this clearly is a technique that depends upon the skill and knowledge of all the artisans involved.  When it is done well, the result is a fabric that is uniquely beautiful.

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