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Ajrak - Ancient Art In Modern Days

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Ajrak is a unique art form that originated in the present-day Sindh province of Pakistan. The word Ajrak refers both to the fabric and the technique used to produce the print. Ajrak fabrics use colorful and repeated patterns using complex geometric shapes or figures like flowers and elephants. Traditional woodblocks are used to imprint the designs on the fabrics. The elegancy of the designs is nothing less than that of Islamic architecture found across the sub-continent. Striking colors like rich crimson, black and white are used but the most prominent and the most significant color is indigo, from which many experts believe the art derives its name from.

Counted as among the oldest art forms, Ajrak has survived millennia of transformation to be in the current form. The earliest known versions of this fabric date back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They used tree cotton which was available to them and using local vegetable dyes, prominently the colors of indigo and red, imprinted colorful patterns on the cotton fabrics.

Excavations in other parts of the old world, in places around Mesopotomia, have yielded similar fabrics, showing the reach and popularity of the fabric. A most notable example is the fabric found on the rotal couch of King Tutankhamun of Egypt who ruled 1400 B.C.E.



 

There are many variations on how the word Ajrak originated. According to one source, Ajrak means ‘aaj ke din rakh’ which means ‘keep it for the day’ in the local tongue referring to letting the fabric dry in the sun for the most elegant manifestation of the color dyes. Another source, claims that the word comes from an Arabic word for the color blue, and few historians believe that the Arabic word itself originated from Ajrak.

 

Although Ajrak is sometimes spelled as ‘Ajrakh’, the subtle change represents a significant difference. ‘Ajrak’ is a word from ancient Arabic language whereas ‘Ajrakh’ finds its source in Sindhi.

 

Ajrak, as an art is very demanding and this made the final product expensive compared to daily wears. Hence Ajrak shawls or clothes were reserved for the most prominent guests and gifting of Ajrak clothes was seen as a mark of showing tremendous respect.

 

This fabric is famous on both the sides of Indus river and was historically a skill practiced by Sindhi-Muslim nomadic animal-keepers from Sindh (in present-day Pakistan), Kutch ( in the state of Gujarath of India) and Marwar (in the state of Rajasthan in India).


It is now used for all kinds of attire like cummerbunds, plaids, turbans, kurtas, etc.

In present times, most of the qualities, colors, and patterns of Ajrakh can be easily mimicked by artificial fabrics. But, the art is not dead and demand for genuine Ajrak still exists in the country.

 

Ajrakhpur, which literally means ‘Town of Ajrakh’, is located near Bhuj in the state of Gujarat of modern-day India. Dhamadka, their original ancestral village located 50 kilometers away from Ajrakhpur. The place was devastated during an earthquake which rocked this part of the sub-continent in January 2001 and left many shelter-less. The 

 

Khatris of Ajrakhpur have become the guardians of the art and practice it to this day. Originally, inhabitants of Sindh, moved to Kutch during the early 1900s in search of better water sources, on which their craft heavily depends upon. Since then, they been residents of Kutch and playing their part in keeping the art alive.

 

One of the reasons why Ajrak is a dwindling art currently is because it a demanding process to make genuine Ajrak fabric. Ajrak printing is an artistic tradition, which had undergone generational changes but has succeeded to preserve the essence of its origins, through the colors and patterns.


Picture credits - Manjira Majumdar

 

Being in a semi-arid desert, none of the plant-based raw materials can be grown in Ajrakpur. This has been true for centuries as this part of the globe has been a desert since the sudden decline of the Harappans.

The cloth is procured from various parts of India. Silk and rayon from Surat that is relatively closer to cotton from Tiruppur, a place 2000 kilometers away in the state of Tamil Nadu. Mulmul is bought from Bhiwandi in Maharashtra, silk from Bengaluru in Karnataka and Chanderi cotton from Madhya Pradesh.

 

The dyes are naturally prepared. Natural substances like indigo, henna, turmeric, pomegranate, jaggery, iron, mud, camel dung, castor oil – the list continue. The various components are mixed carefully to obtain a spectrum of shades of prominent colors.

 

There are about fifteen stages of dying and printing and based on the complexity of pattern and range of colors used can be as high as twenty stages. It usually takes about three to four weeks for the whole process depending on the weather conditions, as the extent of sunlight plays a major role in drying the fabrics. The cloth is washed several times before printing. Starch is removed to imbibe stability to the colors. Each stage of printing is followed by extensive washing and drying before the next print is put upon. Lime is used as an adhesive in the resist dyeing process and lime is used as an adhesive.

 

The beautiful, intricate and signature patterns of Ajrak are first carved out on wooden blocks and then used to print the patterns on the fabric. Very few can afford the services of modern machinery and hence almost all artisans develop the blocks in the house. Some of them sell these blocks to other practitioners.

 

The patterns were limited in the past but since recently are exploding in variety. Sometimes, designers from cities get there own patterns carved out and printed to gel with the changing demands of the consumers.

 

Ajrak is among the lucky few arts to have survived the onslaught of the modern textile industry. The laborious process makes it man-power and resources intensive, with unusually high demand for water. Yet, the artisans are happy and proud to be the custodians of what can be considered as living history. We have to do our part and expand the market and spread the colors of blue and crimson to all continents.