Imagine the excitement when at the excavation sites of Al Fustat, on the southern-edge of present day Cairo – hundreds of coarse cloth fragments, dyed in Indigo or Madder with white resist in geometric patterns were discovered. Ajrakh the art of block printing has been practiced in the Indian sub-continent for over 4500 years and is a tradition we continue to enjoy even today!
The word Ajrakh is derived from the word azurakh, meaning blue in Persian. The blue in the patterns symbolize the sky, the red the twilight and the night is represented by black. The white designs strewn across the fabric are reminiscent of the eternal light of the stars. Traditionally Ajrakh is worn only by the men and greatly valued by the Maldhari’s of Kutch and Sindh. It is worn as a turban, a lungi and a shoulder cloth. It is worn by the wealthy and the poor. Made to last generations, the sturdy fabric once softened by use is used to swath babies, create hammocks to lie in the shade and to create patchwork quilts that provide comfort on a cold Kutchi night.
Ajrakh is printed as single sided (ekpuri) and double sided (bipuri).The special feature of Ajrakh is when it is block printed on both sides of the fabric with the impression of the block matching exactly – magically make it reversible with the same depth and intensity of colour and pattern on both sides.
In the old days, printers worked only with natural dyes which limited the colour palette to shades of red, blue, grey, green, yellow and black.Indigo was used for blue and grey, pomegranate peel for yellow, indigo dyed fabric over dyed with pomegranate peel for green, madder root for red and fermented iron fillings for black and mordants like alum and harde (myrobalan, fruit of the Terminalia chebula tree)
Normally an Ajrakh piece is printed with seven sets of blocks, with each set having three to five blocks. A separate block is required for each pattern and colour. There are several design variations for the central background like riyal, bodi riyal, mifudi, champakali, char pa ek, pencho.
It is believed that the craft of dyeing and block printing is as old as spinning and weaving. The practice of dyeing with vegetable and mineral colours that are permanently fixed with mordants goes back to more than 4000 years. How to mix colour, how to check if an indigo vat is ready for use or if a resist paste is mature enough to print with are highly skilled and honed traits that only masters can claim pride in. Synthetic naphthol dyes were introduces in Dhamdka around 1945. The new dyes brought new colours, reduced production time, reduced costs and by the 1970’s the art of using natural dyes was slowly being relegated to the folds of history.
Two major earthquakes: one in 1956 and the other in 2001 have influenced the history of Ajrakh printing in modern day India. Flowing water is key and paramount to Ajrakh printing. The earth quakes caused changes in the water table and altered the iron content in the water. The heavy destruction caused by them resulted in the loss of property, livelihood and precious lives. By 2001, may felt the need to start afresh – in the history of the Maldhari’s this was not a first but testimony to their courage, resilience and spirit of strength to build afresh when all was lost. In the history of the people of Kutch, their character and definition is imprinted in the Ajrakh technique that is closely interwoven with the sturdy river water. And so Ajrakhpur was born !