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In the heartland of ajrakh

Traditional block printing from Gujarat has just earned a GI tag. Sahana Kulur unravels its rich history
Last Updated : 14 June 2024, 19:55 IST

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The ajrakh block print from Gujarat is known for its timeless elegance and skilled artistry. It is back in the limelight as it earned a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in May.

Ajrakh is a complex block printing technique that uses natural dyes and layered prints. The name possibly came from the Sanskrit word ‘ajharat’, meaning does not fade, or ‘azraq’, the Arabic word for blue.

Versatility factor

The beauty of ajrakh lies in its unisex appeal, says Mohammad Sahil Khatri from Ajrakhpur, Bhuj. “At gatherings in Kutch, you will see women wearing ajrakh salwar kameez and sari, and men sporting ajrakh-printed shawls or turbans,” he elaborates.

Steeped in our cultural heritage, ajrakh’s intricate patterns go well with both fashion and décor products. Savitha Narayanan, architect and co-founder of The Dwell Theory, based in Milan and Bengaluru, says, “We’ve used ajrakh-printed cotton for making napkins, scarves, and pocket squares.”

Evolving motifs

Ajrakh prints mostly feature geometrical and floral motifs. “Each motif symbolises an aspect of nature,” says Tausif Khatri, owner of Ajrakh Dreamation, located in Dhamadka village in Bhuj. In recent times, he has been incorporating contemporary patterns like zigzag lines, hexagons, and triangles. These designs are popular in running fabrics meant for stitching kurtas and skirts.

Sahil specialises in traditional designs like ‘kan kharek’ (dried dates) and ‘riyal’ (circular pattern that symbolise coins). However, in the past three years, Jaipuri designs like ‘phooljhadi’ (bunch of flowers), ‘jharokha’ (a typical Rajasthani stone window projecting from the wall face of a building), peacocks, and queens sitting on elephants have gained popularity, he points out.

Backstory

Khengar Bhai, whose ancestors hailed from Sindh in Pakistan, sheds some light on the history of ajrakh tradition. Ajrakh prints were widely used by Sindhi Muslim communities living along the Indus River in pre-partition India. It remains popular even today in Sindh (Pakistan) and Kutch (Gujarat).

He shows me an indigo-maroon ajrakh-printed bedspread at his handicraft shop in Dhordo village, Kutch. He says, “In Sindh, ajrakh is synonymous with exquisitely designed, brilliantly dyed, and skillfully printed clothes.” And in Kutch, the herding community favours ajrakh turbans for their softness, lightness, and vibrant prints. “The prints help them identify their family members in the fields,” he shares.

Tausif’s village Dhamadka is located in Bhuj, a major town in Kutch. The village has a century-old legacy in ajrakh block printing. “Traditionally, ajrakh was crafted by men, mainly from the Khatri community. They would use resist dyeing (method) with natural colours,” he says.

Dhamadka was the centre of ajrakh block printing as it was located on the banks of the Saran river. However, the trade suffered a setback after the river dried up in the early 1990s. The 2001 Gujarat earthquake hit another blow, forcing ajrakh artists to move 40 km away. They then established the Ajrakhpur village, which has now emerged as the hub of Kutch ajrakh block prints.

Tool watch

The raw materials used for Kutch ajrakh block printing include fabrics, natural dyes, mordant gums (substance used to bind dyes on fabrics), and water.

Tausif says that ajrakh designs can be printed on cotton or silk. “We source 360-count cotton sheets from Erode, Tamil Nadu. From Chanderi or Surat, we get modal silk, a wood pulp-based cellulose fibre (made from beech trees). The use of cotton is more popular,” he adds.

Teakwood is carved with motifs required for printing. Previously, artists drew designs on paper, transferred them onto wooden blocks, and carved the motifs. “Nowadays, many artists purchase (pre-carved) blocks from skilled carpenters in Pethapur, Gandhinagar,” Tausif says. Carving intricate motifs on wood is an art in itself. “Three to six blocks are needed to create a motif, and each is dyed with a different colour,” he explains.

Making process

Ajrakh printing involves 12 to 14 stages, depending on the motifs one wants to achieve. “Mordants, resists or both are used in the printing,” says Sahil, a 24-year-old artist and proprietor of Ajrakh Print Official in Ajrakhpur. His family has been in this trade for three generations. 

If a fabric carries ajrakh prints on one side, it is called ‘ekpuri’ and if a fabric has prints on both sides, then it is ‘bipuri’. To begin with, a white cotton fabric is washed to remove starch. It is then soaked in a solution of castor oil, soda ash, and camel dung overnight, and dried in the sun later. “This is repeated seven to nine times until foam starts to appear when the cloth is rubbed in water. Once this is achieved, it is washed in plain water,” Sahil details.

‘Kasanu’ is the next step. Here, the fabric is dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan, derived from the powdered nut of the harade tree. This turns the cloth yellow and also acts as a mordant to hold the dyes. After dyeing and calendering (smoothening the fabric), it is laid flat to dry under the sun. ‘Rekh’, the third step, is a crucial one. This is when you draw the outline of the design on the fabric. “A resist made of lime and gum arabic is pasted onto the cloth to define the outline. For double-printed fabrics like the ‘bipuri’, this step is repeated on the reverse side of the cloth,” Sahil explains.

Colour theory

The subsequent steps involve dyeing the fabric with different colours, drying, washing, and repeating the cycle until the entire design is completed. “The dyes must be prepared just before the process so they are easy to apply,” he says.

‘Neela’ (blue) is made from the indigo plant, ‘laal’ (red) by boiling tamarind seed powder with alum, and black by soaking rusted iron, jaggery, and gram flour and then cooking the mix with tamarind seeds. ‘Leelo’ (green) is derived by dipping indigo-dyed fabric in a pomegranate and turmeric solution, ‘peelo’ (yellow) is made from turmeric, and a ‘bhuro’ (brown) shade is obtained by dying a fabric with a rhubarb extract.

Blue, black, red, and white were traditional colours used in the prints. “These colours symbolised various aspects of the universe — red for earth, black for darkness, white for clouds, and blue for the universe. Today, ajrakh prints also feature green, yellow, and brown,” says Bhai.

It is important to allow each dye to dry completely before proceeding to finish the ‘ekpuri’. “In the case of ‘bipuri’, the fabric is dyed on one side, dried halfway, and taken back to the workshop to dye the other side before allowing it to dry again,” Sahil elaborates.

To prepare the background colour, primary dyes such as blue or red are mixed in the water and boiled. Different parts of the fabric are immersed in different boiling coloured water and then left to dry.

How to spot a handmade ajrakh fabric

Machine-made ajrakh fabrics are widely available now and make use of synthetic colours, says Mohammad Sahil Khatri. “To spot a genuine hand painted ajrakh print, look for imperfect designs like smudged colours or patterns that are slightly off. Also, pay attention to the colours. Synthetic colours are bright while natural dyes are more muted,” he adds. In ‘ekpuri’ ajrakh fabric, the pattern shows through the non-dyed side whereas the back side of a machine-done fabric will be plain, he explains.

Tips to maintain

With proper care, you can retain the colour of ajrakh-printed textiles for at least 10 years. “Wash them in cold water. Avoid soaking. Dry them in warm yet shaded areas. Refrain from using harsh chemicals or perfumes on them," advises Savitha Narayanan.

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Published 14 June 2024, 19:55 IST

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