Whenever a devotee of India’s profound cultural past decides to pause from its worship, there again seems to occur a calling to discover yet another gem birthed by its endlessly enchanting history of topographic and sociological diversity. This time, it is the textile tradition of Ajrakh (could translate in Hindi as keep it today or Azrak meaning blue in Arabic owing to blue being a chief color representative of Ajrakh printing).
The artisans of the craft of history may debate about it being rooted in the Harappan Civilization based on the indirect evidence like that of Mohenjo-Daro’s priest-king clad in a shawl with circular designs and trefoil, but an evidence based presence of Ajrakh printing in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sindh region since the medieval times confirms its active production, and prevalent use.
In Sindh, Kutch and Barmer, the printing process of Ajrakh is apparently similar in terms of production process, motifs and the use of colour scheme which might be because (as it is said ) artisans in these regions are descendents from the same families who had moved to Kutch and Barmer from Sindh in the 16th century. In contemporary times, we find that the Khatri families are known for passionately sustaining the historic art of Ajrakh printing.
Dhamadka was the prime region for Ajrakh printing especially because of the favourable source of water base in its environs. It is said that the 2001 earthquake caused an increase in the iron content in its water, making it unfavourable to the artisans for their craft. This led to a large number of Ajrakh printers getting rehabilitated to a new village of Ajrakhpur, wherein the name itself espouses an awe for this centuries old textile tradition.
Ajrakh printing entails a depth enriched color scheme wherein natural symbolism is prominent. Red and indigo could signify earth and the dim lit moments in the semi-darkness of the day. Black and white help in making the motifs and the symmetry more prominent. Regarding the types of dyes used, both environmentally -friendly synthetic dyes along with the traditionally used natural dyes are incorporated in the process. Herein, indigo is derived from the indigo plant, red is from alizarin present in the roots of madder plants, black from iron, al9ng with millet flour and tamarind seeds to make the dye thicker.
From rigour to glory:
Ajrakh printing is composed of numerous stages of printing & washing the fabric repeatedly with different natural dyes and mordants using resist printing that helps in absorption of a dye in the chosen areas.
Saaj: The fabric is washed to remove starch followed by a dip in camel dung, soda ash and castor oil solution. After being kept overnight, the fabric is semi dried under the sun and dipped in the solution again. This process is carried out for approximately seven to eight times and concludes with a wash in water.
Kasano: The fabric undergoes a myrobalan wash wherein myrobalan is employed as the primary mordant in the dyeing journey of the fabric followed by drying it under the sun.
Khariyanu: A resist made of lime and Arabic gum is printed over the fabric for outlining the motifs known as rekh. Thereafter, wooden blocks are used to imprint the resist on both sides of the fabric.
Kat: A water based mix of scrap iron and jaggery is prepared and left still for about 3 weeks for it to become ferrous followed by an addition of tamarind seed powder. Then it is boiled till it forms a black paste and is printed on both the sides of the fabric.
Gach: Clay, alum and Arabic gum are mixed forming a paste for the next resist printing attempt. A resist of the Arabic gum and lime is also printed simultaneously. To protect the clay from smudging, saw dust or cow dung is spread across on the printed parts. This is followed by drying the fabric naturally for a span of eight to ten days.
Indigo dyeing: The fabric is dyed twice to achieve a uniform coating.
The fabric is washed completely to remove the extra dye and the resist print.
Herein, the fabric is boiled with alizarin to render a bright red colour to the alum residue parts of the fabric. Alum helps in fixing the red colour due to it being a mordant. The grey portions from the black printing stage become deeper. The root of rhubarb gives a light brown colour, madder root gives an orange colour while henna adds a yellowish green hue.
Nature based elements like flowers, leaves and stars are symmetrically imprinted represented by geometric shapes wherein trefoil being the most common representative of the divine trinity of the gods of earth, water and sun. A web-like design, or the central jaal comes into fruition when the envisioned motifs are stamped around the centre of the fabric in a conscious repetition across it in a grid of vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines. Also, the print of border designs is aligned both horizontally and vertically to frame the centre.
The aggressive use of synthetic dyes , smart tech-machinery which expedites the production and is commercially seen as more advantageous is a significant threat to the human rigour based heritage craft of Ajrakh. Apart from this, the difficulty in accessing government loans, costly blocks, dearth of water resources, hesitation and disinterest in adopting this craft as a chief occupation from the upcoming generation also constitute an array of worrisome concerns for the concerned stakeholder communities and this textile art itself.
We at Gulabchand Prints, are ecstatic to be flagbearers of sustaining the legacy of such heritage textile art traditions and ensuring that our global family is able to cherish the textile replendence of Ajrakh amongst many other fascinating Indian prints and weaves.
(Authored by – Vandana Bhatia )