Ajrakh is one of the oldest types of block printing on textiles still practised in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, and in Sindh in Pakistan. Textiles printed in this style are hand-printed using natural dyes on both sides by a laborious and long process of resist printing (a method of printing in which designated areas in the pattern are pre-treated to resist penetration by the dye).
Why should I know about it?
Ajrakh printed cloth is one of the softest textiles to wear against the skin, as it's fibres soften during the rigourous process of printing. In Sindh, it is used as swaddling cloth for new borns. Other than its comfort, it also has a lot of aesthetic appeal since its vegetable colours are almost glowing and jewel like.
It is important to sustain crafts like Ajrakh by developing their market, as they are slowly dying out. This ancient and time consuming craft involves so much labour with such low profit margins that the younger generation of Ajrakh printers is now seeking more lucrative work with short-term gains. Many are also taking short cuts by reducing the number of essential stages in the making of Ajrakh; others have simply switched to printing cheap silk-screen versions.
All about Ajrakh
Ajrakh prints were dominated by geometrical shapes and use intense jewel-like colours of rich crimson and a deep indigo, with black and white highlights. In Gujarat, the main centres of Ajrakh are Dhamadka, Khavda and Bhuj. The Khatri community has been engaged in this craft for centuries and the technique has been passed down and perfected through several generations. Now, however, only two such family units of Ajrakh printers still practice the craft in India.
Ajrakh blocks are also no longer easy to come by, as there are very few block-makers (or indeed, block-making families) left in Sindh
Origins of Ajrakh
The history of the Ajrakh can be traced from the times of the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, around 2500BC to 1500BC. A bust of the King Priest excavated at Mohenjodaro shows a shawl — believed to be an Ajrakh—draped around his shoulders, which is decorated with a trefoil pattern (like a three-leafed clover) interspersed with small circles, the interiors of which are filled with a red pigment. The same trefoil pattern has been discovered in Mesopotamia, as well as on the royal couch of Tutankhamen. This pattern, which symbolises the unity of the gods of the Sun, water and earth, survives as the cloud pattern in the modern Ajrakh.
Cultural Significance of Ajrakh
The people of Sindh have a deep reverence for Ajrakh. From birth to marriage, until death, Ajrakh celebrates all significant events of the life cycle. Ajrakh is worn as a turban, a shawl, spread as a bed-sheet or tablecloth and when worn out, it is recycled as a hammock for babies, cover for a bullock cart and most commonly used as a backing to patchwork quilts. It is used and reused till threadbare. It is worn by the wealthy as well as the poor — the colours, patterns and design-format remain the same, only the quality of the fabric is different.
The process by which the fabric is made is considered intuitive to Ajrakh makers. Ajrakh literally meant aaj ke din rakh, or 'keep it for today' because that is what the process is. At every stage of the tedious dying process, the fabric should dry for three to four days. Nature plays an important role in the making of Ajrakh. Craftsmen work in total harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees and mud are all part of its making.
First, cloth is torn into sheets and taken to the river to be washed. These are steamed in copper vats for one night and a day to open the pores of the cloth and soften it. This process is called khumbh in Sindh.
Next, the fabric is soaked in a mixture of camel dung, seed oil and water. The dung enables the cloth to become softer and acts as a bleaching agent. This stage is very crucial in determining the quality of an Ajrakh. The wet cloth is then tied into an airtight bundle and kept for five to 10 days, depending upon the weather. A distinct smell of mango pickle emanating from the bundle confirms that the fibres have been well soaked with oil. This is called the saaj.
The cloth is then sun-dried and soaked in oil that has been curdled with carbonate of soda. After a day, the cloth is washed and re-soaked in a home-made mixture of dried lemons, molasses, castor oil and water, amongst other things.
Now, finally, the cloth is ready for printing.
Using the outline block, the printer dips his block in kiryana (a resist made with rice paste, Acacia gum and lime) to print on both sides of the cloth. The printed pattern remains white. The black areas are stamped on the cloth with a filler-block.
For the next stage, gum is mixed with rice paste, alum, molasses, fennel, Fuller’s earth and other herbs to form the mud resist-paste, called the kharrh, which is printed on the areas that are to be protected against indigo dye, that is, the areas meant to be white, black and red.
The cloth goes through the first indigo dye. It is soaked in water for at least an hour. To a rhythmic count, craftsmen swish and thrash the Ajrakhs in water for an hour or more until the gum and the excess dye have been washed off and the white areas become clear. This stage is called vicharrh.
On the riverbank or near a tank, the red Ajrakhs are spread out to partially dry in the sun. These are wet again before they have completely dried. This alternate drying and drenching bleaches the white areas and deepens other colours.
The mud resist mixture is again printed to cover the red areas and immediately sprinkled with the sifted, dried cow dung to dry the wet areas, called meena. The thick, mud-encrusted cloth is folded and slowly lowered into the indigo vat for the second time. The Ajrakhs are dried, rolled into a bundle and then taken to the river for the final wash. The craftsmen fold the Ajrakhs while still damp and the weight presses them as they become dry.
Ajrakh Blocks (pors)
These are hand carved from the wood of Acacia Arabica trees. Several different blocks are used to give the characteristic repeated patterning. Making the blocks is a considerable challenge since the pattern has to synchronize perfectly with the whole of the Ajrakh as well as cover various areas against dye. Block makers (or poregars) use the simplest of tools, and carve each block in pairs that can register an exact inverted image on the other side.
What can I do about it?
Below are some of the places where you can buy authentic Ajrakh prints in New Delhi.
- Gurjari, Gujarat Government emporium
- Fab India
- Cottage Emporium in Delhi
- Kamala -The Craft Shop at Gallery 1, Rajiv Gandhi Handicraft Bhawan, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place, New Delhi
Maintaining Ajrakh printed textiles
Ajrakh prints require some extra care while washing, like most Indian block printed fabrics. Here are some tips --
- Wash in cold water. If hand washing is not possible, wash the textile in the gentlest possible cycle of your washing machine. Wash with like colours.
- In order to maintain the colour of the textile, add a handful of salt to the first rinse. Do not use fabric softeners or dryer sheets -- these could coat the fabric with a whitish residue that would dull the luminosity of the dyes.
- Do not dry in the dryer -- line drying works best. In case this is not an option, turn the textile inside out, or place it in a protective cloth (a pillowcase will do the trick) and tumble dry on low.
- Ajrakh printed cloth has some magical properties -- with every wash, its colours became more brilliant and luminous. In fact, old timers in Barmer say that the fabric might finally wear away, but its colours will still remain fresh.
- The Original process of Ajrakh printing involved as many as 23 laborious steps!
For pictures of Ajrakh prints, visit Gallery
- Crafts and Artisans
- About Ajrakh Printing
- How it is done
- Ajrakh in Kutch