Ajrakh - The Story of an Ancient Craft of Handblock Printing

Ajrakh

The sculpture of ‘The Priest-King of Mohenjo-Daro’ was one of the precious discoveries in the Archaeology field. The fascinating stone sculpture is widely discussed among aesthetes for the Priest’s shawl with trefoil patterns and small circles which is also believed to be the depiction of three gods of earth, water, and sun. That is Ajrakh, one of the oldest textile traditions of block-printing. This art of printing cloth with finely carved wooden blocks has been practiced in India for over 4,500 years 

Ajrakh

The fragments of textile found in the Archaeological site of Fustat in Egypt are also believed to be Ajrakh block-printed cotton fabrics sourced from India, dating back to the 10th century. This captivating craft has its origin in the Sindh region which was named after the mighty river ‘Indus’/’Sindhu’. The early settlers of Sindh lived adjacent to the Indus river around 3300 BCE. Indigo and cotton plants flourished around the banks of the Indus river and that became one of the essential materials for preparing Ajrakh Craft. The great source of water was beneficial to wash clothes in the process of dying on both the side of the river. The cotton fabric has a good adhesive quality and as Indigo was available in the region plentifully; hence the decorative patterns were being created with the magnificent indigo over cotton. 

Anecdotes of the word ‘Ajrakh’ 

As the craft evolves with time, the different stories and beliefs get associated with them. And such intangible value attached with the crafts makes them more meaningful. Similarly, the etymology of ‘Ajarakh’ also revolves around multiple tales expressed at different times or by different people. 

One of the beliefs is that the word ‘Ajrakh’ is comprised of two Kutchi words ‘Aj’ meaning ‘today’ and ‘Rakh’ meaning ‘keep’ which translates into ‘Keep it for a day’. The long and traditional process of Ajrakh printing includes 16 layers of printing and each layer of color needs the rest for a day to dry completely before applying the next one. It is also believed that the fabric derived its name from the Sanskrit word ‘A-jharat’ (stable) which is interpreted as a fabric that does not fade. In Arabic, meaning of Ajrakh is to beautify. One of the beliefs also suggests that the word Ajrakh is derived from the Persian word ‘Azurakh’ meaning blue. The extensive use of Indigo in the process of Ajrakh block printing justifies this too.

Ajrakh from Sindh to Kutch

Roots of this ancient craft stretched towards Kutch in Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan in the 16th century. This craft is practiced by the local communities in the vast deserts of Kutch in Gujarat and Sindh in Pakistan. The traditional method of double-sided print is still made here. Even with the touch of contemporary design, it still promotes the classic colors of blue and red with beautiful patterns.  

Ajrakh

The colors used in the print has significant meaning such as blue in the patterns represents the sky, the red colour symbolises the twilight, and dark night is by interpreted by black. The glittery stars scattered across the fabric are created with the white desings. Maldhari’s, a nomad community of Kutch can easily be recognised wearing vibrant shawls of Ajrkah print. Traditionally, Ajrakh is worn only by the men as lungi, turban or as a shoulder cloth. The same fabric of Ajrakh is used for three of these functions and two-sided print makes if more flexible to use. It is worn by all economic class of the society. The durability of cotton fabric make it last for generations. The fabric becomes softer with the use, it has variety of uses even after it becomes old. It is used as a swathe to cover the baby. Maldhari’s create hammocks out of it under the tree to rest in their tiring journey of herding. The women also create patchwork quilts which gives comfort in a cold Kutchi night.

Astonishing two-sided Ajrakh

Ekpuri and Bipuri meaning Single sided and double-sided are the two types of traditional Ajrakh printing. The Bipuri Ajrkah needs a great level of skill to print the same patterns on both the sides of the fabric with the perfect alignment. The special feature of this Ajrakh makes it magical with the same intensity and depth of color and patterns both the sides. 

The traditional color palette was very defined because of the use of locally available natural materials to prepare dyes. They were limited with the shades of blue, red, grey, green, yellow and black. Indigo was used to prepare shades of light-blue to dark grey, yellow colour was extracted from pomegranate peel, the overlapping of indigo dyed fabric with pomegranate peel yellow prepares the shade of green. To get the red colour madder roots were being used. The fermented iron, alum and harde were used for preparing black color dye.

 Ajrakh

Ajrakh is generally prepared with the seven sets of wooden blocks where each set is having three to five blocks according to the design. Each pattern requires separate block for outline and filling of different colors.

 Ajrakh

Khatris and Ajrakh

The Khatri community that worked on these textiles moved to Dhamadka, 50 km east of Bhuj in Kutch. Early convert to Islam (in 12th century CE) they are known as the Khoja Sheikhs.  In the 1920s, there have been around 1000 families of block-printers from the 124 villages of Kutch. There were printing Karkhanas (workshops) that produced a huge quantity of block prints for local people as well as for exporting outside Kutch. Dhamadka was the hub for Ajarakh block-printing as Sasan ganga river was flowing adjacent to the village. The flowing water is essential for washing fabrics in the process of dying. 

 Ajrakh

The river of Sasan Ganga started drying off during the late 1990s and later bore wells were being used, the saline water of bore wells was not suitable for printing. There was a raised need for relocation of the habitat, where printers can find less saline water. In the earthquake of 2001 when many houses and Karkhanas were destroyed, the group of artisans decided to find land and relocate their habitat and workshops, which is now known as Ajrakhpur. 

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