Etched in the collective memory of a modern world are two images that have survived the onslaught of the ages. The bust of the bearded priest king of Mohenjodaro with his eyes shut in silent contemplation and the other of the dancing girl with her right hand resting on her hip. For textile historians, what matters most is the shawl wrapped around the bearded priest king of Mohenjodaro, as iconic as the historic artefact itself.
The visualisation of the figure using possible colours and elements from the archaeological records applied to the replica generated circular designs and trefoils, originally sporting a red pigment on a blue or green background on the shawl. That this is almost identical to the double-sided block printing or ajrak work practised in Sindh earlier and Kutch and Rajasthan even today underlines the oldest continuous mien of printing indigenous to the sub-continent of India. Its origins trace back to more than 4,500 years ago. Yet, the oldest acknowledged piece of block-printed ajrak cloth from Gujarat is believed to be around 600-800 years old, recovered from a grave in Cairo, Egypt, and on display at the India & the World exhibition at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai.
The oldest form of printing on textiles and later paper is said to have originated in China in 220 AD, the oldest acknowledged records available. Meanwhile, the Incas of Peru, Chile and the Aztecs of Mexico are said to have practised textile printing previous to the Spanish invasion in 1519 but where they learned it from is obscure. And, it was during the latter half of the 17th century that the French brought by sea from their colonies on the east coast of India, samples of Indian blue and white resist prints and with them, details of the processes of washable fabrics. For the record, in 1476, the first printing press was said to be invented in England. Yet, printing as a process, nevertheless, was in practice in the Indus Valley Civilisation back in 2,500 BC, 4,500 years till date.
Practised in Sindh on the Pakistan side first, and later by locals in Kutch in Gujarat on the Indian side, zones etched out of the Indian subcontinent by the 1947 Indo-Pak partition, the double-sided block-printed textile is still made in a traditional way with natural dyes sporting classic colours of blue and red with geometric patterns.
Ajrak, as the form of textile printing is known, was originally practised in the Sindh region till about around 400 years ago when the Khatri community that worked on these textiles due to water shortage in Sindh, moved to Dhamadka, 50 km east of Bhuj, in Kutch. The early converts to Islam and now known as the Khoja Sheikhs, the Khatris in Kutch are still known for their ajrak work. Sadly, in the Kutch earthquake of 2001, the entire village of Dhamadka was destroyed. A spanking new village — Ajrakhpur — was created 43 km from the original one — 15 km from Bhuj to re-settle the community of artisans and their craft — ajrak.
After the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, three-time State Award and one-time National Award winner Ranamal Khatri’s father and grandparents shifted to Barmer in Rajasthan. In Barmer was a small pond Kareli Nadi (now called Nargasar) recharged during the monsoon through a stream of water flowing from the hillock. The Khatris used the water of Kareli Nadi for dyeing and printing. Fresh water was drawn on camel backs from a well near the Kareli Nadi. After shifting from Sindh, due to change of place and climate, the Khatris were never able to achieve the brightness in colours in Barmer as compared to Sindh. Ranamal’s grandfather (Bihari Lal Khatri) and father (Jetharam Khatri) tried their best but could never get the original colours. Once the Kareli Nadi dried out, people started drawing water from the well. The women would carry water from the well in clay pots to the printing workshops.
“The colours used in the ajrak processes are those derived from nature like indigo, henna, turmeric, pomegranate, jaggery, iron and mud through processes that are complex and involve several stages consuming time. Mixtures include camel dung, soda ash, castor oil, madder, sappan wood, the root of rhubarb and lac. Different shades created are ‘fixed’ by the use of alum. Several colours are created from diverse sources. For instance, yellow is created as a blend of pomegranate rinds and turmeric,” offers Ranamal Khatri.
The essence of ajrak lie in the fact that it is on a single fabric, using the same design, that resist printing is combined with other printing and dyeing techniques. The entire process is repeated on both sides of the fabric in perfect cohesion and with the use of exemplary skill. Ajrak uses mud-resist in various stages. The dyeing and printing is repeated twice on the fabric to achieve brilliance of colour. Interestingly, the repeats are superimposed with extreme perfection to sharpen the clarity of design.
In order to identify ajrak, 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, the four colours used were red (alizarin), blue (indigo), black (iron acetate) and white (resist). The warm and cool colours are known to steady the body temperature… blue is said to cool while red is said to warm.
Magic is created by the synergy between handloom textiles and vegetable dyes. Sadly, the introduction of chemical dyes led to the decline of natural dyes towards the end of the 19th century.
Ajrak is today practised in Sindh in Pakistan, Ajrakhpur and Khavda in Kutch, Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan. Each place incidentally has its own variation of ajrak modelled on their style, colour and motifs used. The fabric itself can be spotted across the Kutch landscape, especially among the men belonging to the Maldhari community, the cattle herders of Kutch. Ajrak printed cotton is traditionally worn by the pastoral Maldhari community either as pagdis and lungis for the men. While the women wear printed skirts, they even use the ajrak fabric as bed covers to line cradles for babies.
There are two origins to the term ajrak - while some records claim that it could have been derived from the Arabic term azrak meaning blue — after primary colours in ajrak printing, others suggest the term is derived from a more colloquial term aaj-rakh, which means ‘keep it today’. Today, albeit, only a few traditional blocks remain leaving a lot of the design changed. Urban market and brands like Fabindia, Biba and even couture designers are trying to revive the ajrak in a big way. Ajrak printing using natural dyes is one of the oldest techniques of resist printing and one of the most complex and sophisticated methods of printing in not just India but across the world.