Ajrakh is a unique combination of hand block printing and resist dyeing. The skilful manipulation of two kinds of resist, or Dabu (mud and lime-resist) produces intricate, multi-layered designs on treated cotton cloth.
The hallmark of the original Ajrakh textile, which typically uses blue or red vegetable dyes, is double-sided printing, where the pattern on one side of the fabric is precisely replicated, line for line, dot for dot, on the other, ‘reverse’, side.
"Odhnis (Wraps for Women)"
These odhnis (wraps for women) have been produced using traditional printing techniques and are do-rukha (double-sided), where the printing on the two sides is precisely matched, line for line, dot for dot.
Traditional Ajrakh textiles have a fixed layout. They feature a large central body, with a repeated motif on a tight grid, border and end panels.
"Lungis (Wrap for men)"
Ajrakh was traditionally made only for men's garments – lungis (lower wrap for men), gamchas (shoulder cloth), faintas (turban).
It was the traditional clothing of nomadic pastoral Muslim communities - the Maladharis in Kutch and the Muslim Patel's in Marwar.
The lungi and the fainta continue to be used as ceremonial costumes of this community even today.
Historically, the craft was practiced along the banks of the River Indus (or Sindhu) now divided between India (Kutch in Gujarat, Marwar in Rajasthan) and Sindh, Pakistan.
Ajrakh textiles were used locally as well as exported to various parts of the world including the Middle East. When people from Iran and Arabia reached the Sindh region in the 7th Century, they were attracted to these bright and colourful textiles. Indeed, the term Ajrakh may well be derived from the Arabic ‘Ajrak’, or colour blue.
"Designs, Patterns and Style"
A typical feature of Ajrakh textiles is a large central body, composed of repeated block-prints, followed by multiple borders. To create these designs, fine cotton cloth was hand block printed, step-by-step, on either side of the fabric. Different resists and mordants are applied to the fabric followed by submersion into dye baths of indigo and alizarin red. The dyeing process is often repeated twice to get deeper shades of blue and red.
Designs are likely to have evolved over time and been influenced by the tastes and fashions of the trading countries. The influence of Islam, especially Sufism, is not in doubt; many Ajrakh designs common today are inspired by architectural motifs from the Islamic tradition.
Unlike many crafts, Ajrakh has survived with much of its traditions intact, although modern screen-printing technology has affected the output of traditional Ajrakh.
In Kutch, the availablity of much cheaper varieties of screen-printed chemically dyed Ajrakh designs (whether imported from Pakistan or produced locally in Khadva village) has meant that Khatri craftsmen have almost stopped producing Ajrakh for the Maladharis.
Screen-printed Ajrakh is also being manufactured in Barmer (Rajasthan). But Ajrakh remains an important marker of Sindhi culture, ensuring continuing demand for the distinctive traditional patterns.
Today Ajrakh has a large domestic and international clientele. Alongside the traditional use of Ajrakh as a symbol of identity, there have been successful attempts to diversify designs and uses which have created new markets for high-end Ajrakh textiles.
Ajrakh is no longer only for men; now there are Ajrakh saris and scarved for women too.
Traditional Ajrakh printers have used a variety of experimental techniques to produce this piece. The design features architectural landmarks from all over India: (center) Sidi Saiyyed Masjid, Ahmedabad; (top right) Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi; (bottom right) Red Fort, New Delhi; (top left) Gateway of India, Mumbai; (bottom left) Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi
"Scarf on Mashru using traditional Ajrakh design"
While the arduousness of the process makes traditional Ajrakh makes it much more expensive than screen-printed substitute, its quality and depth of design mark out a distinct and sophisticated product.
The term ‘True Ajrakh’ is commonly used to distinguish the old traditional double-sided Ajrakh of specific design and colour worn by men, from these new derivative textiles.
But this ‘New Ajrakh’ may well be what sustains the traditional technique and designs, and bears testament in the future to the incredible skills of the Ajrakh craftsperson.
Dr Ruchira Ghose, Mushtak Khan and Kritika Narula—Crafts Museum