Shyamala Rao: A Love Affair with Block Printing

The name Shyamala means Goddess Durga — the invincible. And staying true to her name Shyamala Rao to this day is considered ‘India’s queen of block printing’. In the same way that block printing has conquered her heart, her story conquers the hearts of all the people she shares it with — including mine. During my recent travels to India, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with her where she shared her story and what started this love affair.


“You find like-minded people and they become your family. They support you and help you. In India, it’s called the ‘via-via’ connection.” 

Falling in love

It all started in the 1980’s when Indira Gandhi — the first and, to date, the only female Prime Minister of India with was always seen wearing hand printed and woven saris. They were designed by Panna Dossa — known to many as ‘the Coco Chanel of sari fashion in the 1970s’.


 Image Credit: Google Arts & Culture


Working as an ‘intern’ at Panna’s workshop, Shyamala and her friend started on a small scale through exhibitions at the infamous Shilpi Kendra in Mumbai and slowly, over the years, started printing for boutiques — including FabIndia, to name a few.

Through the years, she knew that her true love was carved in those wooden blocks, telling the stories of chippas (the block printers), blossomed by the dyes and designs creating love by human design — Handmade with love, handmade in India.


Image Credit: Darshan Savla


The ups and down

Like any love story, Shyamala has had her challenges. Think back to the early 80s, it wasn’t always easy, especially for a woman with limited resources — financially and emotionally. With determination and rigor, Shyamala moved forward. She invested in the block printing table (that she has till date), the dyes (that make the color), the blocks (that form the design). She traveled to Bagru (in Rajasthan), Jaipur (in Rajasthan), and wherever else the craft took her to find her chippas and grow her business.


Image Credit: Darshan Savla


She knocked on many doors, faced losses, and lost orders, but her devotion and dedication remained unwavered. She continued to stay true and committed to her love — block printing and supporting the chippas.

When I asked her, what kept you going? She answered with a smile “You find like-minded people and they become your family. They support you and help you. In India, it’s called the ‘via-via’ connection.” 


Finding true love
I can truly say she has found her true love. She nurtures and maintains this passion by conducting workshops in her home. If you are lucky enough to work with her you will see the light in her eyes every time she holds her blocks. The tingle when she mixes the different color dyes together. And the lasting feeling that she has when that block touches the fabric and the color transfers from the block to the fabric — the instant creation of something so beautiful is simply magic.

Image Credit: Darshan Savla


The eternal love

Shyamala is 65 years today and lives in one of the most populated areas in Mumbai. However, at her house, there is a serenity and calmness that truly takes you away from the chaos of city life. It’s like entering heaven where the surroundings immediately make you feel her creativity and warmth. Each part of the house — from the table to the wall paintings to the cushions — exemplify her years of hardwork in reviving and maintaining an appreciation for block printing.


Image Credit: Darshan Savla


She lives by one simple hope, for the craft to carry on. For her, block printing is a form of meditation that requires focus and consistency. Through her workshops, she empowers her students to carry on this legacy for years and generations to come.

As Mother Teresa said, “I cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” For me, I hope to carry Shyamala’s ripples across continents through her craft, commitment and devotion — one block at a time.