“It’s been raining in Barmer so fresh ajrak prints have been delayed,” says the boutique owner who ranges a wonderful collection of tie & dye prints on soft cotton fabrics at her store. Till now I was somewhat acquainted with the colourful bandhni, the mud-resist Bagruor dabu, Sangenari,kalamkari, Batik among others.But ajrak or ajrakh prints?
She pointed at the lovely tonal effect of the technique of ajrakh on a few sarees and dupatta stacked against the wall and I was sold. It is another beautiful example of block printing,a testimony to ancient Indian (subcontinent) arts and crafts traditions; some of these which can be traced to Persian and Turkish origins. In Arabic ajrak means blue though it is joked that since ajrak is such a tedious printing process, it was said aaj rakh – keep it for today because the longer one keeps the print, the print effect is better.
Ajrak, at one time, symbolized Sindhi nationalism. Traces of fabric with this kind of printing had been discovered at Indus Valley Civilization. What has been Sindh’s gradual loss of this laborious manual technique of a dyeing & printing process using wooden stamps, is today’s India’s gain in mass produced hand-dyed fabrics emanating from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Ajrakh featured on a Sindhi’s life cycle as it were – from cradle material to pagdi; from women’s skirts to silk stoles both for the rich and common man. It was a tradition that held Hindus and Muslims artisans working in harmony.
In contemporary times, though still hand-blocked, the operations have been scaled down with short cut methods, with chemical dyes often replacing natural dyes. What is more, Sindh and Sindhishas today lost out to ajrak craftsmen found in Bhuj in the Kutch district of Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan. They churn out cloth, shawls, saris and home linen done on this technique, feeding the entire demand of ethnic prints that are, facing stiff competition no doubt with silk-screen or digital printing. If the latter represents a symmetrical shape of old Indian motifs, the hand blocked are easily recognizable by a certain unevenness though exquisitely executed by master crafts persons; a smudge here and a smudge there of the dye without taking anything away from the consummate artistry.
In fact, Ajrakhpur, a tiny hamlet, in Kutch is where much of the action is today, with a few khattri families left to continue with this craft; they are Muslims, with Sindhi origins, having settled down in the area and at Dhamadkaseveral centuries ago. Bhuj which also shares it borders with Pakistan in the western borders also has a tradition of ajrak printing, especially on hand-woven woolen shawls. The work in the area ranges from the exquisite to the not so high quality finish, depending on the resources spent and market price just like it is in the case of other hand embroidered products.
There are almost 15 steps in the process of first dyeing and then printing ajrak motifs, which can be geometricalor floral. The patterns are in hues of blue, green red or even grey and blacks, the black produced from scrap iron and even gur or jaggery to sometimes, give that sharp contrast. On an average, ajrak takes about 3 weeks to complete.
The printing process would involve the required design to be carved onto the hard wood stamp or block in keeping with other forms of block printing after being dipped into the dye and though separate blocks are used for different colours, they are blended in a way which is unique to this craft. “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”
In cases of resist printing, the pattern is first made on the fabric and the dye repellent is applied where color is not required. After the fabric is dyed, the material attached to the fabric to resist the dye is removed giving the tonal effect in soft and bright hues. Also, a single motif can have several colours unlike in dabu printing where different block are used for different motifs.
Like all traditional arts, the threat to this art is rising by way of quick copies, lack of waterfor the colour wash and skilled craftspersons.
Since chemical dyes are increasingly replacing vegetable dyes, government regulations on pollutants due to chemical dyes are forcing several factories to shut down. The revivalists are working parallel to this to ensure that high quality garments with ajrak prints are stocked in high fashion boutiques, finding ready patrons among rich. Prices of ajrak kurtas in a store like Fabindia can go upto a couple of thousands with saris and shawls in general going up to a few thousands.
Behind every art tradition there is a story that sometimes become myths and legends. The political aspects creep in as well. Partition of the subcontinent wreaked havoc in more ways than one. It killed certain arts and divided artisans in what was a well-entrenched art in both communities. Since history is not static, changes brought in an entire change in outlook of certain crafts – true one chain of a love story between two countries was broken resulting in a break in the pure form of ajrak art, a thing of beauty is a joy forever wherever it uprooted, revived, and exported.
For now, I cannot have enough of ajrak prints in home linen, drapes and even bags. Check them out depending on your pocket pinch.
Written byManjira Majumdar
Independent writer & critic