The graceful uniformity adorning the waltz of stunning indigo and madder handcrafted dyes spilling their mesmerizing aura on a standard three to four metres of Ajrakh print with beautiful minor imperfections that stealthily makes it one of the most unique and spectacular textiles of the Sindh traveled all the way to various geographies was lost somewhere in translation. While this iridescent art was first blended by the craftsmen in Sindh. It soon traveled all the way to Kutch as a few weavers and artisans set on a journey of transformation.
History and Origin
The story of Ajrakh dates back to time immemorial when long long back, there used to be a King of Sindh. He was a royal connoisseur just like any other King and lurked in the luxuries of life. He slept on a new bedspread every day until one day when he asked his servant “Aaj Rakh” (Keep It Today) It was none other than the breath-taking block printed Ajrakh bedspread which came to be recalled as “Aaj Rakh” and hence the name Ajrakh. However, the word “Ajarkh” is coined from the Sanskrit etymology which means “a-jharat “which means something that does not fade. But, it is highly possible that it got its name from Arabic “Azrak” which means blue since Ajrakh’s signature block printed fabric is dyed in hues of indigo and madder which are primarily blue and represent a clear blue sky. The art of Ajrakh is believed to have existed since Indus Valley Civilization for there are several pieces of evidence that support this.
The colors of Ajrakh fabric replicate the beauty of nature and often refers to the universe or sky. Blue represents the sky, red signifies the twilight while black symbolizes the night and the white dots on a black fabric will resonate stars in a night sky. This representation has been given by historians who studied the artifacts and relics and therefore, came to this conclusion. Ajrakh was not just popular in the Indian subcontinent but also spread its roots to Europe and Babylon where it was traded and sold for commercial purposes. This hints us into thinking that Ajrakh was highly in demand and savored the riches of people.
From using this vibrant fabric as cradles for babies to creating quirky saafas or turbans for men an ghaghras or skirts for women to using the multi-functional fabric as the bedspread, drapes, tapestry etc. it was not just restricted to the regular wear but soon turned into a quintessential bridal trousseau and furthered its relevance to honor someone with respect. Yes, this heirloom handcrafted textile was considered highly yet in the 16th century with the advent of power loom and synthetic and chemical dyes, somewhere it lost its meaning and essence, therefore, churning in pieces, the struggling artisans made their choice- to preserve or not to preserve.
In the 16th century, Raja Bharmaalji, brought weavers from Singh to Gujarat and settled them in the remote village of Dhamdka. He chose this place for a perfect proximity to saline water which is indispensable for dyeing of Ajrakh cloth while the sea bed also comprised of portions of alum which further proved to be a bliss in dyeing and reflecting colors in its pure artform.
How is Ajrakh Processed?
According to the traditional approach, 100 pieces of a huge 5.5 sq m cloth are cut from a grey colored yarn. These pieces are soaked in a mix of 2 kg soda bicarbonate and 1 kg castor oil which is then added to 300-litre water. These pieces are later taken out and thoroughly hit against a big stone. This process continues for 3 days straight and this way, the cloth becomes soft and the colors absorb the fabric effortlessly. Then these cloths are turned into small balls and further soaked in a stronger mix of Myyrh powder, sakund power, anandi oil and sesame oil in about 20 liters of water. Then the cloth is squeezed off of its color and beaten against the rock stones. This is done to remove the creases from the cloth and later the weavers start with their drawing process by outlining the cloth. Ingredients like jaggery, iron, bajra and flour are prepared as a mixture which is left to rot until it turns black for about 15-20 days. This is how the natural dyes are processed.
Kaat is the process of drawing the outline design on the fabric and further Kaat stamping is done to showcase the intricate designs all over the silhouette. Later, the colors are filled in the fabric. To color the fabric in different hues, several natural ingredients are involved, however, jaggery remains the base.
The Artisans Anatomy
Back in the 16th century when Bhuj was hit by a massive earthquake and the shock wave soon turned the artisans lives with melancholy since they suffered huge losses not only in terms of lives and property but also because the seabed rose its iron content which made it unsuitable for Ajrakh printing. The weaver community soon shifted to a new village and named it as Ajrakhpur. Following a tradition of electing a new member to keep the accounts for the entire year on every 26th January. Villages are an epitome of skillful growth and development where the artisans understand the importance of restricting and rebuilding live hoods from the scratch. They further developed rainwater harvesting techniques to preserve water and maintain sustainability which is an important factor in planning the village.
One such National Award winning Ajrakh artisan, Khatri Abdul Jabbar, recalled that his father taught him the priceless processing of Ajrakh but due to the commercialization of cloth and synthetic colors revamping the Ajrakh printing, Jabbar continued to use natural dyes so as to keep the art alive and preserve it forever. Today, he works with several prominent e-commerce portals and manufactures stunning Ajrakh pieces.
Not just that the customer is looking for Ajrakh clothing, but today, modernism has hit us hard and therefore, contemporary options like tapestry, upholstery, décor etc. are embraced by the millennial generation which is a step ahead in embracing and reviving the age-old art.
The artisans confess that they have also molded themselves into the modern world needs by involving innovative techniques and making some unique pieces.
Ajrakh at Global Level
Ajrakh has been an epitome of finesse and pure love since it traces back to times when Europe and Babylon traded this fabric. Ajrakh has rose to prominence with top-notch designers showcasing the sustainable clothing as a part of their runway couture fashion.
From Tarun Tahiliani to DKNY and Edric Ong from Malaysia, Ajrakh has traveled far and wide. In fact, Maiwa Foundation- a Vancouver based trust aimed at funding the revival of this incredible fabric.