Craft of Brilliance — Ajrakh

Ajarkh takes its name from the Hindi phrase ‘aaj ke din rakh’ (keep it for the day).

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Ajrakhpur, a tiny village in Kutch, is an Aladdin’s cave of traditional handmade artisan crafts. It is one such place fighting to keep alive the dying art of Ajrakh, a form of block printing on cloth.

The secret legend

Legend goes that Ajrakh printers are actually descendants of Rama’s sons Lav and Kush. The king of Kutch brought them over to his barren uninhabited land, along with dyers, printers, potters and people with other craft skills. The dyers were Khatri Brahmins. Two generations later they settled in Dhamadka. This place was devastated by severe earthquakes twice which caused the artisans to shift to Ajrakpur 12 kilometres from Bhuj. The ajrakh makers claim that their craft harks back to early medieval times. Scraps of printed fragments which were believed to originate from Western India, were unearthed at Fostat near Cairo.

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The finest samples were printed in Sind (now Pakistan) but traditions are maintained in Kutch, in Khavda and Dhamadka and Barmer in Rajasthan. A few Khatri families use the Ajrakh method 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 color 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.

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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 perfection, which calls for unsurpassed skill. Ajrakh uses mud-resist at various stages and dyeing and printing is repeated twice on the fabric to ensure brilliance of color. 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, although now colors like yellow and green have also been making big on the scene. Traditionally four colors were used red (alizarin), blue (indigo), black (iron acetate) white (resist). The Ajrakh makers believe that the printed fabric has warm and cool colors which steady the body temperature… blue is cooling and red is warm.

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The printing blocks have to be very finely chiseled and by experts in the field. 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 color. The fabric is washed in running water which results in a luminous and beautiful product.

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Today the preparation has been scaled down with short cut methods as no one has the time to go into such laborious procedures. But then the intricacy and delicacy of lines are sacrificed. Inclusion of chemical dyes diffuses the quality of the colors. Today the scarcity of water has interfered with the production. The natural products used of late are gums, oil, clay lime, sakun seeds and molasses.

Ajrakh is an example of textile printing in which natural dyes are used. Previously many kinds of vegetable dyes were prevalent in our country and put to use. Rather than allow the ecological balance to tilt due to the use of chemical dyes it is necessary to relate to nature and explore plant resources.

Buy handprinted ajrakh clothing at Tjori.