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Textile Guide: Ajrakh

Updated: Sep 17

Ajrakh printing

The printing of our ajrakh silk crepe kaftans, Ajrakhpur, Gujarat

The following is taken from the excellent publication, "Ajrakh - patterns & borders", produced by the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in 2007. The Anokhi Museum in Jaipur is a wonderful source of inspiration and information for all things related to ajrakh, and more generally, hand block printing.

What is Ajrakh?

Ajrakh is a form of traditional hand block printing and resist dyeing using indigo, madder and printed mordants. Ajrakh production is limited to very few places in the world, namely Sindh in Pakistan, Kachchh or Kutch in Gujarat, India, and Barmer in Rajasthan, India. Produced by the Khatri community of dyers and printers, ajrakh is the most complex of their many textile products.

Ajrakh designs are easily recognisable by their bold geometric repeats, in combinations of centre field and border designs. These symmetrical patterns are printed and dyed in natural red and black, with the white cloth resisted on a dark indigo blue background.

In the isolated Banni region of Kachchh, Gujarat, ajrakh is traditionally worn by men of the Muslim Maldari community of cattle herders. In the far westernmost reaches of Rajasthan, ajrakh has been adopted by the Langhas and Mangnyars, itinerant communities of musicians. A marker of identity and family associations, the origins, creation, colours and design of a piece of ajrakh is crucial to its perceived authenticity and value.

Images: Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing

Where is ajrakh made?

Ajrakh production is limited to a very few isolated locations in Western Indian and Eastern Pakistan. Spanning modern political orders, ajrakh is traditionally associated with the geographical zone centred on the Rann of Kuchchh, Lower Sindh and the western edge of the Thar Desert. Prior to the political partition of Indian and Pakistan in 1947, this geographical region was, for many millennia, bound together by its people, places and landscape features, the key feature being the great river Indus.

Ajrakh map

Image: Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing

The beginnings

Ajrakh manufacture grew as a regionally specific branch of ancient decorative textile crafts, evidenced in the history of early civilisations, subsequent waves of influential invaders, and the development of extensive international trade from the sub-continent. India’s culture is marked by a high degree of syncretism and cultural pluralism: thus it has managed to preserve established traditions whilst absorbing elements of new customs and ideas brought by new settlers. Home to the Indus Valley Civilisation and a region of historic trade routes and vast empires, the Indian subcontinent has throughout history been identified by its commercial and cultural wealth.

The particular geographical regions where ajrakh cloth has traditionally been printed form the epicenter of India’s earliest settled civilisation, along the Indus river valley. This civilisation flourished from the early third to the middle of the second millennium BC (2600 - 1750 BC) in present day Pakistan and northern India. Applying sophisticated methods of urban planning, these people domesticated numerous crops and excavations have revealed evidence of spindles and sewing needles, and the oldest surviving textile fragments of the sub-continent - cotton threads which appear to have been dyed with madder, the natural dye root still used for the red portions of ajrakh patterns, using mordant dye-fixing technology. More recently some ajrakh master craftsmen have linked the birth of ajrakh to a carved bust of a man, who wears a shoulder cloth and is sometimes labeled a Priest-King and discovered at excavations at Mohenjo Daro, in Sindh. The trefoil design on the cloth, still in-filled with traces of red pigment, bears a remarkable resemblance to the long-standing ajrakh design known today as kakkar, or clouds.

Throughout history, block printed cottons have developed continuously as a common craft tradition theme across the regions now known as Sindh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. These traditions grew from the combination of local skills and local needs, generating isolated sub-styles within the craft. However, styles were also influenced by the political rulers of each time, and by the waves of settlers and conquerers which the Indian sub-continent has witnessed throughout its history. Alongside this came the influences of trade routes. Just as the trade routes acted as a tool for distribution of traditional Indian textiles, so the far flung countries to which they were taken exerted influence over the products of the Indian craftsmen.

Increased commercial prosperity through trade and exchange has thus aided in communicating art and culture from one remote region to another. This material interchange led to exchanges of actual artists and artisans, often by Royal invitation, to move from one kingdom to another. Just as carpet weavers moved from Iran to Rajasthan, cloth printers shifted from Sindh to Kutchch. The textiles we know today as ajrakh have emerged from an organic development, drawing in part from the highly advanced mathematical and geometric design principles lent by Islamic settlers, in harmony with the Indian craftsman’s mastery of cotton cloth and dye.

True ajrakh

True ajrakh is worn only by men. It can be worn around the waist as a lunghi, wrapped around the head as a safa turban, or simply flung over the shoulder as a utility cloth. These versatile and beautiful textiles are used in many ways by the wearer. Often small purchases such as tea or spices will be tied into the four corners of the shoulder cloth, and larger goods like vegetables or grains into each end. In this manner up to six items can be separated and safely carried on the shoulders of a traveling man. He will also use the shoulder cloth to protect and carry very young or weak animals from his flock, or to tie around his own waist and knees for lumbar support when resting after a long days walk. This shoulder cloth may be placed on the ground to kneel on during daily namaaz prayers, a portable prayer mat to help keep the worshipper clean and comfortable.

