Shades of Ajrakh

Being the younger sister of an avid photographer and traveler, I was always fascinated by the mysterious places she visited, embarking on expeditions distant to me. I would secretively rummage through her belongings to find something that told a story; a story that would transport me, perhaps, to someplace outlying at the remotest corners of India. One such beautiful memento of art was the block-printed piece of cloth I found tucked away inside her bag.

Legend narrates, that a certain king grew so fond of the bedspread in his room that he ordered his maids to let it stay, uttering the words ‘Aaj ke din rakh’. This led to the fabrication of the term ‘Ajrakh’. The etymology of the word can also be attributed to the Arabic word ‘Azrak’, meaning Blue, which is one of the chief colors of the print. The beauty of the seamlessly gorgeous Ajrakh fabric has often been overlooked; truly appreciated only by the ensemble of aesthetic–lovers.

Ajrakh is a now- popular form of block printing, way ahead of its time. Parts of the fabric were uncovered at Fustat in Egypt; a blatant reminder that the craft of Ajrakh printing supposedly originated in India, was free of all geographical barriers. One look at the raw exquisiteness of the Ajrakh cloth might transport one The history of Ajrakh can be dated back to the initial existence of the Indus Valley civilization (2500 BC- 1500 BC), as attested by the excavation of the idol of a priest king in Mohenjo Daro, who was found wrapped in the material.

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Contrary to popular belief, Ajrakh is not exclusive to Kutch, Gujarat; the primary site of the fabric’s birth. In the dingy lanes of Barmer, Rajasthan, among ladies clad in traditional Rajasthani attire and men stroking their proud moustaches, exists an entire world; a substantiation of the fabric’s legacy. The Gujarati production of Ajrakh was quintessentially for the Maldharis’ (cattle herders) communities, turning into a Sindhi tradition, more than a fabric. It was principally used to make hammocks, dupattas, scarves, or even for simple gifts as a token of respect.

However, the scenario for the fabrication in Barmer differs somewhat at the intersection of the product line. It focuses mainly on modernized bed sheets and the manufacture of contemporary clothing. Though archaic, the process of creating Ajrakh maintains its former glory.

Strangely, water plays a vital role in the development process, ergo, also giving us another reason to save the elixir of life, so as to preserve this ever-green memoir of Indian culture. It is repeatedly washed and beaten in water, and then dyed deep in madder and Indigo (hence, the blue colour). But unlike other processes that are leisurely convenient to perform, the Ajrakh printing is done by first printing the fabric with a resist paste, and then dyed.

The process is repeated several times with different colours, which then results in a completed fabric, thus explaining the myriad, happy hues of every Ajrakh fabric. This gradual process is tiring and tedious; but the beautiful eye-catching Ajrakh patterns are a treat for the human eye. Therefore, the craftsmen wait for as long as possible before beginning the next step.

The piece of Ajrakh fabric I hold as a prized possession is a reminder of the vivid aspects of Indian tradition. The bag of souvenirs might lie undetected in the corner of my house somewhere, but this one piece of fabric never ceases to breathe life into my imagination, every time I lay eyes on it.

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR: www.tjori.com