Circa: around 3000 BC
Location: Mohenjo Daro city in the Indus Valley (now in present-day Sindh province of Pakistan)
A bearded corpulent man walks through the maze of his semi-royal apartments and comes to a stop, where a slim dancing girl moves to the sound of music. She is young, with dancing dark eyes, beautifully coiffured hair and being the master‘s favourite, is covered with jewels. Seeing her generous master, the dancing girl‘s gait turns more sensuous and her arms full of bracelets jangle pleasantly. The man, sits on silk cushions, adjusts his beautiful richly printed shawl on his shoulders and enjoys the dance, as messengers bring good reports of his successful trading missions. He is a wealthy man, whose trade relations are connected to distant lands as far as Misr (Egypt) and his coffers are filled with gold, ivory and precious jewels. His merchant partners and their messengers often bring him gifts as signs of courtesy and he is not surprised when one emissary offers him a beautiful statue of his bust during the meeting. Small details speak volumes of the sender and he chuckles softly as he notices the Ajrakh shawl his statue has been draped with. His fondness for this unique block printing style has been well captured by the statue and the emissary catches the brief smile, knowing that the man is pleased. He accepts a return gift of yet another gorgeous Ajrakh fabric with a gracious gesture and heads back to the caravanserai to embark on his long journey home.
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Location: The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo
I was gazing at the artifacts found in the tombs in Fustat, in Egypt when one item listed in the funerary articles caught my eye. It was Ajrakh fabric from Sindh province in present-day Pakistan and historians believe trade relations to have brought the article there. Obviously priced enough to be placed in the royal tomb with the mummy, Ajrakh brought back memories of Kutch to me and I remembered my multiple visits to the westernmost frontier of India. One of the most eye-catching craft to be practiced by the local communities in the arid deserts of Kutch in Gujarat and Sindh in Pakistan, Ajrakh is a double-sided block printed textile, which is still prepared in the traditional way. One of the oldest types of block printed textile in the world, Ajrakh blends handloom textile with vegetable dyes in an elegant symmetry of geometric patterns. Starry constellations in indigo, madder, black, and white spread across bolts of cloth and the motifs bear a strong resemblance to the Islamic architecture’s intricate jali windows and trefoil arches.
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The natural colours of Ajrakh
A time-honored tradition of the local communities of Kutch, Ajrakh is used for everything. From lining babies‘ cradles to making turbans, ghaggro or local skirts, Ajrakh is an integral part of the Sindhi community. It is also given as a gift during the Muslim festival of Eid, as wedding presents and is a much-valued possession. Created by a back backbreaking process which includes sixteen steps of washing, dyeing, printing, and drying, Ajrakh requires a highly skilled and focused workforce in order to keep the colors fast and even. Pomegranate seeds, gum, Harde powder, wood, flour of Kachika, the flower of Dhavadi, alizarine and locally cultivated Indigo are just some of the natural resources used to make dyes in this craft.
Tamarind, turmeric, alum, iron, and other natural sources of colours
The sight of scraps of iron lying around workshops in Ajrakhpur is a very common one since the colour black is sourced from a combination of iron, jaggery, and gram flour. Just the simple process of creating this dye takes about fifteen days and dye makers make around two hundred liters of colour at one go. The other ingredients used for making Ajrakh dyes are tamarind seed powder and alum for red, turmeric for yellow, and lime is used for white. Traditionally, Ajrakh printing uses only natural colours, which makes it such an expensive commodity. However, recent demand for cheaper quality has prompted Ajrakh artists to start using artificial dyes, which fastens up the printing process as well.
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The finesse of the Ajrakh printing blocks
Otherwise, the traditional lengthy process of Ajrakh dyeing and printing begins with the un-dyed fabric being soaked in water overnight before getting washed to remove starch. It is then sun-dried and dyed with myrobalan to be put out in the sun again. Ajrakh artists then select a wooden print block to start designing the prepared fabric, after which this legendary textile slowly starts taking shape. The lime and acacia gum coated first block is carefully pressed onto the cloth at regular intervals and this unique action is called the resist technique. The “resist technique” separates Ajrakh from block prints from the other parts of India and after that, craftsmen continue selecting blocks, coating them with dyes and pressing them carefully on the cloth in a particular alignment. After each pressing of print, the cloth is washed and sun-dried, until the entire length of fabric is transformed into a crowd of colours and motifs.
How are the Ajrakh print blocks made?
The blocks used by Ajrakh artists are as special as the craft and they are very finely chiseled for providing intricately detailed motifs. Acacia Arabica wood, indigenous to the Sindh region is used to make these blocks and the repeat pattern, which renders the design its quintessential character, is determined by a grid system. The pattern is first etched on the block, which is then carved out great precision by the block-maker. These blocks are carved in pairs so that there is an exact inverted image on the other side of the fabric. Sadly, for a community art like Ajrakh, today there is only one surviving member of a family of block-makers in India who learned this craft from his forefathers.
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Ajrakh, literally means keep it for today
This is not the only story that Ajrakh carries as its heritage. There are many legends associated with its interesting name and the most popular one claims that Ajrakh means, “keep it for today”. It could have also derived from the Arabic word Azrakh for indigo, which is traditionally the predominant colour of Ajrakh prints. Originally practiced by members of Khatri community in the Sindh province of Pakistan, the art changed borders when they shifted to Dhamadka village, fifty kilometers away from Bhuj in Gujarat, India. That happened around four hundred years ago, when the whole region was one country and the Ajrakh artisans who converted to Islam in the 12th century CE, came to be known as Khoja Sheikhs. Sadly, Dhamadka village was nearly completely wiped out in the devastating 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the artisans the shifted their art to a new place called Ajrakhpur. Located at forty-three kilometers from the original site, Ajrakhpur was dedicated to the Ajrakh craftsmen and the printing community lives there to work together.
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The community art of Ajrakh
Nearly every single member of Ajrakhpur village participates in the block printing process and the sight of the dry brown landscape dotted with rows of colourful sheets, all dyed and block-printed is a very common one. Bedazzling in bright indigo, mustard yellow, and blood red, the sheets laid out in the open sun to dry. Heavy stones bear the sheets down at four corners to stop them from flying away, while muscular men pound the fabrics at the washing ghats in groups. Their whack whack sound adds to the constant noise of the wooden block being stamped with force onto the table at the Ajrakh workshop and despite the threats from cheap modern fabric, this craft is still going strong. This compensates for the hard work which is demanded by the art of Ajrakh and this kind of block printing is a laborious task requiring precision. Currently, Ajrakh is practiced in Sindh in Pakistan, Ajrakhpur, and Khavda in Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan. Each of these places has their distinct style of Ajrakh which can be easily distinguished by their style, colour, and motifs used. Though Ajrakh has today found much patronage at the urban homes and with designers like DKNY, traditionally it was used by the men of the cattle herding Maldhari communities of Kutch.
Dr. Ismail Mohammed Khatri in Ajrakhpur in Gujarat invites tourists to come and stay with his family and learn the craft of Ajrak. His contact details are :
Address: Ajrakhpur. Post: Kukma, Bhuj, Kutch 370105, Gujarat, India.
KALA RAKSHA– headquarters, shop, and museum
Address: Parkar Vas, Sumrasar Sheikh: Ta Bhuj, Kutch 370 001, India
DISCLAIMER: The historical anecdote about Mohenjo Daro is purely fictional, and for entertainment purpose only. However, it is based on real archaeological evidences of Ajrakh print being connected to the priest-king of Mohenjo Daro. Ajrakh has also been found in tombs at Fustat in Egypt.
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