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Ajrak – The Ancient Art Of Fabric Printing

Moving ahead in our series of Block printing, we have one of the most popular forms of painting the fabric which is very common in the Kutch region of Gujarat – Ajrak. It is basically a technique of block-printing textiles in which artists use natural dyes, including indigo and madder. It is distinguished by its color- blue with red – and its complex geometric & floral patterns. “Azarak means ‘blue’ and in Kutchi and Persian it means “keep it today”. Ajrak is a legacy of textiles. It is basically a complicated printing process that involves several stages. So it takes skill and patience to make Ajrak as it takes approx. 14-21 days to complete a pattern and a piece of cloth. The resulting cloth is soft against the skin and jewel-like in appearance, pleasing to touch & appealing to the eyes.

A beautiful fabric going through the final phase of sun-drying
A beautiful fabric going through the final phase of sun-drying

The History Of Ajrak

It was the Khatri community, who practiced the art by theliving in the banks of river Sindh (Indus in present-day Pakistan). In 16thbcentury, these families migrated to Kutch when the King of Kutch recognized their craft and invited them to settle in the barren uninhabited land, along with dyers, printers, potters and embroiderers. These dyers were initially Khatri Brahmins but because of their craft they felt the need to settle near the river. Slowly and gradually they converted themselves to Islam and mingled with the people of the village called Dhamadka.

Various designs of Block-printing
Designs of Block-printing

A massive earthquake occured in Kutch in 2001. As a result the block printers were forced to relocate. They settled in Ajrakpur, a village built in coordination with relief NGOs. As of now, there are over one hundred families living in Ajrakpur and 30 official block printing workshops. This has become a primary hub from where almost all of the families in Ajrakpur generate their principal income from. Today the Ajrak traditions are maintained in Kutch, and in Khavda, Dhamadka and Barmer in Rajasthan. The families of Ajrak work exclusively with natural dyes and make fabrics, dupattas, stoles, and sarees, etc. Lastly, they send the materials to all domestic cities of India.

Working In Ajrak

Even here people use to say: “where there is a will there’s a way”. Nature plays an important role in making Ajrak famous for its craftsmanship. The workers work in total harmony with their environment, where the sun, river, animals, trees, and mud are all part of its making.

These paintings are a long process involving many stages of printing and washing the fabric over and over again with natural dyes and mordants such as harda, lime, indigo, and even camel dung. This is such a unique technique of resist printing that allows exclusive absorption of a dye in the desired area only and prevents the dye to stick to the areas that should be left uncolored.

natural dyes and mordants: 
Harda used for printing
Harda used for printing

The craftsmen in Ajrak first apply a resist paste onto the fabric and then they dye it. They repeat the process then again and again to get the desired final pattern in deep red and blue hues. It is a gradual process that actually involves thirty separate steps of first preparing the cloth, then mordanted and then dyed. The entire process is time-consuming which takes around 2 weeks resulting in a beautiful piece of Ajrak.

Process of dyeing
Process of dyeing

This craft has been on a decline nowadays because certain modern and quicker methods of printing are prevalent that make use of certain chemical dyes which lower the effect of these traditional styles of printing. But due to the sincere efforts of master craftsmen and the increasing awareness among the urban people, this craft is slowly gaining momentum and is an environmentally friendly method of printing this is gaining importance among the cosmopolitan.

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