The fading block-print industry

April 25, 2021

Block printing is fading in Pakistan. In India, the industry is booming

“I have been doing block printing work for the past 20 years with my husband,” 40-year-old Musarrat Fayyaz tells The News on Sunday (TNS). “Our family has been associated with the centuries-old art for nearly 100 years. Our forefathers started the work in the pre-partition period in Mitro, a small village near Mailsi, in the Vehari district of southern Punjab.”

She says she learned block-printing from her in-laws when she got married to Fayyaz. She and her husband run a block printing business in Kahror Pakka tehsil. They also train girls in this area. Musarrat Fayyaz says mostly men are associated with this industry in this region; female workers are rare.

“I train girls at colleges and schools. I also give private tuition at home,” says Musarrat. “Sometimes, groups of college or school girls in Bahawalpur, Multan or some other cities hire me to deliver lectures and hold block-printing workshops.” In 2014, she was invited by the United Nations to train girls in Jamrud village of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in block-printing.

Block printing can be a lucrative sector. Unfortunately, it is fading in Pakistan. In India, on the other hand, this industry is booming. Musarrat says that while in the past most people she came across wanted handmade block-printed bed-coverings, curtains, shawls and cushions, there is less demand for the craft now. Block-printing is costly. This may be one reason the industry is shrinking; more people now prefer computerised work to block-printing.

Both block and screen printing originated in East Asia. The earliest block-printing devices, dating back to 220 AD, have been found in ancient China. Block-printing techniques were used to produce books, images and designs on cloth or paper. Screen printing was invented about 800 years later, also in ancient China. It was introduced to the world around the late 18th century.

In Pakistan, block-printing dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation. The traditional Sindhi Ajrak has long been block-printed. In modern India, block-printing traces its roots to Rajasthan and Gujarat states. The method reached Europe via India and soon became an established industry, especially in Germany.

“I started learning block printing work in 1992 and in 1996, I started earning from it. I worked professionally as a block-printer in Kahror Pakka, in Lodhran district in southern Punjab, which is a major hub of block-printing in Pakistan,” says Muhammad Ismail, a resident of Kahror Pakka. “Block-printing on fabric is a centuries-old profession in South Asia. When I started this work professionally, I was paid Rs 300 as a monthly salary. My forefathers started a block-printing business in Kahror Pakka. But my father was unable to manage the family business and we had to shut it down. I am now working as a daily wage earner. This profession requires a lot of hard work and the income is very low. I make about Rs 500 a day.”

Kahror Pakka is famous for this industry, Ismail tells TNS, adding that the industry is shrinking due to increasing prices of raw materials and the growth of computerised printing.

In Pakistan, block-printing dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation, when the traditional Sindhi Ajrak was first printed.

There was once great demand for block-printing work in Pakistan as well as abraod, says Fayyaz Ahmed, 50, who has a block printing business in Kahror Pakka. He says foreigners visiting the Punjab, especially Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur and Islamabad, used to like and purchase traditional wares from handicraft shops. They would buy block printed-shawls, bed-coverings and cushions as souvenirs.

Many handicrafts businesses and NGOs would purchase block-printed cloth from Kahror Pakka, Bahawalpur and Multan, through local shopkeepers and contractors, says Ismail. They would organise their exhibitions in Islamabad and Lahore and sell traditional, block-printed fabrics for huge profits. Kahror Pakka is an agricultural hub but commercially an underdeveloped area, Ismail says.

“My forefathers started block-printing work in Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh, in pre-partition India. Now our seventh generation is doing this work in Kahror Pakka.” Haji Muhammad Akbar Chughtai, a 62-year-old shop-owner tells TNS. “A large number of people in Kahror Pakka were once associated with the block-printing industry. In the past few years many have left this industry and started other businesses.”

The dyes and the equipment used in block printing are becoming too costly, says Chughtai. He says natural dyes are prepared using herbs, fruits and vegetables. The process is too time-consuming for many people. Printed coverings, cushions and shawls made with natural colours are more expensive than those made with chemical dyes, Chughtai says.

A block printing worker makes 4 to 5 bed sheets a day, mostly using wooden blocks carved with different types of designs. Chughtai says that in the past, people preferred natural dyes but nowadays, chemical dyes have more buyers. “If the customer insists on natural dyes for shawls or coverings, we charge Rs 1,500 per item for good quality work,” he says.

Chughtai says mostly cotton fabric is used in block printing, but now people are also demanding block-printing on silk and other fabrics.

“Approximately 1,000 people are now associated with block-printing work, including workers and shop owners in Kahror Pakka and its surrounding,” Chughtai estimates. “Block-printing is also popular in Sindh, where traditional Sindhi Ajrak is printed. Bhit Shah, Hyderabad, Hala and Mithi in Tharparkar are known for this work.”

While the dyes, the types of cloth used and designs may have changed, the carving of the wooden blocks and the process of stamping remains the same in Pakistan and India.

“The craft of intricate block carving is slowly dying in Pakistan,” 70-year-old block maker Allah Bux. “There are fewer and fewer craftsmen in Pakistan who make traditional designs. Modern patterns now inundate the market. Making a wooden block with an original design takes almost a week. It is time-consuming work with very low wages.”

“The government should take some bold initiative to save the centuries-old block-printing industry in south Punjab and Sindh. They should facilitate the people associated with this profession. In India, the industry is generating huge revenues. In Pakistan, carving of wooden blocks has all but stopped, the block-printing industry is therefore shrinking and people are shutting down their business,” Allah Bux says.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

The fading block-print industry