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India reinvents its vibrant colors

Exports revived India's iconic hand-block textile industry in the 1970s; now labor and water woes threaten it.

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Women hang freshly washed hand-block-printed fabric near Jaipur, India.

Amy Yee

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The busy street is like any other in India: Cars honk and traffic throngs haphazardly. But there is a refreshing scene at the bottom of an embankment in Sanganer, a town on the outskirts of Jaipur in northern India. In an open area, sari-clad women hang colorful hand-block-printed cloth from tall wooden scaffolding to dry. Swaths of green, orange, and white fabric flash vibrantly in the afternoon sun. The wet cloth was washed in big concrete "sinks" by men standing thigh-deep in water.

Washing is one step in India's centuries-old art of block printing by hand. Also in Sanganer, just a few minutes' drive from the washing area, one can glimpse the first step of the process: wood-workers carving blocks. Artisans sit over low tables in cramped roadside workshops, carving designs into flat wooden blocks. Master carver Mukether Khan says it takes 12 days to carve an intricate floral design. From start to finish, it can take weeks to beautify a piece of cloth with block-printed designs.

A 300-year-old tradition

Since the 1700s, Indian nobles and villagers alike have worn block-printed textiles. Today, block-printed designs adorn contemporary clothing and home furnishings, which are sold in popular Indian shops and exported. But the centuries-old craft faces modern pressures, ranging from fewer skilled artisans and competition from less labor-intensive screen-printing to water shortages and rising costs for materials.

Although a traditional craft, block printing's survival is in fact entwined with globalization. In the 1960s and '70s, Western designers who followed the "hippie trail" to India revived the craft, which was threatened by the rise of inexpensive machine-made textiles in the 20th century. They modernized block printing with new designs, techniques, and fashions that appealed to export markets in Europe and North America.

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