‘Thappagars’ – The Chikan Block Makers
Volume: 10, No: 11 ; November-2016
In the chikan embroidery the wooden block makers (design stamp) play a very important role. These artisans known as ‘thappagars’ carve woodblocks with intricate designs and patterns. These highly durable block are made of Shissoo wood which is known for being hard yet easy to carve out a pattern of choice, no matter how intricate the carving be. The block makers purchase these waste chips or blocks of wood that are later carved into stamp patterns depending on the size of the pattern to be carved out.
The blocks are dried and the rough sides are then smoothened out with sand to give it an even finish and prepared in required size with a definite thickness of 1 inch. Later as a part of this process the smooth surface of the block is applied with a white emulsion or chalk and the tracing of the design is made on this white colour surface. After the pattern is drawn the wood block is carved out. Often the design is created by free hand with a pencil. The design is chiseled with a small iron bar, the blocks are flatten at the end of this chiseling process with a wooden bar. The iron bars are known as kalams (literal translation is ‘pen’) that are available in various sizes depending on how fine or thick the design is. The cuts made in this wood block are not very deep, just enough to leave an impression when the cloth is stamped with the design. When the artisan has finished carving the blocks, the blocks are neatly finished by rubbing it with sand. The same blocks are soaked in mustard oil for about twelve hours to prevent them from retaining water when dipped in water based dye for use. Each of these blocks are made differently according to the stitches that are to be embroidered. The blocks are designed for wholesale to chikan embroidery designers or dealers known as Cheepis
These chikan blocks that are primarily made in Lucknow are quite different from the block-printing blocks that are used in Jaipur. The chikan blocks do not have a handle or at times not even a piece of wood attached on the top of the blocks and when the cheepkar places the blocks on the fabric with just a little force, the impression to be imprinted is formed on the fabric. In the block printing, the printer has to use greater force on the handle attached on the top of the block for the impression to come on the fabric. Chikan block is a single block that imprints same design on the fabric, while in case of block-printing, if two prints have same design, but different colours that many blocks are required.
It is believed that earlier during the process of chikan embroidery, there was no printing done on the fabrics. The master embroiders made designs with their sheer imagination and with great precision. In later years a lot of it changed and the skill too became a bit mechanical making the blocks an integral part of chikan embroidery process. The printer’s job in the process of chikan-embroidery is to transfer the designs on the fabric with the help of carved wooden blocks. The printer has numerous blocks of all shapes and sizes and for different stitches. These printing specialist print for designers and the chikan-traders or even for individuals. This too is a specialist step in the chikan-embroidery process.
Primarily a blue dye or a white dye is made for transfer of designs from the blocks to the fabric. Blue dye for light coloured clothes and white dye for dark coloured fabrics. The dye is made from the gum gathered from babool tree (gum tree), which is collected and dried. The small lumps of gum are soaked in plain water for few hours till a clear thick liquid is formed. The printer pours this liquid gum in a flat tin tray on top of which a mat is placed. This mat is a flat surface made from the bamboo shoot; it is placed in horizontal lines alternatively and tied all around with the support of the stronger thin strips of the bamboo. This gives a spring to the mat. The dye is poured in a three inch deep tray and the bamboo plate which is like a mat is known as ‘thatia’ on the top of the tray. On the top of this mat a soft pad is placed which is normally a wooden blanket material that soaks the liquid and keeps it saturated. A fine thin fabric is kept on the top of this soft fabric woolen blanket for an even printing. For getting blue colour, indigo is sprinkled over the fabric and is spread evenly with a brush. To get white colour, aluminum powder is used instead of indigo. The wooden block is dipped into the dye tray and then pressed on top of the fabric for the impression.
The wooden bamboo tray has a spring kind of effect, thus it prevents the fabric in the tray to pick up excess colour, which might smudge the pattern as well as have problem in drying up faster. The mechanism is same as a stamp-pad yet the craft of chikan is still a traditional art that passes on in the family and no modern techniques or systems are used.
On the Heritage Walk by Tornos one gets to see this process of printing on the fabric and admire different designs on the blocks. The walking tour takes guests to a lane that can be termed as a living museum of crafts, art, lifestyle of Lucknow. The glitter of this market place is indeed a mesmerising experience that introduces visitors to the city of yore that still lives in the lanes and bylanes of Lucknow.
Also chekout the full process of chikan embroidery in our hands-on Chikan Embroidery experience : Threads of Lucknow