NAVIGATING IDENTITIES IN HANDBLOCK PRINTING AMIDST LOCAL & GLOBAL DYNAMICS

SWABHIMAAN’s Special Edition In collaboration with Feminist Economics & Policy Initiative (FEPI) on Women, Culture, & Traditional Craft

In this commentary, we are underlining the sustenance of handicrafts as a traditional art form in Jaipur, and how it has evolved with global dynamics. We also explore the significance of this artform to preserve identity—at the individual and community levels. We conclude by highlighting the scope of the Jaipur bloc as a pioneering entity to spearhead collectivization practices, which women, in several capacities, have used to maneuver social, political, and economic agency.

Handicrafts have been an alternate source of occupation in rural India other than agriculture. Some crafts, like hand block printing, are recognized as art forms. This industry distinguishes itself from mass-produced screen- prints, arguing that the identity of hand block prints is unique and created through the process of painstakingly patient work. According to tradition, this work has been undertaken by the Chhipa (literal meaning, to print) community of Rajasthan. The Chhipas have dedicated years to learning and perfecting the art of hand block printing. Anthropologists have tried to understand the curious mix of tradition (block printing) and innovation (designs) found in hand block printing centres in Rajasthan. 

The commodities produced by these artists speak not only to the tangible differences in materiality but also the process of its creation. The process itself is the key marker used to differentiate the commodity. This process envelops the idea of tradition and heritage, along with the cultural attributes of the artisan. To highlight this, Ms. Raj Kanwarji, owner of Ojas and a member of Jaipur Bloc, illustrates by giving an example between the difference in music produced by a machine and that of a maestro. The distinction may be subtle but is still evident to connoisseurs.

She tells us that it is not only the aesthetics of the commodity that consumers are after in the market but also its authenticity. This authenticity is revered in foreign markets but attracts less capital and skilled labour in domestic markets.

As a result, hand block printing and its artists have gone through a unique turn of events in the age of global capitalism. These events have underpinnings in changing market dynamics, gender, class, and sustainability of both the environment and attainment ofskills.

Globalisation of Crafts

The block printing industry is segregated into two categories: mechanised and labour intensive /non-mechanised. The latter constitutes forty per cent of the three billion dollars in trade generated every year. Even with its design-innovation duo, government support towards this industry has been less than satisfactory. The slow shift from non- mechanised to mechanised hand block printing has been a response to meet market demands, both foreign and domestic. The resultant outcome is a minimal noticeable change in the final output but complete procedural changes to meet consumer aspirations.

These changes have resulted in screen printing, as the preferred method of mechanisation, and has taken the industry by storm. The artists who work in this trade are aware of this shift. Mr Brij Ballabh Udaiwal, director of Crafts Council of Weavers and Artisans, talks about how artists are bound to this trade due to their lack of capital to up-scale or their lack of skills to choose an alternate profession. As a result, artists are stuck in a cycle of limited income-earning opportunities with a bundle of unwanted skills on behalf of the artist.

Respective government agencies are also cognizant of these changes and the growing need for people to earn a livelihood with dignity. They have responded by initiating easier access to credit to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in this area. They have supplemented this step by introducing infrastructural support, training of artists, and scaling of products in cottage emporiums and craft fairs. Unfortunately, the lack of intention to augment existing efforts in the direction of providing social groups, engaged in hand block printing, with incentives to continue this profession, which hampers their sense of identity and cultural capital they derive from their work. This is also evident as no sector-specific schemes for hand block printing are prevalent in the country.

Teerath Kacholiya, the owner of Indus Art Emporium, laments the lack of support to this industry despite its roots being firmly embedded in tradition and art, and a source of viable economic profit. Among practitioners of this trade, there is a feeling of loss knowing their next generation are not willing to engage in hand block printing. Morale has further been affected due to consumer tendencies to go for cheaper products, devaluing their profession resulting in a dwindling agency of artists. Ms. Raj Kanwarji laments the lack of people to carry on the practice of hand block printing. There is enough evidence to suggest demand for finished products using the traditional hand block printing method is on the rise in international markets.

Mr. Kacholiya has witnessed an overall increase in demand by five per cent. Since there is an increase in demand, naturally followed by the prospect of economic profit, firms have been trying to expand their capacities. They keep facing the issue of waning government support and the unwillingness of people to join this trade. The latter is attributed to the availability of better opportunities elsewhere. While the advent of diversification and growth of newer possibilities for Chhipas to move out of the confines of their caste identities is desirable, it comes at the cost of people not wanting to associate with the practice.

Women and Collectivization

These problems prompted some organisations, like Jaipur Bloc, to set up units through the collectivisation of locals. Jaipur Bloc was conceptualised by like- minded individuals who wanted to preserve hand block printing. This initiative aimed to strengthen domestic orientation towards the art and its set of less frequented struggles. Ms Kanwarji narrates how men folk in the village are trained step-by-step in printing, drying, and curing processes. “You are training an entrepreneur”, she says with certainty, knowing no specialised skills were imparted to this group of workers that they could utilise in other industries. This prompted her to open a training centre with the help of the government. Even though specialised skills were imparted, the beneficiaries of this programme found little merit to stay on and work for hand block printing centres. Whom should they train now?

The women in the village, unlike men, have not received as many opportunities to earn wages as their male counterparts. Women had been confined to less strenuous roles in hand block printing due to a perceived lack of strength in their wrists. They could also not commit to longer working hours as demands from their domestic lives were equally urgent. With time, ideas of gendered division in workplaces have been dismantled due to economic pressures. This was supplemented by public action and demands towards women’s empowerment on economic, political, and social lines. Since there is far and few literatures on self-help groups (SHGs) in the handicraft sector, said public action has been a noticeable source of momentum.

20210731_Bagru_Jaipur_28 copy.jpg

Women working at Ojjas, Bagru

Image credits: Jignesh Mistry

The Jaipur Bloc is no different; Currently, it has sixteen women leaders who have taken the collectivisation model of SHGs to give voice and opportunity to women by training them in hand block printing. Women were not front runners and did not customarily engage in activities for which they now receive training. The origin of collectivisation is rooted in the changes in labour composition introduced by advances in sciences in the 19th century. This was first postulated by Marx. He argued that as production increases due to technological advancement, more women will be employed assubstitutes for men.

Since there is a tendency for men to withdraw participation for better work opportunities, women get left behind to tend after domesticities. There has been an inclination to shift work towards women who are willing and interested to earn a wage to supplement their household incomes. More importantly, it was to inculcate a sense of agency in women. Agency and the ability to recognise it is vastly different in genders, especially those who have faced marginalisation in several forms. This has led to a trend where we see slivers of feminisation of workers in the hand block industry that started due to collectivisation.

While this process helps retain the momentum of increased sales in the hand block industry, it does more for its new entrants, i.e., its female workforce. First, the process of collectivisation aims to reduce the gender gap in human capital by training both men and women in the intricate process of printing. Second, it limits the possibilities of gendered differences in art. Lastly, it hopes to do away with the sense of devaluing those workers who have been battling in this line of work and renew their sense of confidence and identity.

Text by Suparna Aggarwal

Edited by Tanya Rana

Suparna Aggarwal is the Co-founder of FEPI.


Feminist Economics & Policy Initiative (FEPI) is a student-led initiative at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University. We are an attempt towards bridging the gap of diversity & perspectives in economic research/policy.

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