The Humble Printing Table!

Have you ever seen a block printing table being made? Probably not. It’s a fairly infrequent process. So when Anokhi block printers, Shariff and Vasik, decided to repair one, we followed them for a rare peek.

First, some printing table history. Traditionally the printer or chhipa stamped cloth at a pathiya, a small rectangular table sitting low to the ground and made of stone or wood. Several layers of coarse cotton fabric covered the top for a durable padded surface.  Seated on the floor, the chhipa slowly guided the length of fabric across the table while constantly smoothing any creases.

 

Block printer or chhippa sits at a traditional pathiya table.

Today pathiyas have largely been replaced by longer, wider and higher tables, enabling a standing artisan to meet modern-day production needs for increased speed and volume.

 

Printer works at a typical table used nowadays.

According to Shariff and Vasik, padding needs annual refreshing to retain the ‘springiness’.  Without a certain amount of bounce, printing quality is sacrificed and, worse, the uneven surface can damage the printer’s hands.

Then there is the question of sand. Over time, in a desert region like Rajasthan, sand pockets accumulate inside the table padding creating a lumpy surface recognisable by dark or light patchiness across the printed cloth.  The uppermost layer of padding or achara requires regular washing followed by drying, perhaps in a field or along a dusty road where sand again accumulates.  Adequate shaking out is necessary before re-application. Even then, dust constantly settles on the table, working its way through the layers creating a never-ending saga.

Workers lay out washed cloth to dry in the sun.

Can most printers re-pad a table? With a knowing grin, Shariff answered, ‘The older ones like us know how to and the younger ones learn with time, but none of them actually want to do the work.  They would happily do it if they were paid extra! Some of them say that pulling and fixing the coarse jute cloth hurts their hands for printing.’

Here’s how it’s done…

Two tables form one table. The end legs temporarily rest on bricks creating a downward slope towards the centre.

 

Sharif and Vasik layer about 30 pieces of tat patti, a coarsely woven cotton mat, while securing to the table with large nails for temporary stability.

 

They pull tightly as each layer is added..

 

…catching the cloth on large nails to temporarily secure in place.

 

These layers are held in place at either end by a row of nails with square rubber pads to prevent slippage.

 

After removing the bricks, the table is flat and taut. The craftsmen hammer the nails along the remaining sides, and pull the width even tighter from side-to-side with a metal hook.  According to Sharif,  ‘You need good strong table nails and good quality tat patti.  Most important is the tightness.’

 

Several layers of alota, a thick sturdy cotton, are pinned over the tat patti.

 

The last layer, achara, follows. A sturdy and absorbant cotton, the
artisans can repeatedly wash this protective fabric as layers of dye build-up.

 

Sharif begins to print on the newly padded table.

 

Table size may vary in accordance with available space. Usually it is no less than 2.7 metres, the size of a dupatta shawl, and no more than 6 metres to accommodate a sari.  The table width allows selvedge to  selvedge of a typical light-weight cotton.

 

Properly created, these padded tables are a ‘secret ingredient’ needed for block printing handmade cloth.

Text: Rachel Bracken-Singh & Suki Skidmore

Photos: AMHP Archives

 

 

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