Crafting Blocks & Prints

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Shyamala Rao learnt her craft of block printing 24 years ago, when she trained with Indira Gandhi’s saree designer. Her love for blocks, prints, textiles and passion to teach others, remains undiminished over the years.

Shyamala Rao is ready to start her Block Printing class for the day as I walk into her airy, well lit living room in Mulund, a Mumbai suburb. The table is set. There is a neat, organised cluster of blocks, binders, pigment emulsions, pins, scales, tailor markers, plain cotton cloth and plenty of reference books and materials on the two and a half meter long table. Her students, two young women entrepreneurs, who are planning to start their own design set up, are there for the day to get a hands-on expertise in block printing. They keenly sit poring through the books Shyamala has provided them along with a cup of tea and a bowl of upma each. She even serves homemade lunch for her students later.

Textile love

Textile love

For Shyamala, 63, it has been a passion to welcome absolute strangers – from high profile corporates to graphic designers, even visiting tourists from overseas — into her home, to share what she knows best, her love for block printing. She lives with her husband, Rajshekhar Rao, 70, and her 83- year- old mother and takes not more than two or three students at a time as she prefers to give personalised attention. The day-long interactive sessions are intimate and detailed, her kind and patient demeanour making it engaging for participants. The initial part of the class is spent in her explaining the history of block printing in India.

It all began 24 years ago when Shyamala enrolled for a workshop with the well-known designer Panna Dossa, who designed sarees for the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “At that time I was designing salwar kurtas and sarees along with a cousin and we used to together hold exhibitions at Shilpi Kendra,” says Shyamala. “I used to print our own creations and later started printing for boutiques full time.” Her two children were already in their late teens and were into professional courses. Shyamala had more time on her hands to pursue her interests.

“Initially everything was a challenge,” she recalls. “Making the table and the initial set of blocks needed considerable investment, then the nitty-gritty of actual printing, like getting the right colour consistency, went on endlessly. But the trick was never to give up.” Shyamala approached the marketing departments of various paint companies to address her doubts and questions and has come a long way since then.

What kept her going? “I think it was my passion for Indian textiles, and admiration for the unknown, unsung Indian craftsmen who toils away to produce these works of exquisite beauty that motivated me to conduct these workshops,” she says. Shyamala has been more than just successful in keeping the dying art of block printing alive. But if you tell her that she is quick to rattle of names across the country who are also into the perpetuation of the art. “Most students who come are unaware and amazed at the toil, skill and work that has gone into each piece that they buy in the market. On an average, an ajrakh print that is done in Bhuj, goes through seven to eight stages in the printing process and can take a month or more to complete.” There is no stopping her once she begins to talk about the art of block printing.

“I try my best to showcase this art through my workshops. Block printing is more than just coming together of two sets of skills DSC01682– that of the block maker, and the printer, is what I tell my students,” says Shyamala who regularly holds workshops across India and overseas. “I explain the skill, the patience and the devotion needed in the making of the block and the same qualities that are needed to print flawlessly. It is nothing short of meditation, an excellent form of therapy, where one has to concentrate and focus completely.” She gives her students all the necessary guidance to buy blocks and colours, as well as how to set up the table and start printing themselves. Alternatively, she also gives them contacts of professional printers in Mumbai, where she lives, who can print for them. She feels most rewarded when she finds some of her students taking this learning forward to start a business of their own. “Some come do the workshop just as a stress buster, for the pleasure of handcrafting a gift, or to simply ‘unleash their creativity’ which is also perfectly fine,” says Shyamala, more interested in inculcating an appreciation for the Indian textiles than anything else.

With her mother and husband

With her mother and husband

“Block printing is merely an embellishment – where one chooses to use it, is the creativity of the designer,” says Shyamala who despite having trained under the legend Panna Dossa, has gone beyond the mere six yards. “I once had a student who was a yoga instructor, and embellished an old mango crate with block designs, to store the yoga mats! There are no boundaries when it comes to block printing!” And it has taken years to be where she is today.

She recalls how her two young children used to join her in her early printing adventures and how they helped and encouraged her by giving her their invaluable inputs. Today they are both into demanding professional careers, with her daughter working as a professor in physical therapy in New York and her son an engineer with an MNC in Mumbai. They may no longer be at home to potter around her while she works but Shyamala makes up for their absence by welcoming her students into her home. “I see all those who come to learn as my family. Many of my students are in touch with me and send me pictures of their work, sometimes even coming back to clear doubts or for further practise,” she says. “I can truly say that this craft has enriched me in numerous ways and brought colour and joy into my life.”

Shyamala is perhaps among the few who are blessed to have an occupation that has kept her going past her retirement age. “Age is only in the mind. It is extremely important for seniors to be occupied,” she says. “Negative thoughts, past events, future fears—one has no time for these when one is busy.” Today all she dreams of is a workshop humming with activity, her idea of heaven!

I later get chatting with Shyamala’s mother, Sharada Padbidri, who tells me how she used to learn embroidery from her grandmother. “So we have five generations who have been working with textiles,” quips Shyamala. I finally leave the apartment to let her continue with her class, promising to come back some day for another round of conversation, or even do a workshop myself, perhaps.

You can contact Shyamala Rao through her Facebook page Blocks and Prints.

Photography: Sangeeta John

About Author

Sangeeta John

Sangeeta John is a Mumbai based writer with 20 years experience. She has written for publications like The Week, Hindustan Times, Marie Claire India and The Straits Times, Singapore.