I have always been fond of the Indigo range sold by Fab India and own several of their block-printed kurtas and some sarees. The patterns and aesthetics of Ajrakh have always appealed to me. But I knew little about the origins of this craft and the hard work that went into producing one piece of block-printed fabric of Ajrakh. That was until I visited the newly resurrected village of Ajrakhpur, which is around 10 km from Bhuj in Gujarat.
The present popularity of Ajrakh is credited to one family: Ismail Khatri, his father (Mohammad Siddiq), brothers (Abdul Jabbar and Abdul Razzak), his sons (Sufiyan and Junaid) and grandsons. Eleven generations of this family have honed this craft and kept it alive. The man behind the revival of the art of Ajrakh is master craftsman, Dr Ismail Mohmed Khatri. The day I visited Ajrakh Studio and the workshop, he was away. But I did get a chance to talk to his son, Sufiyan Khatri and heard some interesting stories.
A PhD scholar called Eiluned Edwards visited Ismail Khatri in the context of studying textiles in India. Khatri, who was educated only up to Std 7, agreed to meet her, hoping to try and speak in English with her. He responded to the questions she asked. The lady in question cleared her PhD, and in 2003 Khatri was invited by the De Montfort University in Leicester to talk on the art of Ajrakh. After his talk the University bestowed him with a Honorary Doctorate. Bewildered by why people were applauding him, he asked the person next to him, who turned out to be the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University. He was told that he had been accorded the University’s highest degree. To which he said: “But I haven’t studied in your University!” He was then told that he had taught the students of the University much more. And that’s how Ismail Khatri became Dr Ismail Khatri!
What is Ajrakh?
Ajrakh is a double-sided block printing textile tradition with distinctive symmetrical geometric or floral motifs. The two predominant colours seen in Ajrakh prints are indigo blue and deep red, although with modernization, people are experimenting with newer colours. Ajrakh is an environmental-friendly textile where the cloth is resist-dyed using natural dyes.
The word Ajrakh probably has its origins in the Arabic word ‘Azrak‘ which means the blue of the sky. The early versions of this fabric printing only used indigo and hence had predominantly blue designs. But then other colloquial stories tell you that the word probably comes from the Kutchi expression “aaj rakh” meaning “keep it aside today”. This apocryphal story probably has its origins in the long tedious steps involved in Ajrakh block printing.
The history of Ajrakh
As a textile tradition, the legacy of Ajrakh goes back over 4000 years to the Indus valley civilization. Archaeologists have unearthed strands of cotton dyed with red madder root from Mohenjodaro. The shawl on the shoulder of this familiar bearded man bust from Mohenjodaro perhaps has an Ajrakh motif called kakkar (cloud pattern), familiar to Ajrakh artists.
The community which has practised the art of Ajrakh since several generations are the Khatris, who originally belong to Sindh. The community says its hereditary occupation is “rang utaarna aur rang chadhana“. They practice a lot of dyeing and printing crafts including ajrakh, rogan art, batik and bandhni (tie and dye).
Arab invasions led the Khatris to migrate en masse from Sindh to Kutch (Anjar and Dhamadka villages). There are both Hindus and Muslims among the Khatris. The present clan of artisans were led by their forefather, Jinda Jeeva, to Dhamadka village in 1650, where Rao Bharmal I, the Raja of Kutch patronized their craft. Making Ajrakh needed a constant supply of running water to remove the excess dye, and Dhamadka was chosen as it had the river Saran flowing by.
What makes Ajrakh unique?
The Khatris themselves never wore block printed fabric. They produced Ajrakh traditionally for the Maldharis or cattle herders like the Ahirs or Rabaaris in the desert regions of Kutch and Thar. The colours are bright and vivid, so that the herders do not lose their way in the white desert sands. These geometric prints were usually seen in the pagdis (turbans), cummerbands, chaddars, dupattas, lungis and shawls used by the Kutchi community.
Every caste wore distinctive designs and ajrakh is part of their cultural legacy. It is said that cattle herders would leave their homes in the dark, before the sun rose and there was no electricity in those times. So they couldn’t distinguish between the front and the reverse side of the fabric. Double-sided printing ensured that they could wear it both ways.
Ajrakh is an example of sustainable fashion. All the colours used in Ajrakh come from natural ingredients and biodegradable environment-friendly dyes. The blue colour comes from indigo (Indigofera tinctoria); red is obtained from madder root (Rubia tinctorum), alizarin, sappan wood and lac; yellow is derived from pomegranate rind and turmeric; while black is produced from scrap iron rust and jaggery. Other shades are obtained from henna, rhubarb root and tamarisk.
These days, natural dyes are not easy to obtain. Earlier indigo used to grow wild, these days it is priced exorbitantly. Now both indigo and alizarin are available as synthetic dyes, but they are non-toxic and eco-friendly.
The natural dyes provide a wax like texture to the fabric. During summers, the pores of the fabric expand, making it airy. During winters, the pores of the fabric close, providing warmth. Ajrakh is thus suitable to wear around the year.
The motifs used in Ajrakh are inspired by the universe. It is an Islamic art form where no figures are used. Geometric and floral motifs predominate, inspired by the blues and reds of the evening sky. Carving the symmetrical teak wood blocks for Ajrakh is a precise skill, which is usually done manually.
