13 February, 2018

Ajrakh Saree

The history of the Ajrak can be traced back to the civilizations of the Indus Valley that existed around 2500 BC-1500 BC

The Ajrakh is a “one of a kind” block printing. It is a print dominant in textiles and majorly uses the hues of rich crimson and deep indigo. Ajrakh gets its name from the word ‘azrak’, which means blue Arabic and Persian. This art has survived through centuries. This art involves a lengthy and tedious process. Someone who wants to learn this art needs to invest an ample amount of time to learn it and excel in its precise details.

Ajrakh cloth carries many meanings. The popular story amongst local printers is that Ajrakh means “keep it today.” It is also linked to azrakh, the Arabic word for indigo, a blue plant which thrived in the arid ecology of Kachchh until the 1956 earthquake. Ajrakh patterns use complex geometry to create starry constellations in indigo, madder, black, and white across lengths of cloth. The shapes and motifs of Ajrakh echo the architectural forms of Islamic architecture’s intricate jali windows and trefoil arches.

Ajrakh is a time-honoured emblem for the local communities of Kachchh. Nomadic pastoralist and agricultural communities like the Rabaris, Maldharis, and Ahirs wear Ajrakh printed cloth as turbans, lungis, or stoles. It was given as a gift for the Muslim festival of Eid, for bridegrooms, and for other special occasions. The colours of a true Ajrakh textile are fast. The cloth is made in a sixteen step process of washing, dyeing, printing, and drying, which requires a high level of skill and concentration in order to keep colours fast and even. Pomegranate seeds, gum, Harde powder, wood, flour of Kachika, the flower of Dhavadi, alizarine and locally cultivated Indigo are just some of the natural resources that printers in this craft.

There are fourteen stages of Ajrakh printing.

1. The cloth is washed in water to remove any finish applied in the mill or workshop. If the cloth has a heavy finish on it, steam treatment may be required. The cloth is then put to soak overnight in a solution of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung. This is known as saaj. The following day, the cloth is spread out to dry in the sun. When it is semi-dry, it is returned to the solution. Saaj and the drying stage are repeated 7-9 times until the cloth foams when rubbed. It’s then washed in plain water.

2. The cloth is dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (the powdered nut of the harde tree). This stage is known as kasanu. The cloth is then calendered, after which it is laid flat to dry in the hot sun. If the cloth is to be printed on both sides, it is turned over as it dries to ensure it is thoroughly ‘sun dried’ on both sides. The myrobalan powder that precipitates after the drying is brushed off the cloth.

3. A resist of lime and gum arabic is printed onto the cloth to define the outline of the design. This is known as rekh.

4. Rekh resist printing is applied to both sides of the cloth.

5. A paste is made by fermenting scrap iron (from horseshoes, etc), jaggery (raw cane sugar) and besan (gram flour). This mixture is left to ferment, which takes about a week in the hot season and two weeks during the cold season; a yellowish scum on the surface of the mixture indicates that it is ready for use. The liquid, or ‘iron water’ is drained off and added to tamarind seed powder. The iron and tamarind solution is thoroughly mixed and then boiled for one hour. The resulting ‘iron paste’ is printed on to the cloth (kat) the colour is black.

6. Tamarind seed powder is mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate) and then boiled for one hour to produce a printing paste for the red areas of the design. A small amount of a fugitive dye is added to this in order to aid registration when used for printing. Traditionally, geru (red clay) was used but a non-toxic chemical dye is now more commonly used. The printing of the alum paste is known as kan.

7. A paste of alum, millet flour, red clay and gum arabic is printed on the cloth where there are large areas of red in the design. A resist of lime and gum arabic is also printed at this time; this combined stage is known as gach. Sawdust is sprinkled on to the printed areas to protect the design from smudging. After gach printing, the cloth is left to dry naturally for several days. The paste used for gach printing is made from local clay which is filtered through muslin, millet flour and alum. The millet flour is boiled, red clay and alum are added, and the paste is then filtered to achieve the required consistency for printing.

8. The cloth is dyed in indigo (bodaw). In order to make an indigo vat, natural indigo, sagikhar (a salt), lime, casiatora (the seed from kuwada plant) and water are mixed in a clay vessel, plastic barrel or concrete vat. The dye bath is left to ferment for about one month; sometimes jaggery is added to this to aid fermentation. It is ready to use when the colour of the solution is yellowish (best quality) or greenish (medium quality). A faster alternative to the above is to make a solution of natural indigo, caustic soda and hydrosulphate, which becomes ready to use in just one or two days.

9. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun. This stage is known as vichharnu.

10. The cloth is boiled in a solution of tamarix (from the dhawri tree) and either madder root powder or al root powder and is then washed and sun-dried. For some ajrakh, alizarin (synthetic madder) may be used, in which case the cloth is boiled in a solution of alizarin and tamarix powder. In all cases, the cloth is washed in plain water after dying and dried flat in the sun. At this stage (rang), the red and black areas of the design development and the resist areas are revealed as white.

11. Gach (alum printing – see 7) is repeated. The cloth is left for several days after this. This stage is known as minakari. (The word, from Persian, refers to enamelling. However, in Kachchhi—the dialect of Sindhi spoken in the Kutch region of Gujarat—it means ‘double work’.)

12. The second indigo dyeing (bodaw) takes place and the cloth is sun-dried.

13. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun (vichharnu).

14. Rang stage (stage 10) is repeated.

Traditionally Ajrakh printing was done exclusively on both the sides of the cotton fabric, but nowadays silk is also used. Ajrakh lungis (sarongs) and pagadis (turbans) were worn by Muslim cattle herders of the Kutch region. A shoulder throw is also worn made from of the same fabric.

Sisters dressed in Indigos, in San Francisco, enjoying Indian Thali.

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