In general, the traditional layout for true ajrakh print from Kachchh follows a prescribed format. The ends of the cloth are dyed red, whilst the longer sides are kept blue. A combination of border blocks are used to delineate the central field, and an optional number of inner borders may be added, each one making the textile more sumptuous, expensive and desirable to the aspiring owner.

According to Varadarajan there are fifteen basic ajrakh designs produced in Kachchh (Varadarajan 1983:25). However there are said to be over two hundred traditional combinations and variations of these designs available for wear by men. Within the confines of the traditional border layout, the selection of patterning is dictated purely by the choice of the wearer or the creative skills of the printer. The more exotic and luminous the ajrakh patterning is, and the brighter the white stars in the design, the more highly desirable the cloth becomes.

Ajrakh patterning can be applied to just one side of the cloth, known as ekpuri. However, a unique and technically advanced feature of ajrakh is the use of bipuri or double-sided printing. This means the printer works with his dyes, mordants and resists on both sides of the cloth simultaneously. The patterns always line up exactly from one side to the other, further intensifying the depth of colour and shining white of the ajrakh stars. Double sided printing is said to have developed to ensure that men dressing in the half-light of their homes will always wear their lunghi with the design on display.

Dates, figs, almonds, grains and a wealth of plant-inspired motifs are combined into the symmetrical geometry of the ajrakh designs. Peacocks, administrative seals, jalebi (Indian sweets) are a further series of motifs developed within the geometric grid system of the designs. Worn almost exclusively by Muslims, it is important that these designs must conform to the anionic nature of Islamic design principles, thus they must not depict human or animal figures. Symmetry forms the core of the design and the intricate repeats of an ajrakh textile must be perfectly balanced, often with elements radiating from a central star motif. The inspiration for ajrakh design exhibits features which resonate throughout Islamic inspired design and architecture.

The task of confining these delicately flowing lines within the precision geometry of an ajrakh grid lies with the wood carver, whose job it is to hand-cut the wooden printing blocks. Requiring mathematical skills beyond the normal levels expected from a wood carver, the creation of ajrakh blocks was undertaken only by the masters of the crafts. Employing compasses and rulers as guides, the design is mapped out on to the smooth surface of the wood. Only once every minute detail has been checked can the carving of the delicate design begin, as artist and mathematician become one.

True ajrakh blocks are square, must match up on all four sides, and also reflect to allow the reverse of the cloth to be printed - an error of just a few millimeters from one corner of the block to the other renders printing of the cloth impossible. The block carver first creates the rekh, or outline block, and then from this block he makes a series of other blocks to complete the design. The carver also needs to understand intrinsically the complex procedures of the ajrakh printer to ensure that the correct block is carved for each process. Separation of colours within each pattern is crucial to the success of the final textile colouration.

The process

True ajrakh is the product of complex multiple and sequential processes. In the past this specific form of textile patterning was one of the most time-consuming. The resulting richly patterned textiles, with face and reverse sides indiscernible from each other, has often been months in the making and the identify of the maker is recognisable through his individual harmony of dye, print and design.

The equipment required for the printing and dyeing of ajrakh is, in most ways, universal to block printers across India. The print pastes are poured into a shallow tray, with a mesh-based pad floated into this solution. The printer dabs a block onto the paste-soaked face of this print pad to load the correct amount onto the block between each stamp onto the cloth. The hand carved wooden blocks are lined up on the cloth by the experienced hand and eye of the printer, and once positioned the handle of the block is given a sharp tap to release the print paste onto the cloth. The surface used for printing is a padded table, which, in the case of ajrakh, is kept fastidiously clean to prevent blurring of the prints. Running water and large washing tanks are essential for printing ajrakh, as is an open space where the cloth lengths can be spread to dry. Often a number of printing families will share a communal cloth washing area, saving in labour costs and conserving precious water.

Each piece of ajrakh cloth is unique, and each Khatri family holds its own secrets and unique recipes for colours and processes. Thus no two families will follow exactly the same sequence of processes and even the names of particular materials or print pastes may differ between Khatri lineages.

Images: Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing

1) Grey cloth - cotton is loaded with impurities like oils, pectin and wax. Some are naturally present while others are added during spinning and weaving processes to help lubricate the threads in the loom and prevent breakages. These impurities give the cloth a dull, yellowish look, earning it the name, grey cloth. As waxes and oils reduce the absorbency of the cotton they must be thoroughly removed prior to any printing or dying.

2) Saaj - First the cotton must be cleaned, softened and prepared. In Kuchchh, pre-treatment of the cotton involves a minimum of three soakings in neerani solution. This is a thoroughly emulsified mixture of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung. The cloth is steeped in this mixture overnight and dried in the sun the next day. The procedure is repeated possibly up to ten times, until the cloth is bright white and soft to touch.

