CHAPTER I . PRINTED TEXTILES
Ajrakh Block Print
Ajrakh: the magnificent fabric of Sindh and Kutch.
ONCE UPON A TIME...
There was a king of Sindh (today, in Pakistan), who were used to sleep on a new bedspread everyday. One day, when his servant was about to change the bed sheet, the king told him: “Aaj Rakh” (keep it today). It was a beautiful hand block printed bed sheet that came to be referred as Ajrakh, the magnificent fabric of Sindh and Kutch (Gujarat, India).
In our days, for the local printers of Kutch, Ajrakh means “keep it today”. This word can also be linked to Azrakh, which means "blue" in Arabic, once indigo is one of the main colours in this textile; or even to the Sanskrit word A-jharat, which means "which doesn't fade".
In the 16th Century, Ajrakh was brought to Kutch, to Dhamadka, a village close to the Saran River of saline water - good for dyeing of Ajrakh cloth. The river bed was also a good source of natural alum, a crucial ingredient in the dyeing of cloth.
In the 1940's, the bright chemical colours and synthetic fabrics swamped the markets, putting Ajrakh printing into a "pause-mode". Then in the 60's, this craft re-woke up thanks to local craftsmen and patron's efforts.
THE AJRAKH'S MASTERS: THE KHATRI COMMUNITY
Before the devastating earthquake which struck Gujarat in 2001, the Khatri community practised Ajrakh printing in the village of Dhamadka in the Kutch district. Government and non-government organisations relocated artisans to the relatively new village of Ajrakhpur, formed in commemoration of Ajrakh printing and its master craftsmen. The Khatri community are not only known for their dominance in Ajrakh printing within Gujarat, but also for other traditional textile arts such as tie and dye, or, alternatively, Bandhani.
However, it is the Khatri families that reside particularly in Ajrakhpur, Gujarat who have been known to excel at Ajrakh printing and, today, continue the traditional techniques of their ancestors. In recent times, master Ajrakh producers of the Khatri community have instructed members of the Muslim Harijan community in the production of Ajrakh printed fabrics. This not only ensures that the art of Ajrakh printing will remain strong into the future, but also exemplifies the versatility of India’s traditional craftsmen and the integration of traditional textile techniques in contemporary fashion.
Numerous government and non-government initiatives continue to contribute to the conservation and sustenance of Ajrakh printing’s traditions and the lifestyle of its artisans.
The quality of water plays a vital role in the whole process of Ajrakh printing. Bhuj's damaging earthquake, in 2001, brought environmental changes: the iron content of Saran River’s water increased, making it unsuitable for Ajrakh printing.
Half the craftsmen of Dhamadka decided to move to a new village and named it Ajrakhpur - an example of rebuilding lives from scratch. A rainwater harvesting plant has been built in the village, indicating that sustainability was an important consideration in planning the village.
ISLAMIC PATTERNS OF NATURAL COLOURS
In Kutch, the Rabaris, Maldharis and Ahirs are the nomadic pastoralis and agricultural communities who wear turbans, stoles, lungis, etc, of Ajrakh prints. The patterns are of a complex geometry and traditionally inspired in the shapes of Islamic architecture.
Ajrakh's colours are fast and even - after a long and skilled work of high concentration, where the cloth is washed, dyed, printed and dried within a process of 16 steps - and all from natural resources such as: pomegranate seeds, gum, harde powder, wood, flour of Kachika, flower of Dhavadi, alizarine and locally cultivated Indigo. Jaggery and gram flour are used for black designs; alum and tamarind for red.
The blue main colour symbolizes the sky, red symbolizes twilight, black represents the night, and the white geometric shapes and motifs are like stars on a dark night.
Time and patience are the base for printing an Ajrakh.
Firstly, printers tear un-dyed fabric into 9 meter lengths, wash it to remove starches, wax and impurities and then dye it with myrobalam.
Then, artisans select a wooden block carved with traditional designs, from a collection that may be up to 100 years old. The block is coated in lime and acacia gum (which act as a resist) and carefully pressed onto the cloth at regular intervals - colour is not required and black is used for outlines.
The process continues by selecting and coating blocks in dye, aligning them with previous prints, and pressing them carefully onto the fabric. The cloth is rinsed and sun-dried, after each colour of print.
Once the printing is complete, the cloth is once again washed, re-dyed in one of the natural colours, and re-laid in the sun to dry.