The art of Ajrakh textile dyeing and mud-resist printing is reckoned to have come to Gujarat about 400
years ago when the Khatris (artisans who apply colour to cloth) of Sindh migrated to the Kutch region.
The term is said to originate from the phrase ‘Aaj ke din rakh’ (keep it for the day). Azrakh is also
the Arabic word for indigo, a favourite in the colour palette of this craft form.
Woven into the rhythms of daily living, ajrakh cloth is a symbol of both skill and identity. Nomadic
communities including the Rabaris and Ahirs wear ajrakh turbans, lungis and stoles that double up as
bags to carry local purchases. They are also prized gifts on the festive occasion of Eid. Unique in
permutations of colour and motif, these intricately patterned fabrics in indigo, madder, white and
black are examples of wearable art.
‘I grew up in Dhamadka village, Kutch, and began learning the craft at age 12. After the 2001
earthquake, my family moved to the neighbouring Ajrakhpur which has better water facilities, from where
I now work. There are 35 workshops spread over these two villages solely devoted to ajrakh craft,” says
Khatri Abdulrauf, recipient of the National award for craftpersons.
“Ajrakh block printing is a complex 18-stage process,” explains the artisan. The cotton fabric, sourced
chiefly from Surat, is thoroughly rinsed to remove all traces of starch, soaked overnight in a mixture
of castor oil, camel dung and soda ash called saaj and then sun-dried. This process is repeated
multiple times. Next, the cloth is dyed in myrobalan solution and sun-dried. The outlines of motifs are
printed using a resist paste of lime and gum Arabic. Specific processes yield different colours. After
each painstaking colouring process and printing on both sides of the fabric, the cloth is washed in
running water and sun-dried. Thus, traditionally dyed ajrakh fabric is colour fast.
Precision and symmetry in the placement of geometric patterns are hall-marks of this craft. Motifs
inspired by flora and elements of Islamic architecture such as latticed windows and arches are grouped
and regrouped to form a busy mosaic or clusters. “While the spectrum includes about 15 traditional
hues, indigo, red, maroon and black predominate against a white base. On a single fabric, not more than
five colours are used,” he says. “They are naturally derived vegetable and mineral dyes. For
instance, black is obtained from a fermented mix of gur (jaggery), besan (gram flour), iron oxide and
water while yellow comes from turmeric and pomegranate rind.”
What are the present day challenges? Says Abdulrauf, “We depend heavily on the rains. The volume of
water required daily for rinsing is 25,000 litres. The water table is greatly depleted, but the
Government has implemented projects to help us. Another problem is the shortage of craftsmen.
Sometimes, this results in a delay in completing orders.”
Abdulrauf’s work has gained international recognition after his participation in workshops and
exhibitions held at Germany and the U.S.
As bales of dress material are unfurled, a riot of colour offers choices galore.
“You can mix and match to script your personal style statement. A white kurta teamed with an ajrakh dupatta would look fabulous. The look created could be Indian or Indo-Western, depending on the wearer’s sensibilities,” adds the artist.
The ajrakh block print exhibition is on till April 24 at Sanginee, 46, C.P. Ramaswami Road and at 6,
Besant Avenue Road.