Nothing's askew

Nothing's askew

An imitation of varicoloured nature, ‘ajrak’ art is a toil to bring geometric shapes alive on fabric. For many families, it is also a way of life. Preeti Verma Lal delves into this exacting craft

Close your eyes. Picture the evening sky. The azure sky gradually borrowing the charcoal of night, the crimson streaks pre-empting the burnished orange of the setting sun, and impatient stars hurrying to peep through the blue sky. Picture that sky. The crimson, the blue, the stars. In Arabic, that splendid moment is called ajrak; it signifies the universe: red for earth, black for night/darkness, white for clouds and blue of the sprawling sky. And if you have ever draped yourself in Kutchi ajrak print, you’d decipher the might of these primal colours.

Natural colours

One would never know where gods scoop their emulsions from; we’d never know the address of heaven’s paintshop. But Khatri Abdul Rauf, an 11th-generation ajrak printer from Dhamadka village in Kutch, Gujarat, can create the sky’s colour palette — at least its closest approximation. Black is derived from a mixture of old iron scrap, jaggery, gram flour and water left to ferment for days and then boiled in tamarind seed flour. Millet flour, madder root and alum meld for the vibrant red; indigo, of course, extracted from indigo plant. Gum and lime blend for that indelible white.

At South Asian Bazaar held in New Delhi by Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople that aims at improving their economic status, Rauf was plonked amidst bales of ajrak fabric with curious buyers flipping through cotton/silk saris, fabric and quilts scattered carelessly. I was curious, brimming with questions about the history and process of the traditional ajrak block prints, but Rauf was beaming with a fat wallet in hand. At the Dastkar Bazaar, Rauf had sold most of the fabric that he had lugged from Ajrakpur, a village in Kutch, which borrows its name from the ancient art of block printing.

“Isn’t the famous priest king excavated in Indus Valley draped in ajrak shawl?” I throw a question at Rauf. “The shawl’s trefoil motif is uncannily ajrak,” I add knowingly. Rauf smiles with a dash of absolute unknowingness. He refuses to go back so further past in time. What he knows with utter certainty is that ajrak printers originally came from Sindh, Pakistan. Chipa and Khatri communities were renowned for their ajrak-printing skills. In the days of yore, women trudged into jungles to collect raw material for dyes, men spun yarn and hunched over yards of fabric to block print.

Each one, took one

In the beginning, each family had its own monopolised set of motifs, and you could name an ajrak printer merely by looking at the motif. Motifs were family and occasion (even age) specific! A married woman would abstain from wearing the colours and motifs that she wore as a little girl. Not even the one that she draped herself in after her engagement and before her wedding ceremony. “If a woman walked past a window, people would know which family she belonged to and if she was engaged, married or widowed,” elaborated Rauf, who with the help of six, can print 70 metres every month.

“Seventy metres?” That’s it. I dropped a jaw. “It is back-breaking, very tedious,” Rauf wiped a sweatdrop off his ebony skin, twirled his unruly beard, kept his phone aside and began a story. The story of how ajrak is printed. There are only 28 ajrak patterns that have been handed down from father to son for centuries. There’s never an animal, bird or human motif. In the ajrak design pantheon, they are sacrilegious. Ajrak only has geometrical design.

Everything is symmetrical. Asymmetry is blasphemy. Star is essential in every motif. The primary motif invariably remains the same; an ajrak printer can only improvise/innovate with fabric borders or pallus in saris. Interestingly, ajrak prints are exactly the same on both sides of fabric. “There is no ulta (back), seedha (front) of fabric,” Rauf explained simply what in textile jargon is known as resist printing.

Step by step

All ajrak prints have a ‘dung-y’ beginning. Did you pucker in disbelief? Don’t. The first step in creating an ajrak print is to wash the white/grey cotton fabric in a glop of camel dung, castor oil and plant-derived natural soda ash. The sun-dried fabric is first layered with a mixture of gum and lime; the red and black are added thereafter, and finally, the fabric is soaked in a wok full with indigo water. Wait, it is not done yet. The indigo-dipped fabric is then washed in a river and again boiled in madder root water. Phew! So long to imitate the colours of sky that gods paint every evening, blindfolded, and in a jiffy!

For 11 generations, the Raufs have lived and dreamt just one thing: ajrak. It runs in their blood; it keeps their hearth warm; it stretches their dreams; it lends their life a nostalgic resonance. Exactly 32 years ago, when six women got together to start Dastkar, they could not have imagined that their efforts would one day not only fill the coffers of the Raufs, but also keep the art of ajrak printing alive. The large smile on Rauf’s ebony face sure vouches for it!

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