Ajrakh is an Art, we have one of the most popular forms of painting the fabric which is very common in the Barmer region of Rajasthan. It is basically a technique of block-printing textiles that is done using natural dyes, including indigo and madder. It is distinguished by its color- blue with red – and its complex geometric & floral patterns. Its name is derived from ‘azarak’, ‘blue’ and Persian it means “keep it today”. Ajrak is a legacy of textiles. It is basically a complicated printing process that involves several stages. So it takes skill and patience to make Ajrak as it takes approx. 14-21 days to complete a pattern and a piece of cloth. The resulting cloth is soft against the skin and jewel-like in appearance, pleasing to touch & appealing to the eyes.
The History Of Ajrak
The Ajrak craft was practiced by the Khatri community, living on the banks of river Sindh (Indus in present-day Pakistan). In the 16thbcentury, these families migrated to Kutch when the King of Kutch recognized their craft and invited them to settle in the barren uninhabited land, along with dyers, printers, potters, and embroiderers. These dyers were Khatri Brahmins initially but when due to their craft they felt the need to settle themselves near the river, so slowly and gradually they converted themselves to Islam and got mingled with the people of the village called Dhamadka.
DESIGNS OF BLOCK-PRINTING
But as Almighty had some different plans for them so there came a massive earthquake in Kutch in 2001 due to which the block printers were forced to relocate. They settled in Ajrakpur, a village built in coordination with relief NGOs. As of now, there are over one hundred families living in Ajrakpur and 30 official block printing workshops. This has become a primary hub from which almost all of the families in Ajrakpur generate their principal income. Today the Ajrak traditions are maintained in Kutch, and in Khavda, Dhamadka, and Barmer in Rajasthan. The families of Ajrak work exclusively with natural dyes and make fabrics, dupattas, stoles, sarees, etc. These materials are then sent to all domestic cities of India. Working In Ajrak It is said, “where there is a will there is a way”. This is particularly said well for this village and the craftsmen thereat. Nature plays an important role in making Ajrak famous for its craftsmanship. The workers work in total harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees, and mud are all part of its making. These paintings are a long process involving many stages of printing and washing the fabric over and over again with natural dyes and mordants such as hard, lime, indigo, and even camel dung. This is such a unique technique of resist printing that allows exclusive absorption of a dye in the desired area only and prevents the dye to stick to the areas that should be left uncolored.
Unless the other process of printing on the cloth where color is applied directly to the fabric, in Ajrak first a resist paste is applied on the fabric and then dyed. The process is then repeated again and again to get the desired final pattern in deep red and blue hues. It is a gradual process that actually involves thirty separate steps of first preparing the cloth, then mordanted, and then dyed. The entire process is time-consuming and takes around 2 weeks resulting in a beautiful piece of Ajrak.
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. They are carved from the Acacia Arabica trees, indigenous to the Sindh region. The repeat pattern, which gives the design its character, is determined by a grid system. The pattern is first transferred to the block and then carved with great precision by the block-maker, who uses very simple tools. The blocks are carved in pairs that can register an exact inverted image on the other side. Today, there is only one surviving member of a family of block-makers whose forefathers were skilled in this craft.
The most commonly observed pattern in Ajrak blocks and hence the fabric is dots between two lines, these dots are of same radius in almost all the design. These dots were initially carved out by hands, however later on brass nails were used to fill spaces between the two walls. This aspect is crucial in determining the expertise of the artisan.
Mughal era has a deep influence on these designs. The Muslims followed a sense of strong geometry in their patterns and most patterns were formed by the interaction of two or more circles. The Ajrakh blocks were designed taking inspiration from the Muslim architectural elements that form the 'Mizan' - balance and order. The repeat patterns were determined by the grid system. Abstract symmetric representation of surrounding elements and environment were used.
MORDERN DAY USE
Ajrak has now become increasingly popular amongst block print lovers. Post the earthquake, there has been an increase in the demand for Ajrak, moving its status from a local tribal caste dress to a catwalk worthy craft. This has led to a huge amount of funds and dedication from a range of brands being focused onto innovation in the block print. Newer colors have been developed, along with new blocks, techniques etc.
Ajrak has predominantly been a craft using natural dyes, making it inherently expensive. However, with the increase in demand for fast fashion products and cheaper items, chemical dyes have been utilized in Ajrak products.
The popular story among local practitioners is that Ajrakh means “keep it today.” The cloth is made in a sixteen step process of washing, dyeing, printing, and drying, with one step being performed in one day and the fabric being put to rest for the day.
It is hard to believe that the artisans use rusted iron to create dye! Scrap iron, jaggery and tamarind is soaked in water for two weeks and then cooked over flame to create the black dye for Ajrakh.
The natural dyes used in Ajrakh printing lends a unique characteristic to the fabric. During summers, it expands the pores of the fabric, making it easy for air to pass through. During winters, the pores of the fabric close, providing warmth. No wonder, they say that Ajrakh is suitable to wear around the year.
PROCESS OF DYING
This craft has been on a decline nowadays because certain modern and quicker methods of printing are prevalent that make use of certain chemical dyes which lower the effect of these traditional styles of printing. But due to the sincere efforts of master craftsmen and the increasing awareness among the urban people, this craft is slowly gaining momentum and is an environmentally friendly method of printing this is gaining importance among the cosmopolitan.