Think moonless, think midnight, think darkness… the star spangled sky, against a stark blue-black background. This is what ajrakh, meaning blue in Arabic, is likened to.
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. It is said that the word could have come from “aaj rakh” (keep it for the day) The longer the wait between each process, the finer the result.
History and legend
Legend goes that ajrakh printers were descendants of Rama's sons Lava and Kusha. The king of Kutch brought them over to his barren uninhabited land, along with dyers, printers, potters and embroiderers. The dyers were Khatri Brahmins. Two generations later they converted to Islam and settled in Dhamadka. This place was devastated by severe earthquakes twice which caused the artisans to shift to Ajrakpur 12 kilometres from Bhuj. The ajrakh makers claim that their craft harks back to early medieval times. Scraps of printed fragments which were believed to originate from Western India, were unearthed at Fostat near Cairo.
The finest samples were printed in Sind (now Pakistan) but traditions are maintained in Kutch, in Khavda and Dhamadka and Barmer in Rajasthan. A few Khatri families use the ajrakh method of printing. Mohammad Siddique whose forefathers migrated from Dhado village of Sind, Pakistan, belongs to the community. The Siddique family belongs to the ninth generation of the makers of ajrakh in Dhamadka. Ismail Mohammed Khatri, brother of Razzaque Mohammed Khatri will work on the ajrakh prints which will be displayed at the Crafts Council of India's exhibition of revival of heritage textiles in December. With almost 200 traditional geometric and floral designs, the Khatris plan to put together a design directory.
Ajrakh printed cotton is traditionally worn by the pastoral Maldhari community. Apart from pagdis and lungis the women wear printed skirts, and use the ajrakh fabric as bed covers to line cradles for babies. Every colour tells a story and the design images the status. The Khatris have developed a feel for the contemporary market and now ajrakh yardage, kurta sets, furnishings, scarves can be bought.
A remarkable feature of ajrakh printing is that on a single fabric, using the same design, resist printing is combined with other printing and dyeing techniques. The whole process is repeated on both sides of the fabric in perfect cohesion, which calls for unsurpassed skill. 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 (though other vegetable dye colours like yellow and green have been introduced) Traditionally four colours were used red (alizarin), blue (indigo), black (iron acetate) white (resist). The ajrakh makers believe that the printed fabric has warm and cool colours which steady the body temperature… blue is cooling and red is warm.
The printing blocks have to be very finely chiselled and by experts in the field. A set of three blocks create a dovetailing effect which finally results in the design. The white cotton cloth is placed in a copper container with water and soda ash, then steamed to soften it and washed in running water preferably in a river. Soap is applied to it as it is spread over a large cauldron of water. It is then dipped in a mixture of oils, squeezed out and kept overnight. The fabric is washed out the next day and soaked in a mixture of powdered sakun seeds and oil and dried again after which it acquires a dull beige colour. The specially designed blocks are used to print the fabric in gum using an outline block. The second line of printing which is kat printing gives a black colour using a solution of ferrous sulphate and ground seeds. When it is dyed in alizarine it turns black. After the third printing with a resist made of natural elements the fabric is dyed in indigo. The fabric is washed, and dyed in alizarine which produces the red colour in the areas which were covered initially by resist. The second dyeing is in indigo to produce another shade of blue. After this the final wash consists of successive washing in soda ash then in water where detergent is added and then in running water which results in a luminous and beautiful product.
Today the preparation has been scaled down with short cut methods as no one has the time to go into such laborious procedures. But then the intricacy and delicacy of lines are sacrificed. Inclusion of chemical dyes diffuses the quality of the colours. Today the scarcity of water has interfered with the production. The natural products used of late are gums, oil, clay lime, sakun seeds and molasses.
Ajrakh is an example of textile printing in which natural dyes are used. Previously many kinds of vegetable dyes were prevalent in our country and put to use. Rather than allow the ecological balance to tilt due to the use of chemical dyes it is necessary to relate to nature and explore plant resources.
Dr. Ismail Mohammed Khatri was taught the traditional craft of ajrakh printing by his father, and today his work is acclaimed internationally. In 2002 he presented workshops and lectures at the Iowa Color Congress; in 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Ismail participated in the Resurgence Exhibition of the Manly Council in Australia, in 2003 showcasing work specially designed to reflect the post-earthquake situation. Ismail and his brother Razzaque attended the UNESCO conference on Natural Dyes held in Hyderabad, India, in 2006.
Crafts Council of India's exhibition KAMALA a heritage textile craft revival will showcase Ismail Khatri's signature ajrak prints along with reproductions of some of the finest heritage textiles on December 16 and 17 at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai
Sabita Radhakrishna is a Chennai based freelance writer in craft and textiles and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org