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20.05.2015

This story is by Shaheen Peerbhai, a Le Cordon Bleu Paris-trained pastry chef, baker and blogger at purplefoodie.com, who attended the class to block print a tablecloth. She plans to return to do her apron soon. 

Mrs Shyamala Rao’s block printing class will cost you an arm and a leg. We mean that literally, in terms of spent limbs – legs that will have to trek to Mulund and forearms that will press down on big wooden blocks. 

But go you must. Why? Because Mrs Rao is super skilled and studied the art of block printing under Panna Dossa, the designer who made saris for late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She makes the class fun with museum-borrowed tomes, and she’s very generous, sharing contacts of wood carvers for your newfound DIY phase. Hi Mrs Maker!

Swathe and the Stone

Curious about the art, I signed up for Mrs Rao’s day-long course which started with a bit of theory that included a series of pictures and swatches that delved into the history of printing and dyeing techniques. We were quickly acquainted with the tools needed, the different styles that have emerged over the years, and the difference between an ajrakh and a dabu. While you’re there, Mrs Rao lets you flip through books sourced from Anokhi museum and tomes from private collections of textile giants. Woven in between were personal stories including one where they conducted a block printing demo at a Kansas university.

Mrs Rao also regularly visits master craftsmen, artisans and woodworkers around the country to keep up to date with the craft. A little later in May, she will be in Bhuj to buy new blocks.

She also generously shared contact details of wood carvers in Kurla and Pydhonie, and told us where to buy natural and chemical dyes.

Wait and Swatch

After we covered the theory, which according to Mrs Rao is just "the tip of the iceberg", we moved on to the fun stuff - mixing colours and printing on fabric using different types of blocks. The first fabric trial involved a piece of rough cloth followed by a beautiful white stole on which I printed patterns of dancing peacocks and swishing trees and lined it with a thick border.

When she isn't teaching her students, Mrs Rao is busy printing fabrics for boutiques or hopping around town to get custom designed wooden blocks. "My children think I love my blocks more than I love them,” she said earnestly. She also generously shared contact details of wood carvers in Kurla and Pydhonie, and told us where to buy natural and chemical dyes. You can even schedule a day to come back to Mrs Rao's home studio to use the table, blocks and colours for a fee. 

The Grand Dame of DIY 

I loved the intimate, hands-on setting of the workshop (1-2 students per batch), Mrs Rao's  patient demeanour, her passion for the craft and the fact that she converted her AC vent into a cabinet for her collection of more than 500 blocks. She even tried growing her own indigo plant to harvest the natural dye. 

The only flipside that prevented my friends from joining me was the location. But it was well worth the trip, as her other students will tell you, corporates, graphic designers and DIY dames from all over Mumbai, as well as visiting tourists. Like the Irish tourist in Mumbai who wanted to print her hammock, or the Scottish ladies working at an export house.

At the end of the class I came away with a souvenir of the rough cloth I practised on, a stole that I hand-printed a lovely bright pink and a new-found appreciation for Indian textiles. 

Getting there: BlocksnPrints, call Mrs Shyamala Rao on 9869712888 or email meenakari@gmail.com, view the Facebook page here, classes start at Rs 1,500 for an introduction to Rs 4,000 for a day-long class.

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