A traditional textile factory in India’s Rajasthan is bringing the ancient art of block printing back to life – and a Franco-Indian woman is leading the charge.
Traditional textile trials
Brigitte Singh says she believes this red poppy design was probably created for Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, four centuries ago.
However, recreating these fabrics, which once dressed sophisticated Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries, takes skill.
A know-how that has diminished to the point that Jaipur, in western India, is considered the “last bastion” of the technique of using carved wooden blocks to print patterns on the material.
In 1980, Brigitte moved to Jaipur, by chance, at the age of 25 after studying decorative arts in Paris.
“I dreamed of practicing (miniature art) in Isfahan. But the ayatollahs had just arrived in Iran (during the Islamic revolution of 1979). Or Herat, but the Soviets had just arrived in Afghanistan”, recalls- she.
“So by default I ended up in Jaipur,” she said.
Once there and having had little luck with miniature painting, she came across an artisan using the traditional block printing technique in local workshops – and has never looked back since!
She started with a few scarves, then the dream flew away two years later during a trip to London. She presented her works to friends who were familiar with Indian textiles. They persuaded her to present her designs to Colefax and Fowler, a well-known British interior design firm, who commissioned printed textiles from her.
Over the next forty years she built her own studio and worked with a “family of printers” recreating Mughal-era poppy cloth.
Brigitte Singh has a clear creative process. She begins by handing over precise paintings to her sculptor, Rajesh Kumar, who will then carve the designs onto wooden blocks. He will carve the identical design on several blocks, which will be used with the different color dyes.
She praises his talent saying: “he is a remarkable sculptor, with a very serious eye”.
Once the blocks are ready, the craftsmen will dip them in the dye and place them gently on the fabric, press then tap.
But the work is slow and complex, his team, made up of 6 people, does not produce more than 40 meters of material each day.
To date, its products have been a huge hit with Indian, British and Japanese buyers. In 2014, she made a quilted Mughal poppy-print coat, called Atamsukh – meaning “comfort of the soul” – which was later acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Another of his works is in the collection of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.
His passion and dedication to keeping this age-old craft alive has earned him the admiration of the governments of France and Rajasthan, culminating in the National Order of Merit in 2015 and the Prashasti Patra Award in 2011. isn’t about sales, products or accolades, it’s about preserving tradition.
“The important thing is to keep the know-how alive,” she said.
“More precious than the product, the real treasure is the know-how.”