06 October, 2018

Ismail Khatri Ajrakh saree

Proudly wearing an Ajrakh and Shibori saree by Dr Ismail Khatri. Some of my previous Ajrakh sarees can be seen herehereherehere and here.

There is a small village called Ajrakhpur in Kutch. The meaning of Ajrakh; it is loosely translated into “aaj rakh” which means “to keep it today”. These simple words are so evocative of this idea of patience that is really necessary for the survival of this art form. The process is complex as it may involve anywhere from 14-16 steps, depending upon how many colours and layers of block print are desired. The art uses natural dyes that include a mixture of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil, waste iron, myrobalan, madder, indigo, pomegranate peel boiled in water, the root of rhubarb and sprays of turmeric water. Ismail Khatri's roots can be traced back to the medieval times (circa 17th century) when his ancestors coming from Sindh settled in Kutch. He easily recounted nine generations of his forefathers ever since they settled in Kutch. The then emperor, Raja Rao Bharmal I invited these people to settle themselves in the village of Dhamadka so that this printed fabric could be provided to the royal family exclusively. This really helped the community because of the proximity of the Saran river to this village; water is an essential ingredient of the Ajrakh process because it constitutes an important part of the natural dyeing process thereby cutting down on many expenses that the community might have otherwise incurred.

Dr Ismail Khatri learnt the traditional method of using natural dyes in Ajrakh printing by telling them the nuances of natural dye printing and then elaborating the process on small pieces of cloth.

After the devastating earthquake in 2001, many Ajrakh block-printing artisans in their native village Dhamadka had their homes and workshops destroyed. The earthquake not only affected buildings but affected the mineral content of the river Saran. This change affected the way the fabric absorbs the dye through this traditional process. That's when Dr Ismail Khatri decided to move his base. He came forward to establish a block printing settlement, a tiny village named 'Ajrakhpur' in Kutch and the artists relocated to Ajrakhpur which has suitable water. This small village is an example of rebuilding lives from scratch.
Dr Ismail Khatri has so vociferously stood by his family’s craft tradition that he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Leicester de Montfort. He gave his first lecture in broken English at the university, people were amazed by his history, which made them proclaim that he would be awarded the doctorate for his achievements. Dr. Ismail Khatri also holds a National Merit Certificate for his contributions to the field of Indian handicrafts. From gaining recognition in the traditional markets to being earmarked by many Indian designers like Tarun Tahiliani, Sabyasachi, Anita Dongre; Khatri has seen it all. But he prizes his UNESCO Award that he received in 2008 as one tenderest to his heart. Khatri says that true art can only be recognized when it is both seen by the eyes and felt by the hands because these are the two senses that an artisan invests in the most when he creates a piece of art. And these words really do ring true when cheaper replicas are thriving in the markets.

In traditional ajrakh cloths, local artisans and clients could recognise the maker through the appearance of the cloth and process he had used. Each ajrakh artisan uses his own variation on the process.  I learnt the process below from the renowned Ismailbhai of Ajrakhpur, along with his sons Sufiyanbhai and Junaibhai.
1. The cloth is washed in water to remove any finish applied in the mill or workshop. It is crucial to remove these finishes for the dye to fix to the cloth. This is followed by a process known as saaj  which involves soaking the cloth is in a solution of castor oil, soda ash and camel dung overnight, and leaving to dry the following day in the sun. When it is semi-dry, it is returned to the solution and then saaj and the drying stage are repeated (7-9 times) until the cloth foams when rubbed. It is then washed in plain water.
2. The cloth is dyed in a cold solution of myrobalan (powdered nut of the harde tree). This stage is known as kasanu. Myrobalan turns the cloth a yellow colour and works as a mordant, helping to fix the dyes. The cloth is then calendered, after which it is laid flat to dry in the hot sun.
3. Khariyanu stageA resist of lime and gum arabic is printed on to the cloth to define the outline of the design. This is known as rekh. If the cloth is to be double-sided, this stage is repeated on the reverse side of the cloth.
4. A paste is made by fermenting scrap iron (horse shoes, etc), jaggery (raw cane sugar) and besan(gram flour). This mixture is left to ferment which takes about one 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.
5. Tamarind seed powder is mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate) and then boiled for one hour to produce a printing paste for red areas of the design.  Traditionally geru (red clay) was used but the chemical dye is now more common. Printing of the alum paste is known as kan.
6. 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 and then red clay and alum are added and the paste is filtered to achieve the required consistency for printing.
7. The cloth is dyed in indigo (bodaw). In order to establish an indigo vat, natural indigo, sagikhar(a salt), lime, casiatora (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). With an established indigo vat, indigo, jaggery and water are added as required to maintain the strength of the dye colour. A faster alternative to the above is to make a solution of natural indigo, caustic soda and hydrosulphate, which is ready to use in one or two days.
8. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun. This stage is known as vichharnu.
9. Traditionally, this stage is either madder or al dyeing, depending on the availability of the dye stuff. 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. But 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.
Alternative dyes that may be used at this stage in place of madder are rhubarb root and henna, which the Khatris have recently introduced.
10.  Gach (alum printing – see 7) is repeated. The cloth is left for several days after this. This stage is known as minakari (from Persian, refers to enamelling but used in Kachchh to mean ‘double work’).
11.  Second indigo dyeing (bodaw). The cloth is sun-dried.
12. The cloth is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in the sun (vichharnu).
13. Rang stage is repeated
If producing green ajrakh, the process is different from stage 10.
10. Resist printing (lime and gum) for white areas of the design.
11. The cloth is dried flat in sun. Pomegranate skins are boiled and the resulting liquid is sprayed on to the cloth. It is then dried flat in the sun. This stage is repeated two times.
12.  A solution of turmeric and lime is then sprayed on to the cloth.
13. The cloth is dyed in alum solution and then washed in plain water and dried.

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