When our team at Designdrift was contemplating upon the idea of creating this year’s first issue with celebration of printing, I knew that at least for one piece there was no need for much brainstorming: the craft of ajrakh printing and the city of Ajrakhpur. This is the story of a community in Kutch, catering to the demand of block printing with natural dye for more than 4000 years.Our first association with Kutch was in 1994 with Judy Frater who is currently the director of Somaya Kala Vidya for whom we completed a project called ‘Map of Kutch’. That project now had most of our answers about the craft. Hence, while we had a project as a starting point, we needed a story teller to drift us into the craft today. A call to Irfan Khatri, who is the 7th generation involved in this business, and an appointment later, I was set to explore the day on my own, stepping into the city of Ajrakh printing, and into a sea of color, block printing and intricate craftsmanship.
The conversation with Irfan began with walking down the corridors of history. He explained that the community that is mostly associated with the craft are the Khatris. Their creativity and craftsmanship then flows into different products, from Ajrakh for the male Sikh community, Ghagaras for the community’s females and Saris for Patels. Today, manufactured cloths of this craft have extended to whole of India and even abroad. While the craft began in Sindh, it is today practiced in three places: Kutch (Gujarat), Sindh (Pakistan) and Barmer (Rajasthan).
All forms of art need to adapt to survive the function of time. Thus too, is a story of adaptation, of how the craft has survived through natural calamities, geographic change and infrastructural limitation.
Initially, the Khatri community used to reside in Dhamadka village, 40 kilometers from Ajrakhpur. Here, the free flowing river was used to wash the clothes under various processes of the craft. Somewhere around 1990, the river dried and the community shifted to utilizing groundwater. But the consequences of this were unexpected: iron content of groundwater turned the natural dye in to black. While the community was trying to cope with this, they were faced with another unexpected turn of events: the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. The community which was creating for the people a sea of indigo, was suddenly struggling to keep their own boat afloat. With added problems of lack of banking and transportation facilities, the community decided to shift bases to a village near Bhuj. This was a home they created for themselves and their art. They named itAjrakhpur.
Women in their bright blues and reds walking back home an otherwise dry, arid desert areas of India are a welcome sight. This pleasant flash of color, Irfan explains, is not a coincidence. “Khatri, Pate or Rabari communities usually travel in white sand,” he explains further. “That is why, they like bright colored clothes to be visible from a farther distance. This is how our forefathers started printing Ajrakh.”
What makes this print unique is that it printed on both the side of the cloth, making the designs always symmetrical. This two sided printing was a demand ofthe Sikh community people whose day used to start with the dawn and did not end before dusk. Since darkness was a common companion by the time they reached home, they wanted a cloth which can be worn from any side.
Irfan Khatri shares “One of the meaning of Ajrakh is ‘universe’.But in our kachhi language, it literally translates into ‘leave it for a day.’”The process is hence this;after each component of the process of dyeing, printing and such, the cloth is left for a day. This gives it a brighter tone. Created with only natural dyes, the raw materials of this craft are lime, gum, turmeric powder, indigo, alum to name a few. Currently, the natural indigo comes from south while earlier it used to be procured from the ‘Nival’ flowers. Natural indigo process is a bit time consuming, which has also made some craftsman shift to synthetic dye. Also, when the fashion industry got into picture, they diverted into synthetic cloths as well.
The process involved is thus.
1. Dye white cloth in turmeric powder.
2. Registration block print is done with a paste made up of lime & ‘goond’ (gum).
3. Black Coloured block print is done. This is printed with a slurry made by keeping metal in the water for around 20days which is then boiled after mixed with “ambila” (gooseberry) powder with it.
4. Then the Red Color block print is done. This is done through a slurry made out of “Multani” soil mixed with goond (gum) &fatakdi (alum).
5. Next is the dyeing of the color indigo.
6. Another round of this is Dyed for a darkercolour
7. It is then washed in natural water.
8. Further, it is boiled in algirin, after which it starts to show actual colors.
The blocks that create the print of this craft are made in Pethapur, near Gandhinagar by theGajjar community. Different blocks have a different purpose. Rekh is used for outlines, Kan for smaller designs, Mavo for bigger patches and Gadh for background. Usually, a combination of any three is used for the process of printing.
Just as I was winding up most of what I had intended to document of the art at Kutch, I noticed at the end of my vision a silhouette that I knew only too well—Judy Frater. In the middle of my photographing and talking with Irfan, here I was sharing the same space with someone for whom we had done our map of Kutch. This project, was our first entry into the world of Ajrakh, and now at the end of the trip, Judy Frater once more stood as our connection to the art that had been resilient to the passage of time and adapted itself through its trivialities.