India’s Kutch district of Gujarat is much more than a destination with sandy beaches and sunshine; it is an Aladdin’s cave of traditional handmade artisan crafts. Ajrakhpur, a tiny village in Kutch, is one such great place fighting to keep alive the dying art of Ajrakh, a form of block printing on cloth.
Ajrakhpur! A place that perpetuates time-honored traditions through its handiwork, a place that shuns the idea of automation, a place where people create things by hand, a place where they practice an art that has been passed down through generations.
If you admire and love Indian handicrafts, you will understand why I wanted to share this interview with Abdul Rehmaan Khatri on my blog. Rehmaan is an eight generation Ajrakh printer and one of the few left who is carrying on this tradition. His three sons have also been trained in the same craft. Read on…
- What exactly is Ajrakh?
Ajrakh is a legacy of textile production in western India that goes back over four thousand years to the early civilizations of the Indus Valley. I can trace my roots back to a 16th century ancestor who came to India from Sindh, bringing with him the craft of Ajrakh printing. The art derives its name from the Hindi phrase ‘Aaj ke din rakh’ or keep it for the day as the process Ajrakh block printing is pretty long with each stage involving many days.
It is a laborious but intricately beautiful craft. Our (Khatri community) ancestors have been printing with Ajrakh blocks for centuries. They migrated to Dhamadka, Kutch from the Sindh region in Pakistan. Traditional Ajrakh printing continues in craft villages such as our’s (Ajrakhpur) and Dhamadka. Ajrakh block printing is a lengthy and demanding process consisting of several steps. Tradition teaches that the longer an artisan waits before beginning the next step, the more eye-catching the final print will be. The two-week printing process results in stunning printed cloth in traditional form.
- What is the process like?
It takes skill and patience to make Ajrakh. There are between 14-16 different stages of dyeing and printing, which takes 14-21 days to complete. The resulting cloth is pleasing to touch and jewel-like in appearance. Ajrakh prints are dominated by the use of intense patterning and jewel like colors: rich crimson and deep blue, black outlines and white accents are all obtained from natural dyes and fixed with an eco-friendly mordant, alum. The beauty of Ajrakh relies on expert manipulation of these materials for dyeing and printing. They are all bio-degradable and environment friendly.
Our main dye sources are varied: red is obtained from madder root, alizarin, sappan wood and lac; blue comes from indigo plant; yellow is from pomegranate rinds and turmeric; green is achieved by over-dyeing indigo with turmeric and pomegranate; and black is produced from scrap iron and jaggery. The use of henna, rhubarb root and tamarisk also adds to the variety of shades we produce.
For printing, we carve required design into hard wood to make the blocks, which are the essential tools for printing. These blocks are dipped sequentially into a dye bath and stamped onto the fabric with skilled precision. A seperate block is used for each colour; some fabrics may have as many as 500 block repeats in one metre of fabric.
- Is the process completely manual?
The process of creating an Ajrakh involves no machinery; it is entirely manual. Besides it provides steady employment for local craftspeople.
- What does the future hold for this craft?
We are now receiving recognition both nationally and internationally. The future looks promising. People are becoming more aware about the advantages of supporting sustainable fashion. Various renowned designers have already embraced eco-fashion & are working with sustainable & eco-friendly materials only.
*Ajrakh block-printed stuff is easily available at stores like Fabindia, Good Earth, Anokhi, etc. I request y’all to please support the craftsmen and buy their stuff to preserve India’s traditional handicrafts in the process.