3) Washing - By the final cycled of the saaj process the neerani mixture has produced a rich lather on the cloth. Clean water is used to work this soap through the cloth, cleaning out impurities. The washing is a rigorous cycle of soaking and beating, only completed once all traces of foam have been wring from the cloth.

4) Kasano - the clean cloth now undergoes a soak in harde, a yellow astringent paste made from the dried powdered fruits of the myroballan tree. Used widely in Ayurvedic medicines, these dried plums contain high levels of tannic acid. The harde powder is mixed to a paste, divided into portions, mixed with water and used to thoroughly soak the fibers of the cloth, a length at a time. The cloth is dried in the sun without rinsing off the harde solution. The tannin permeates the cotton fibers and is an essential pre-mordant which aids the adhesion of subsequent printed mordants onto the cloth.

5) Khariyanu - outlines of the design, where white is required, are printed with a carved wooden block and a resist paste containing lime and tree gun.

6) Kut - areas where black are required are not printed with kut paste. The kut is a smooth paste made from jaggery, or molasses, in which scrap iron such as horseshoes have been fermented for ten to fifteen days. The resulting liquid is drained off and mixed with smooth tree gum paste. When printed onto the harde treated cloth, kut develops a deep fast chocolate-black colour as the iron particles in the kut paste oxidize with the tannic acid.

7) Pa mordant - the mordant for producing red is now applied to the cloth. Alum is suspended in a sticky paste of boiled powder from roasted and ground tamarind seeds. This smooth paste, called pa, is printed with blocks which have been carved so that the printing portion of the raised face is patterned only with the area of the design called mavi, where red is required. Care must be taken not to mix this print with the areas printed in lime khariyanu, otherwise the lime will discharge the alum and thus prevent colour developing during subsequent red dyeing.

8) Gach resist - for the next two stages of the process, a smooth, fine paste is mixed from tree gum, clay, water and millet flour. Alum is added to half of this mixture. This gach an be used to over print the previous pa to achieve deeper reds or more complicated colouring. The clay and millet flour in the paste act as a resist, preventing indigo from staining the cloth beneath, whilst the alum content acts as a mordant for subsequent application of red dye.

9) Dhori gach resist - the second half of the gach mixture, without the alum, is called dhori gach. This is printed over all previously printed white, black and pa printed areas which did not receive an application of the previous gach paste. The clay and millet flour in this dhori gach act as a resist, protecting areas of patterning where no indigo is required. Sawdust or finely powdered cow dung is sprinkled over immediately after printing these two gach pastes, to prevent the wet clay from smudging.

10) Indigo dip 1 - to obtain blue in the design, the cloth is immersed in indigo. The cloth is dipped into the vat to absorb this released indigo dye, and then removed. At first bright green, the cloth rapidly becomes blue as oxygen meets the dye particles in the fibres. An indigo vat need only be made once,then used daily and ingredients replenished to keep the vat active, sometimes for decades.

11) Indigo dip 2 - dipping into the indigo vat for a second time will deepen the colour in the blue portions of an ajrakh design. If two shades of blue are required in the design then the cloth is reprinted between immersions into the indigo vat, to preserve areas of lighter blue achieved from the first dip. If a design requires the darker shades of blue then the cloth may be subjected to a total of three of four immersions.

12) Washing - thorough washing and beating at the washing tanks removes the resist paste, the loose indigo dye, and the tamarind seed paste from the cloth. Remaining on the fibres are the indigo blue, kut black, alum from the pa and gach

mordant, and the resisted plain white areas.

13) Red dyeing - Alizarin crystals or the crushed and steeped roots of majeeta or Indian Madder are gently heated in a large copper pot. The fire beneath is kept low and the lengths of cloth continuously stirred using two sticks. Dyeing the purest red continues for up to four hours. The cloth is carefully watched; if colour spreads into the white areas, a handful of dried tamarisk flowers are added.

14) Tapano - the colour compounds contained within the natural madder roots are much more complex than those of synthetic alizarin. As a result dying with madder often leaves a pinkish tinge to the white areas of the design. To counteract this, the dyed cloth is soaked in a solution of camel dung, then spread in the sandy banks of a river in the sun and regularly sprinkled with water to keep it moist throughout the day. This would be repeated over three days, by the end of which the sun, moisture and various compounds in the dung would have acted as a bleaching agent in the white areas of the design.

15) Final washing - the final washing and beating to remove any loose colour is vital. It clears the excess dyes and makes the whiteness of the ajrakh stars shine bright. For every stage in the process the quality and mineral content of the water affects the quality and fastness of the colours and the clarity of the design. Water enriched with alum, tin or chrome deposits will help brighten the colours, but the presence of iron in the water supply dulls and darkens the final result.

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