The creation of Ajrakhpur
In the late eighties, the river Saran dried up because of the construction of a dam upstream. This affected the craft where copious quantities of running water was an essential requirement. The second disaster struck in 2001 when the earthquake at Bhuj left many families devastated. A new problem arose. The iron content in water increased after the earthquake which affected the colour of dyes. A number of craftsmen shifted to chemical dyes instead of natural dyes. As expected use of chemical dyes led to skin and other health problems. Seeing the impact of these practices on the art of Ajrakh, the community started looking for a new place around 40 km from Dhamadka, which had better water sources.
With the help and support of voluntary organizations, led by Ismail Khatri, almost 80 families of artisans bought land and shifted to this new village which was then named Ajrakhpur. The proximity to Bhuj ensured better facilities such as healthcare, education for their children, and business. Today almost every family in this craft village is engaged in Ajrakh printing, and you can see dyed cloth drying outside their houses.
How is Ajrakh made?
Ajrakh can be printed on a variety of fabric including cotton, linen, wool and silk (tussar, crepe, georgette, chiffon) The process of Ajrakh printing involves 14-16 stages.
Saaj: The unbleached cloth is washed thoroughly in water or steam treated to remove any impurities from the factory. It is then soaked overnight in a solution of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung. This softens the cloth and the alkaline medium helps in bleaching.
Drying: The cloth is then dried in the sun. When it has half dried it is returned to the solution. This process is repeated seven to nine times until it foams when rubbed. In the final stage, it is washed in running water.
Kasanu: The cloth is now dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) which is the powdered nut of the harde tree. It is then dried in the sun. If the cloth is to be printed on both sides, it needs to be reversed to be dried on both sides. The myrobalan powder which precipitates after drying is brushed off the cloth. Sun drying enhances the colour of the print
Khariyanu: It is this step which makes Ajrakh different from other forms of block printing. In this step, a resist of lime and gum arabica are printed on the cloth to define the outline of the design. This step is called rekh. This resist is applied on both sides of the cloth. The subsequent steps of dyeing do not affect the resist printed areas, and these appear white in the final stages.
A mixture of scrap iron, jaggery, and gram flour (besan) is left to ferment for a week or two. A yellowish scum forms on the surface of the solution. This liquid is drained off and added to tamarind seed powder. When boiled together, a black colour is obtained which is used to print on the cloth.
Kan: Tamarind seed powder is boiled along with alum (aluminium sulphate) to produce a red paste. Traditionally geru or red clay was used but these days a non-toxic chemical dye is preferred. This printing process is called kan.
Gach: This is done on cloth which has large areas of red in the design. Red clay is filtered through muslin. A paste of alum, boiled millet flour, red clay and gum arabica is used to print the design. Simultaneously, a resist of lime and gum arabica is also printed. Sawdust is sprinkled on the printed areas to avoid smudging.
Indigo dyeing: The fabric is now dyed in indigo. For this, natural indigo, sagikhar (a salt), lime, casiatora (seeds from kuwada plant) and water are mixed and fermented for a month. Jaggery aids fermentation. The colour is best when it turns yellow. Instead of this long process, sometimes a quicker alternative is to use a solution of natural indigo, caustic soda, and hydrosulphate. This is available for use within 2 days.
Vichharnu: The cloth is washed thoroughly in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun. This removes the resist and unfixed dyes.
Rang: The fabric is now boiled in a solution of tamarisk and madder root powder (alizarin is an alternative). It is then washed and sun-dried. The red and black areas develop now. The areas which were coated with resist now appear white.
Minakari: Gach or alum printing (step 7) is repeated. The cloth is kept aside for several days. Minakari in Kutchi means ‘double sided work’
Bodaw: The second stage of indigo dyeing takes place. Cloth is again dried in the sun
Vichharnu: The fabric is washed in running water and dried in the sun
Rang: This stage (Step 10) is repeated.
The depth of colour and the perfect alignment of the printed designs are tested by holding the finished cloth up to the sun. As can be seen, this is a time consuming process. The longer an artisan waits before beginning the next step, the more vivid the final colours are.
What are the threats to the Ajrakh industry?
Water shortage in Gujarat and Rajasthan, which are affected by drought hamper the dyeing and printing process. Each step of the block printing art is manual. It needs not only skill but also patience to perfect this art. There are between 14-16 different steps in dyeing and printing, and each piece takes 14-21 days to complete. The screen printing industry makes cheap copies of their unique designs for a fraction of the cost. This undermines the market for these handmade products. The other issue is that of exacting perfection expected of these craftsmen. Since this is a completely manual process, and natural dyes are used, there are bound to be slight variations in the shades of the dye when large quantities of fabric are dyed. When these are rejected by the buyers, it causes distress to these craftsmen.
In the last few decades, the artisans of Ajrakhpur have successfully managed to transform the everyday dress of the local cattle herders into a fashion fabric. When it isn’t used as sarees, stoles, dupattas or kurtas, the patches make their way into colourful quilts. The key to the resurrection of local crafts and keeping it alive perhaps lies here: by adapting to the times.
Edwards EM, Ajrakh: from caste dress to catwalk. Textile History 2016; 47 (2): 146-170.