We are almost in Ajrakhpur village, off Bhuj. The jeep first slows down and then stops, to let a herd of stoic buffaloes pass by. Their hooves stir fine, dry, desert dust. There is a clearing among some acacias that provide thorny shade. We park the jeep.
A lone neem steadies itself in the hot wind. Though not yet noon, the sun is very harsh. In the far distance, there are shapeless hills that seem like insurmountable greyish brown walls.
Only one conical hill, even more distant, looks ethereally beautiful in refracted blue.
Ajrakhpur is where Kutchi artisans and craftsmen who do block-printing live and work .The art is called ‘Ajrakh’ and the village derives its name from that. ‘Ajrakh’ denotes the slow, painstaking process in which the artisan proceeds step-wise. He prints one colour of a design and washes the cloth till he gets the colour right before printing the next colour. So the process means Aaj ke din rakh or keep it for the day, till the colour fastens: don’t be in a tearing hurry like the modern world!
Devastation and after
The village is particularly featureless. It is in the middle of endless, open, flat Kutch country. There are remote outlines of hills or elevations. Vegetation is scanty. Houses and workshops look the same : drab, single storied or at most few have an additional first floor, all done in bricks and concrete, earthquake resistant. The roofs are flat. A thousand or more villagers live here. Eighty-four are block-printing craftsmen. All of them came here by way of resettlement after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. As a collectivity they moved from the ancestral village of Dhamadka, 50 kilometres from Ajrakhpur, which was devastated by the tremors. Some still remain there though, after rebuilding.
Khatri Abdul Raheman Budha moved from Dhamadka in its aftermath. Kutch suffered very extensive damage and destruction, including Bhuj. It was a very cold morning in January when the earth shook and mud walled structures tottered and collapsed. “I was lucky. I ran out of the work shed with our workers : but in an instant everything was reduced to rubble,” he recalls with a faraway look . The family, like others, lost all they had but still survived. “Others were not so lucky, Allah couldn’t save them,” he muses.
Two months later they began work in temporary sheds. Homes were relief tents. Money was loaned by companies who bought and marketed Ajrakh products. Work slowly picked up. But a new problem arose that summer. The iron content in the water had significantly increased due to the earthquake and was no longer suitable for washing the printed cloth. The colours were bleeding. Meanwhile, the Gujarat government had allotted a new site for resettling the villagers. Barring a few who chose not to leave, they moved to start life anew. The resettled village was named Ajrakhpur, after their cherished craft.
The Khatris who populate the village originally hail from the Sindh province of modern Pakistan. As a community of block–printers, they have been practising the 3000-years-old art of Ajrakh. Abdul Raheman Khatri says that he himself is a ninth generation artisan. Even before Partition, due to water shortages in Sindh, his father, uncles and their families had moved over to Kutch and begun work. Today four of his children—Abdul, Ibrahim, Juneid and Rashid work with their father. The next generation has taken over.
“It is important we work together and pass on our skills,” Abdul Raheman explains. “In 2001, many traditional block-printing artisans of this region died, everything was destroyed, but we have survived,” he says.
Ajrakh uses, mainly, colours derived from nature like indigo, henna, turmeric, pomegranate, jaggery, iron and mud. The craft is complex involving time–consuming stages. Abdul also uses a mixture of camel dung, soda ash, castor oil, myrobalen, madder, sappan wood, the root of rhubarb and lac. He says this allowed him to create different shades and the colours that remained fast. Alum is used to fix them. By innovative mixing of ingredients various shades are obtained. For example, yellow results from a blend of pomegranate rinds and turmeric.
The market for Ajrakh is growing. There is demand from abroad. Marketing and supply chains are better managed today. In India, firms like Fabindia, Anokhi and iTokri sourced what they made. But the artisans are unable to generate more volumes. The first step in block-printing is to make blocks. In the village there are a few craftsmen who make only blocks and supply it to printers. Abdul Raheman makes his own blocks.
In one part of the largish hall that is his workshop there are saws, cutters, hammers and shavers and other implements of his trade. A power drill rests near the entrance. There is the evidence of wood shavings and fresh sawdust. Blocks are generally rectangular and made of teak wood. Only teak does not bend when constantly used. Once made, a block is conditioned before use and lasts for up to about three thousand meters of cloth. Each colour requires a different block. We ask him about doing it faster. He says a computerised carving machine in which the software allowed for design programming would help. “But it costs five lakhs and we don’t have that much,” he says matter-of-factly.
Designs are traditional, oft-repeated. Kutchi designs have floral, vegetal and animal patterns. Flowers are intricate and differently hued. The elephant and the peacock are exquisite. More contemporary designs are geometric circular patterns and triangles. Unlike block-printing in other parts of India, Ajrakh designs are done in flamboyant colours against darker contrasts. Indigo is dominant. Deep blue and rich crimson stand out. In some way the colours seem to off set the drabness of the desert. Designs are, at times, finalised after discussion with big stores who suggest new ideas and even bring their own designs. Designs are also turning more secular.
The cloth is washed well before printing, as many times as required. The starch is removed for colours to be stable; the feel has to be soft to touch. Cloth is procured from different places in the country — cotton from Tiruppur, mulmul from Bhiwandi, silk from Bengaluru, silk and rayon from Surat, and Chanderi cotton from Madhya Pradesh. There are about fifteen stages of dying and printing which usually takes about three weeks. It could be more. Each stage of printing is followed by washing, sometimes many times over. Then the cloth is dried before the next print.
Abdul Raheman Khatri always used natural dyes. This increased prices and impacted demand. Local markets wanted synthetic textiles that were cheaper. But he would rather keep his legacy alive.
One worry is the depletion of ground water. Water is vital for printing and washing. Small rivulets and water flows in Kutch have dried up due to dams built on the Indus river in Sindh. The village has electricity only for six hours daily.
Whatever be it, the art of Ajrakh has to go on. It is too beautiful and aesthetic to let perish. The strong economic reason is it gives employment and regular income to the Khatris. “How much do you earn,” we ask. Abdul is sheepish in his reply, “ Guzara ho jata hai .”
The writer spends time pretending to read and write. His other interests are photography and western classical music.