The Little Block-Printing Workshop that Could
April 14, 2022
Written by Ruth Alden Wicker
“A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat. We have to build the boat for them. We have to give them the basic infrastructure to rise with the tide.” – Rahul Gandhi
Padmini Govind awoke at 3 a.m. to her cell phone ringing. It was mid-October, 2020, and rain was pounding the roof of her home in Bengaluru, India, as it had since June, marking an unusually long monsoon season. In a panicked voice, her elderly father’s live-in caretaker informed her that the lake bordering the property had breached the container wall, and water was pouring into her father’s home—which also housed the family’s block-print textile business, Tharangini, on the bottom floor. Govind, her family, and staff spent a sleepless night packing up more than 5,000 new and antique printing blocks, dismantling six meter-long tables, each covered with 100 layers of jute fabric, moving it all to dry land, and securing and installing large pumps and sandbags.
It was quite a year for the lake to flood, with Covid-19 shutting down India along with the rest of the world, and fashion and homeware clients canceling and delaying orders. Normally, Govind would also host students, expats, and tourist groups at the family compound for cultural events and workshops; those had abruptly stopped as well.
But Govind is nothing if not capable, having turned her mother’s small, home business of block-printing silk saris into a famous (and famously sustainable) exporter of high-end fashion and home textiles, growing the enterprise to include 26 employees, and forging partnerships with brands such as Anthropologie, Pollack, and Passion Lily. In fact, two years into multiple waves of pandemic shutdowns, Govind seems to have preserved the best elements of the traditional craft while modernizing her business, navigating the curveballs of a rapidly changing climate—and doing it all, as they say, in style.Govind’s father bought the 8-acre estate in 1952, just a few years after India became independent from the British Empire. Her mother opened her home block-printing business in the 1970s, during a time when India was trying to reclaim its traditional crafts as a national project (though Indian women were not often invited to participate in this revival).
In the decades since then, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), a once-sleepy paradise of family homes surrounded by greenery and manmade lakes, grew out of its old nickname, “The Garden City.” Today, the community is a tech hub and India’s fifth-largest metropolis, its lakes polluted and drained, its forests and gardens razed to make way for high rises and clogged roads, all built to accommodate a population that has tripled since the 1980s. At the same time, the number of block-printing workshops across India has continued to shrink, as consumers have turned away from silk and cotton to cheap synthetics.
“We are lucky that our team has been open to experimenting with us. Not all are willing to adapt.”
Located on a dirt road away from the main street, Govind’s family compound has somehow survived these shifts. Govind herself, who worked in corporate tech in the U.S., returned to Bengaluru with her family in 2007, and soon took over the block-printing studio. Four years later, her mother passed away. Since then, Govind has grown the business between 10 and 14 percent each year, expanding it to include printed cottons and linens to be used for decor. Now, 80 percent of Tharangini’s orders are exported to the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.
When I visited the workshop, in 2018, its tables and shelves overflowed with printing blocks, some more than 100 years old. Some of the newer patterns, such as snakeskin, were sent to Govind via email from designers in the U.S. To get new woodblocks made, she gives a local woodblock carver a PDF of the designs. “He has three decades of experience, and we’ve challenged him already in so many different ways,” Govind told me. “We are lucky that our team has been open to experimenting with us. Not all are willing to adapt.”
Later, I told Govind about another hand-printing textile operation, in Italy, that has used the same methods and designs for hundreds of years [see “Italy’s Ancient Textile-Printing Mangle,” a short film and story by Luisa Grosso]. “There are artists and groups in India that have the same philosophy and I completely respect them for that,” she said. “Our thing is, we want to reach more of a millennial consumer.”
When It Rains, It Pours
When the first Covid lockdown hit in 2020, stranding some of Tharangini’s artisans in their own villages, Govind sent them money. As the restrictions eased, the studio worked overtime to catch up on orders; to help, Govind paid for safe, private transport to the studio for every artisan. She managed to avoid layoffs and furloughs. She even employed artisans from other workshops that didn’t survive, subsequently picking up their customers as well.
Then the monsoon arrived and settled in for the long term, like a belligerent dinner party guest who won’t take a hint. Following the October flood, 70 percent of the studio was under a foot of water for three weeks. Before the floodwaters had even receded, Govind had secured another workspace in a dry part of Bengaluru and was catching up on orders from overseas clients.
By the end of 2020, though, Govind was exhausted, and business was down 30 percent. While Bengaluru is not particularly known as a block-printing hub, reports from other places, like Rajasthan, described India’s handicraft artisans as being “on the brink,” with their sales also at a third of what they had been prior to the pandemic.
Then the second Covid wave rolled over India, much more heavily than the first. “Just as we were picking up pieces and getting back… it was devastating,” Govind says. The workshop couldn’t get colors; organic cotton and other raw materials increased in cost due to fuel shortages; and Tharangini had to eat those costs. While the artisans managed to stay healthy, Govind spent hours in the local hospital parking lot with a sick relative and an oxygen tank. (Her relative survived, and has since returned to health.)
Next came the 2021 monsoon, which was even worse than the previous year’s. “We had a flood anniversary,” Govind said. “Last year, they said it’s ‘once in a century,’ and this time was once in a century, plus one!” She laughed. This time, though, they were better prepared. Govind had raised the studio floor by a foot and used pumps to limit the flooding, so they could keep working on the dry side.
November and December are Tharangini’s busiest months, when they print for spring and summer orders. When I spoke to Govind in January 2022, the property was dry, and she was hoping to do a commemorative collection for Tharangini’s 45th year. She also told me she wanted to bring back her mother’s tradition of inviting pottery artists and painters to work alongside the block printers, along with resuming in-person workshops and events.
Govind often attributes the workshop’s survival to “the grace of God.” But it’s clear that a combination of her energy and flexibility, along with an understanding of the small and mid-sized designers she works with, have also made her survival possible.
“Our long-term clients understand what we stand for,” she says. “We’re on the same wavelength.”