A Craft in Harmony with Nature - Ajrakh Printing
Picture Credit - travelsintextiles.com
When the entire world of fashion is buzzing “sustainability” and “environment-friendly” as the newest trends, for many centuries certain crafts have existed in harmony with nature, which we are unaware of. Some of them so hidden in culture that many of us fail to notice their existence, but the craft is so unique that it must be taken away from dormancy.
One such craft is the Ajrakh printing in Gujarat, to be specific, Kutch.
Traditionally, Ajrakh is the term given to a block printed cloth that bears symmetrical patterns interspersed with big, beautiful motifs. Ajrakh printers and makers say that this craft dates back to early times when scraps of printed fragments which were believed to originate from Western India, were excavated at Fostat near Cairo, Egypt.
The origin of Ajrakh is probably be older than we can imagine.
Excavation sites of Indus Valley Civilization have provided evidence that Ajrakh was one of the oldest printing methods originating from the Indian subcontinent. The origin of the term “Ajrakh” can be traced to the Sanskrit word “a-jharat”, meaning something that does not fade. Since indigo is one of the main colours of this textile, it is possible that Ajrakh got its name from “Azrak”, which means “blue” in Arabic.
In the last four or more decades Ajrakh has not only been transformed from a simple block print into a popular fashion fabric, it has also become the signature cloth of the Khatri communities at Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur in Kutch and is said to be their most successful product.
Picture Credit (left) - static.jaypore.com (right) - amounee.com
The Khatri community, whose name means “one who fills or changes colours,” printed cloth with the locally available natural dyes and water from the Dhamadka, the river that gave their village its name. Around 500 years ago the then Maharaval of Kutch invited a group of Khatri artisans to settle at Dhamadka near Bhuj in order to exclusively provide printed fabric to the nobility.
He chose the village Dhamadka in Kutch for Ajrakh printing because of its proximity to the river Saran, a source of saline water and alum, good for dyeing purposes.
Ajrakh flourished and became the identity of Maldharis of Kutch, remaining unchanged till the influence of industrial revolution started permeating the villages.
Bright chemical colours and synthetic fabrics swamped the market in the 1940’s, pushing Ajrakh printing into a state of dormancy for almost fifteen years before it was revived in the ‘60s by the diligent efforts of a few craftsmen and patrons. These artisan branched out into a range of block printed and surfacial methods to serve the needs of various local communities but the pride of their trade still remain Ajrakh.
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Ajrakh printed cotton is also traditionally worn as caste dress by cattle herders or the pastoral Maldhari community in the desert regions of Kutch and Thar in north-west India and Sindh in Pakistan, where it is made by Khatri artisans.
Ajrakh is readily identified by its distinctive combination of geometric shapes and floral designs and Ajrakh is printed on both sides of the cloth and is dyed with indigo and madder.
It is not just the long, painstaking process of printing, carefully matching the motif on both sides of the fabric and dyeing in different colours one by one, but also the fact that all the ingredients used are natural and environment friendly, that makes Ajrakh such a treasure.
Nature plays an important role in the making of Ajrakh. The craftsmen work in complete harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees and mud are all part of its making.
Ajrakh uses mud-resist in the various stages and another unique feature is that the dyeing and printing is repeated twice on the fabric to ensure brilliance of colour. 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. Traditionally four colours were used red, blue, black and white.
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The Ajrakh makers believe that the printed fabric has warm and cool colours which steady the body temperature.
Ajrakh craft products are made with natural dyes. The entire production of the products include both vegetable dyes and mineral dyes. Indigo is key dye. The Ajrakh is usually about 2.5-3 meters in length.
The authentic Ajrakh is printed on both sides by a method called resist printing.
The printing is done by hand with hand carved wooden blocks. Several different blocks are used to give the characteristic repeated patterning. Ajrakh printing is a long process involving many stages of printing and washing the fabric over and over again with various natural dyes and mordants such as harda, lime, alizarin, indigo and even camel dung.
The technique of resist printing allows exclusive absorption of a dye in the desired areas only and prevents absorption on the areas intended to be left uncoloured.
The raw fabric in full length is pulled exhaustively through the river many times, scoured, beaten, steamed, mordanted, printed with resist mud pastes from the banks of the river, covered with powdered camel dung and ground rice husks and dyed in deep madder and indigo.
The quality of water plays a vital role in the process of Ajrakh printing, from beginning to end. On 26th January 2001, when Gujarat was hit by a massive earthquake, it not just caused immense damage to lives and property, but also caused changes in the environment. The iron content of Saran River’s water increased, making it unsuitable for Ajrak printing.
Half the craftsmen of Dhamadka decided to stay back while the rest moved to a new place and built a village named Ajrakhpur. The village, which is still developing is trying to utilize sustainable methods of growth. The craftsmen understand the value of water for the craft, and have built a water-harvesting plant in the village in collaboration with the government; thereby setting an example for others to follow. The craftsmen have developed many new motifs and colours for the fickle tastes of the modern customer.
But the original Ajrakh motifs are still in abundance and the process has been kept intact.
Survival of Ajrakh after invasion of quicker and cheaper methods of chemical dyeing only goes on to say that no matter how many new and transient fashions may come, certain traditions have thrived for centuries and will continue doing so.
This craft has been on a decline because modern, quicker methods of printing and bright chemical dyes are replacing the natural, muted colours and this slow and careful process of printing this traditional textile. With efforts of the master craftsmen and increasing awareness among the urban people, this crafts is slowly gaining momentum.
Because of being an environment friendly ancient craft, Ajrakh, is slowly gaining visibility in the urban areas.
It is the synergy between handloom textiles and vegetable dyes that creates magic. The introduction of chemical dyes led to the decline of natural dyes towards the end of the nineteenth century. Ajrakh printing, using natural dyes is one of the oldest techniques of resist printing in India and is one of the most complex and sophisticated methods of printing Today, in Kutch, Ajrakh designs and techniques are being used even for contemporary fashion-wear. Therefore, the development of traditional Ajrakh printing as well as its popularity seems to have a promising future.