Art & Crafts of India: Ajrakh or Ajarakh

Ajrak (Ajrakh)

Ajrakh is a block-printed textile that is resist-dyed using natural dyes. including indigo and madder. It is made by Khatris community in Kutch, Gujarat and is distinguished by its color- blue with red - and its complex geometric & floral patterns. Ajarkh derives it's name from 'Aaj ke din rakh' or keep it for the day, and is derived from 'azarak', 'blue' in Arabic & Persian. Ajrakh is a legacy of text. It takes skill & patience to make Ajrakh. There are between 14-16 different stages of dyeing & printing, which take 14-21 days to complete. The resulting cloth is soft against the skin and jewel-like in appearance, pleasing to touch & appealing to the eye.

Ajrakhpur, is where the tradition of Ajrakh block printing is kept alive by the Khatri community, whose ancestors came from the Sindh region in Pakistan.

Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri is one of the few left who carry on this tradition of laborious but beautiful craft of Ajarkh printing.

Carrying forward the tradition, his son Junaid Khatri.

Dr. Khatri explained that the process involved procuring the best cotton fabrics, washing, steaming in copper containers.

Ajrak is said to signify the Universe. Because of the use of color palate. Color red for earth, black for darkness, white for clouds and blue for Universe itself. Think moonless, think midnight, think darkness… the star spangled sky, against a stark blue-black background. This is what ajrakh (aka ajrak), meaning blue in Arabic, is likened to.

Nature plays an important role in the making of Ajrak. The craftsmen work in total harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees and mud are all part of its making.

It is the synergy between handloom textiles and vegetable dyes that creates magic. The introduction of chemical dyes led to the decline of natural dyes towards the end of the nineteenth century. Ajrakh printing, using natural dyes is one of the oldest techniques of resist printing in India and is one of the most complex and sophisticated methods of printing.

Ajrakh printed cotton is traditionally worn by the pastoral Maldhari community. Apart from pagdis and lungis the women wear printed skirts, and use the ajrakh fabric as bed covers to line cradles for babies. Every colour tells a story and the design images the status. The Khatris have developed a feel for the contemporary market and now ajrakh yardage, kurta sets, furnishings, scarves can be bought.

A remarkable feature of ajrakh printing is that on a single fabric, using the same design, resist printing is combined with other printing and dyeing techniques. The whole process is repeated on both sides of the fabric in perfect cohesion, which calls for unsurpassed skill. Ajrakh uses mud-resist in the various stages and another unique feature is that the dyeing and printing is repeated twice on the fabric to ensure brilliance of colour. Superimposing the repeats is done so perfectly that the clarity is sharpened.

To identify ajrakh one needs to look for fabric with a background of red or blue (though other vegetable dye colours like yellow and green have been introduced) Traditionally four colours were used red (alizarin), blue (indigo), black (iron acetate) white (resist). The ajrakh makers believe that the printed fabric has warm and cool colours which steady the body temperature… blue is cooling and red is warm.

Intricacies

Block printing is a laborious effort of precision. First, cloth is stretched and pinned onto a table. The printers smother wooden blocks with resist and hover them over the cloth to ensure a symmetrical application. Once they are aligned, the block is pounded on the cloth with a heavy-forced whack. This same motion is performed hundreds of times until the cloth is completely covered with the block’s outline in three different resist bases. The cloth is then dyed in a base color and laid under the sun to dry, rinsed and dyed again until the cloth is transformed into a crowded mural of colors and motifs.

The white cotton cloth is placed in a copper container with water and soda ash, then steamed to soften it and washed in running water preferably in a river. Soap is applied to it as it is spread over a large cauldron of water. It is then dipped in a mixture of oils, squeezed out and kept overnight. The fabric is washed out the next day and soaked in a mixture of powdered sakun seeds and oil and dried again after which it acquires a dull beige colour. The specially designed blocks are used to print the fabric in gum using an outline block. The second line of printing which is kat printing gives a black colour using a solution of ferrous sulphate and ground seeds. When it is dyed in alizarine it turns black. After the third printing with a resist made of natural elements the fabric is dyed in indigo. The fabric is washed, and dyed in alizarine which produces the red colour in the areas which were covered initially by resist. The second dyeing is in indigo to produce another shade of blue. After this the final wash consists of successive washing in soda ash then in water where detergent is added and then in running water which results in a luminous and beautiful product.

The Blocks

The printing blocks have to be very finely chiseled and by experts in the field. A set of three blocks create a dovetailing effect which finally results in the design. They are carved from the Acacia Arabica trees, indigenous to the Sindh region. The repeat pattern, which gives the design its character, is determined by a grid system. The pattern is first transferred to the block and then carved with great precision by the block-maker, who uses very simple tools. The blocks are carved in pairs that can register an exact inverted image on the other side. Today, there is only one surviving member of a family of block-makers whose forefathers were skilled in this craft.

Wooden Blocks stored in different boxes...

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