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Ajrakh: Nostalgic Narratives Imprinted on Textiles

by Sundari Silks 07 May 2021
Ajrakh: Nostalgic Narratives Imprinted on Textiles

An ancient block printing technique from Gujarat's Kutch region, Ajrakh, dates back to a whopping 4,500 years and is seen in excavations of textile fragments from the Indus valley civilization where cotton and indigo were used a lot. Derived from the Arabic word 'Azrak' meaning blue, this double-sided block printed textile requires an abundance of precision, skill and wisdom which comes naturally to the descendants of the artisan community.

While the craft has strong roots in the Kutch district today, this beloved block printing style was brought to the region by the Sindhs about 400 years ago. Craftspeople of the Khatri community who were experts in this domain were invited by the erstwhile ruler to settle and practice their art on the banks of the Dhamadka river. As you traverse through the Kutch landscape, the variations in the Ajrakh prints and patterns can be seen based on the region and community. Its design directory is predominantly subject to the influence of the Mughal dynasty with a strong sense of geometry, symmetry, balance and order. From simple floral and vegetative motifs to complex architectural patterns they are in equal measure rooted in tradition. The motifs have vibrant names that evoke one's imaginative spirits, be it Amri Mohar (Mango blossom), Surajmukhi (Sunflowers), Kakkar (Fluffy clouds) or Minkudi (Traditional symmetrical pattern). A distinguishing trait of Ajrakh patterns is how the motifs are constructed around a central point and replicated across a grid-like blueprint.

Regarded as a celebration of nature and its bounty, Ajrakh makes use of natural dyes sourced from herbs, vegetables and natural minerals amongst others. The jewel-toned hues of deep indigo and rich crimson are accentuated by darker contrasting backdrops, which in a larger sense is believed to add a pop of colour to the desert life. The most commonly used ingredients for the dyes are madder root, indigo plants, pomegranate bark and seeds, iron shavings, molasses and tamarind. These natural dyes lend a special trait to Ajrakh fabrics wherein during the sweltering heat of summers it expands the pores and hence making it breathable and breezy. While during winters the pores on the fabric shrink and close to keep the wearer warm. It is one of the many reasons that is alluring weave is suited all year round. The fabric undergoes multiple stages before it is imprinted with designs and one such interesting aspect is to treat it with camel dung to remove the starch.

This handcrafted fabric goes through a complex series of steps which is the secret behind its eternal beauty. Artisans follow meticulous and diligent processes right from sourcing the dyes and preparing the fabric before dyeing to carving detailed designs onto blocks made from Indian rosewood and teakwood. A notable trick is to soak these wooden blocks in mustard oil during the monsoon season as it prevents the wood from expanding. Let's understand this process step-by-step:

  1. Saaj - Soak, dry, rinse and repeat, about 7-8 times.
  2. Kasano - Dyed in a cold solution made from harde nuts or myrobalan.
  3. Khariyanu - The outline is printed through resist dyes of lime and gum.
  4. Kat - A mix of scrap iron, jaggery, tamarind and water gives a black outline.
  5. Gach - Resist printing is done alum, clay and gum, and left to dry for 4 days.
  6. Sawdust is sprinkled on top to avoid smudging the ink.
  7. Dip-dyed in indigo twice and sun-dried.
  8. Vichharnu - Thorough washing and drying on a flat surface.
  9. Rang - The last stage of dyeing with Madder root to get hues of red and brown.
  10. Spray of turmeric and lime to enhance the colour dyes. 

Both as art and apparel, Ajrakh is bound to leave an imprint on your life. The multidimensional technique is intrinsic to our culture and requires our efforts to retain its position of prestige. At Sundari Silks, we seek to bring you the best of both worlds - classic and contemporary. Our myriad collection of Ajrakh weaves venture beyond drapes and includes ethnic readymades, accessories and decor. Explore more here!

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