A Chikan printing block and its story

Tereza Kuldova

Chikan printing block

Chikan printing block

We see a printing block, a page from a book, a block-maker, but is that all we see? If we relate these pictures to one another we see the dissemination of designs, from the hand, to the product which is then used by a printer to the final embroidery, and then reproduced in a book. This process is rarely straightforward. It is likely that the design has been copied many times by the time it reaches the page of a book (or this website): it was transformed, adjusted, or reworked by another block-maker, another printer, another embroiderer. It must have adorned saris as much as kurtis (shirts) in different colors and fabrics. Connect these three pictures and a story of the dissemination of designs emerges, a story of a world of relations.

This is again a different story of an object; it is in fact a story of the peculiar paths for the dissemination of designs and the serendipity of the intertwined lives of humans and objects. A businesswoman-cum-designer based in Lucknow, North India and working with production of high quality Chikan embroidery received an order in 2009 for a sari with a specific design. The order came from a Delhi-based designer, who sent a hand-drawn sketch of the design. Following the sketch, she had a block made by a local block-maker from which a sari was printed and embroidered in a rather standard manner. She then forgot about the order. And that is when I, an anthropologist with an interest in material culture and a friend, came into the picture.

Book page, block-maker

Book page, block-maker

I had been working intensely with her for some time and as it was her birthday, I gave her a book called Threads and Voices, knowing her desire to always learn more about embroidery. We were going through the book and naturally the first article we looked up was about Chikan embroidery, written by Paola Manfredi, whom I happened to meet in Delhi only a fortnight earlier. When we were looking at the pictures in the article (see above) my friend suddenly reacted to one of them. She realized that the embroidery on the photograph looked very similar to the drawing she had received from the Delhi-based designer and to the embroidery she has done on the sari order. The original embroidery portrayed in the book was done by the girls employed by SEWA, a non-governmental organization working for the empowerment of women. It was an older piece and it thus became apparent that the designer must have copied the design from this book, appropriating the design and putting his name on it. This is a standard practice and it is often hard to find the original source of inspiration or copy since the blocks have been used and reused. The girls who embroidered the piece portrayed in the book must themselves have used a very fine old block that may have been made several centuries earlier. The issue of copyright in the industry is therefore highly ambiguous. Where modern innovations and traditional design merge the ‘real’ originators might be unknown or even dead. And here it was, right before our eyes. This all happened at a point in time when I was looking for artefacts for the Museum of Cultural History’s ethnographic collections, and so I decided to buy this particular printing block. Now it is lying carefully conserved in our storage house in Oslo and waiting to be exhibited.

This story might remind us of the ways in which 17th century Mughal artists used floral sketches from the botanical albums and florilegia of 16th and 17th century Europe (a great number of the flowers that appear on the Taj Mahal, and became the staple of Mughal design, do not even grow anywhere near what was the Mughal Empire). This cult of flowers in Mughal art and the adoption of floral motifs is said to be initiated by a series of springtime trips Jahangir (ruler of the Mughal empire from 1605-1627) took to Kashmir between 1620 and 1627. Noor Jahan, a Mughal empress, and her stepson Shah Jahan, who would later build the Taj Mahal, further patronized the flower motifs, which were heavily influenced by the trade with the British and by the import of luxury embroidery from England. The reciprocal trade in embroidery between England and India began with gifts to the Mughal court and by the end of the 17th century embroidery patterns and even finished embroideries were being sent out to India to be copied, at the same time as these were already showing signs of cross-cultural influences that merged to form a hybrid style. It is apparent by now that the cross-fertilization of designs was more than Indian style elements in England and those of England in India. Not only were the styles themselves already a mixture par excellence of influences, places and people, but the cross-fertilization was itself at the same time a “product of conscious effort, noted here on the Indian side, to copy designs as accurately as possible the minute they were available and then to incorporate them within the larger schemata of artistic work” (Findley 1996: 14-5). The imitation, appropriation and cross-fertilization of designs and styles are thus hardly a novelty. We can see through the story of our printing block that little has changed, and that contemporary fashion designers often work in ways similar to Mughal artists of days past. This object and its story might also be a part of the larger story of literacy or the story of those who have access to ‘book knowledge’ and those who do not. Or it might be a story of how objects become part of museum collections in the West. This I leave up to you to contemplate.

Further reading

Tyabji, L. & Das, S. 2007. Threads & voices: behind the Indian textile tradition. Published for Marg Publications on behalf of the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

Findley, E. B. 1996. ‘Nur Jahan’s Emroidery Trade and Flowers of the Taj.’ Asian Art & Culture 9:2, 6-25.

Crill, R. 1999. Indian embroidery. London: V&A Publications

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