A pantheon of craftsmen and their art are on display at Kaivalam, under way in Chennai. Rashmi R.D. introduces us to some Living Legends of Indian crafts. Meet Dr. Ismail Mohemed Khatri

Dr. Ismail Mohemed Khatri says he can trace his roots back to a 16th century ancestor who came to India from Sindh, bringing with him the craft of Ajrakh printing.

Ajarkh takes its name from the Hindi phrase 'aaj ke din rakh' (keep it for the day).

“My ancestor had four sons. One son went back to Sindh. One family settled in Anjar (Gujarat) while the other two sons settled in Dhamarka.”

Dr. Khatri is a ninth generation Ajrakh printer. His two sons have also been trained in the same craft. The Khatri family is based in Ajrakhpur, Kutch, Gujarat.

He grew up watching the complex process of this style of block printing and would help with small jobs like drying the cloth, measuring and mixing the dyes. His actual hands-on training with the techniques began when he was 13 years old.

There are fourteen stages in Ajrakh printing.

1. The cloth is washed in water to remove any finish applied in the mill or workshop. If the cloth has a heavy finish on it, steam treatment may be required. The cloth is then put to soak overnight in a solution of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung. This is known as saaj. The following day, the cloth is spread out to dry in the sun. When it is semi-dry, it is returned to the solution. Saaj and the drying stage are repeated 7-9 times until the cloth foams when rubbed. It’s then washed in plain water.

2. The cloth is dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (the powdered nut of the harde tree). This stage is known as kasanu. The cloth is then calendered, after which it is laid flat to dry in the hot sun. If the cloth is to be printed on both sides, it is turned over as it dries to ensure it is thoroughly ‘sun dried’ on both sides. The myrobalan powder that precipitates after the drying is brushed off the cloth.

3. A resist of lime and gum arabic is printed onto the cloth to define the outline of the design. This is known as rekh.

4. Rekh resist printing is applied to both sides of the cloth.

5. A paste is made by fermenting scrap iron (from horseshoes, etc), jaggery (raw cane sugar) and besan (gram flour). This mixture is left to ferment, which takes about a week in the hot season and two weeks during the cold season; a yellowish scum on the surface of the mixture indicates that it is ready for use. The liquid, or ‘iron water’ is drained off and added to tamarind seed powder. The iron and tamarind solution is thoroughly mixed, and then boiled for one hour. The resulting ‘iron paste’ is printed on to the cloth (kat) the colour is black.

6. Tamarind seed powder is mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate) and then boiled for one hour to produce a printing paste for the red areas of the design. A small amount of a fugitive dye is added to this in order to aid registration when used for printing. Traditionally, geru (red clay) was used but a non-toxic chemical dye is now more commonly used. The printing of the alum paste is known as kan.

7. A paste of alum, millet flour, red clay and gum arabic is printed on the cloth where there are large areas of red in the design. A resist of lime and gum arabic is also printed at this time; this combined stage is known as gach. Sawdust is sprinkled on to the printed areas to protect the design from smudging. After gach printing, the cloth is left to dry naturally for several days. The paste used for gach printing is made from local clay which is filtered through muslin, millet flour and alum. The millet flour is boiled, red clay and alum are added, and the paste is then filtered to achieve the required consistency for printing.

8. The cloth is dyed in indigo (bodaw). In order to make an indigo vat, natural indigo, sagikhar (a salt), lime, casiatora (the seed from kuwada plant) and water are mixed in a clay vessel, plastic barrel or concrete vat. The dye bath is left to ferment for about one month; sometimes jaggery is added to this to aid fermentation. It is ready to use when the colour of the solution is yellowish (best quality) or greenish (medium quality). A faster alternative to the above is to make a solution of natural indigo, caustic soda and hydrosulphate, which becomes ready to use in just one or two days.

9. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun. This stage is known as vichharnu.

10. The cloth is boiled in a solution of tamarix (from the dhawri tree) and either madder root powder or al root powder and is then washed and sun-dried. For some ajrakh, alizarin (synthetic madder) may be used, in which case the cloth is boiled in a solution of alizarin and tamarix powder. In all cases, the cloth is washed in plain water after dyeing and dried flat in the sun. At this stage (rang), the red and black areas of the design develop and the resist areas are revealed as white.

11. Gach (alum printing – see 7) is repeated. The cloth is left for several days after this. This stage is known as minakari. (The word, from Persian, refers to enameling. However, in Kachchhi—the dialect of Sindhi spoken in the Kutch region of Gujarat—it means ‘double work’.)

12. The second indigo dyeing (bodaw) takes place and the cloth is sun-dried.

13. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun (vichharnu).

14. Rang stage (stage 10) is repeated.

Traditionally Ajrakh printing was done exclusively on both the sides of cotton fabric, but nowadays silk is also used. Ajrakh lungis (sarongs) and pagadis (turbans) were worn by Muslim cattle herders of the Kutch region. A shoulder throw is also worn made from of the same fabric.

“In the old days before plastic bags, when men went to the market to buy things like sugar and tea leaves which were sold loose, they would make small bundles of their purchases with their Ajrakh shoulder cloth and carry their provisions back home like that.”

Today, Ajrakh printed fabric is used for everything from saris, stoles, and dupattas to dress material.

When the clothing gets old, the fabric is often used for patch-work quilts.

When asked what he thinks the future holds for this craft, Dr. Khatri says “I consider what I do a sweet job. There have been bleak times for this craft, but now it has received a new lease of recognition both nationally and internationally. I am convinced children will want to take up this craft. I am very positive they will be the ones to take it forward.”

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