Home Blog Ajrakh an Exclusive Block Printing Technique That Depicts the Soul of the Universe on a Piece of Cloth

Arakh an exclusive block printing technique is said to be based on the theme of the universe where red resembles the earth, black space, blue the sky, and oceans with geometric designs as stars on it. Truly bringing down the soul of the universe on a piece of cloth.


  1. History


Ajrakh also spelled as Ajrak is a subtle block printing artwork that came into existence back in the civilization of Indus Valley around 2500 BC- 1500 BC.


A bust of a Ruler unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro demonstrates one shoulder hung in the fabric that resembles Ajrak. of exceptional note is the trefoil design carved on the individual's article of clothing mixed with little circles, the insides of which were filled with a red shade, portraying the combination of three circles of the divine forces of the sun, water, and earth.





                                                                                

Earlier, Ajrakh was made for Maldharis or cattle herders by the Khatri community in the 16th century. Craftsmen then migrated from Sindh to Kutch, chose the village Dhamadka with river Saran, a natural source of saline water and alum, suitable for dyeing purposes.


Arabic word “Azrak” which means blue is one of the principal colors in the Ajrak printing and so the name Azrakh. 


It is also believed that the ruler loved the fabric pattern so much that he asked the maid to let it stay on bed for one more day with the phrase “aaj ke din rakh”, which then went on to be used generally as a name of the fabric as Ajrakh.


Some say that the fabric got its name from the Sanskrit word ‘A-jharat’ which means ‘that which does not fade’. 


Whereas, Dr. Ismail Khatri explained that the name is based on the process. Ajrakh printing involves several days and each layer of color is printed after a long gap making cloth to stay for the day and has to be kept for a day for which it is said ‘Aaj ke din rakh’ and so does the Ajrakh term comes from here. He further said we are actually ‘Kshatriya’ - Hindu term used for the warriors which then became ‘Khatri’. 



  1. Region :


At present, Ajrakh is practiced in Sindh and Ajrakhpur in Kutch, Gujarat. Also, found in Barmer, Rajasthan with variations in style, color, and motifs. 



  1. Social:


Prominent communities where Ajrakh can be attributed as part of their daily life are  Ahirs, gypsy, Jats, and Mutuvas. And the person crafting Ajrak is called Khatri.



  1. Material:


  1. Raw Material: 

i. Dyes: Traditionally dyes are made from a combination of vegetable pigments and natural minerals.

For instance, Red color is obtained from madder root, alizarin, sappan wood, lac, alum, molasses, wheat flour, and fennel. Blue and green come from Indigo, Yellow from pomegranate and turmeric while black from scrap iron and jaggery.

There are also several different combinations being used to obtain black colors such as ferrous sulfate, molasses, and millet flour.


Ajarak printing is a long process involving many stages of printing and washing the fabric over and over again with various natural dyes and mordants such as harda, lime, alizarin, indigo, and even camel dung. The technique of resist printing allows exclusive absorption of a dye in the desired areas only and prevents absorption on the areas intended to be left uncolored.


ii. Fabric: Traditionally, cotton fabric is used. But recently various combinations with silk are also in trend, for example, Mashru.


  1. Tools : 


Wooden block forms the most important part as it imparts geometry patterns making it unique. Wooden blocks are mainly used because they absorb natural color better and uniformly.  Blocks are mainly obtained from Acacia Arabica trees. Crafting wooden blocks is altogether a different art in itself. The block has to be designed in such a way that the pattern fits perfectly with the whole of the Ajrak and also covers various areas against dye at the same time, which is a considerable challenge.


Generally, to print a single piece of cloth six to seven sets of blocks are used with each set having three to five blocks. The types of design variations used are called champakali, char paek, pencho, royal, and bodi riyal.


The designs are very finely engraved by the experts.  The design/ pattern is first drawn on the block using a grid system and then carved on it. When not in use these are soaked in mustard oil as it resists expansion during the rainy season.


  1. Process : 


In contrast to the other processes of printing, where the color is directly applied to the cloth, here in the Ajrakh block printing, the fabric is first printed with a resist paste and then dyed. The process is repeated with different kinds of dyes, resulting in red and blue patterns. It is a long and repetitive process involving a number of stages of printing and washing the fabric with different natural dyes and mordants. There are between 14-16 different stages of dyeing & printing, which take 14-21 days to complete. The steps followed are as below:


Saaj / Soaking: 

The fabric is taken and washed to remove the starch and soaked into the solution of camel dung, soda ash, and castor oil. And kept overnight. The following day the cloth is dried in the open sun and soaked again in the same solution. This soaking and drying process is repeated about 8 times until foaming occurs when the cloth is rubbed. Then after it is washed with plain water.


Kasano/ Fixing:

The solution of Myrobalan used as the mordant, nut from Harde tree is used to wash the cloth. The cloth is then dried from both sides in the sun. After drying excess myrobalan is brushed off the cloth.


Khariyanu/ Resist:

Lime (for whitewash) and gum arabic (Babool resin) is used as the resist and printed onto the cloth to outline the design/motifs that are required to be white. Rekh is the term used for this outline printing. It is printed on both sides of the cloth using carved wooden blocks. 


Kat/ Black dye:

Here paste known as Kat is printed on both sides of the cloth. Scrap iron and jaggery mixed with water and kept for about 20 days. Further, they are mixed with tamarind seed powder and boiled to form a paste called Kat.


Gach/ Combined Resist :

The paste of clay, alum, and gum arabic is used for the next resist printing in combination with the printing of lime and gum at the same time. This combined step is called Gach. Further sawdust or finely powdered cow dung is sprinkled on printed areas to prevent clay smudging. Thereafter, the cloth is kept for drying for about 5 days.


Indigo dyeing: 

After dying with indigo, the cloth is dried in the sun and dyed again twice to ensure a uniform coating.


Vichcharnu:

Here, the cloth is thoroughly washed to remove the unfixed dye and all the resistive print


Rang: 

Finally, the cloth is boiled with Alizaine a synthetic madder, imparting bright red color to the portions of alum residues where alum fixes the red color. The grey areas from the black printing get a deep shade. To obtain different colors cloth is dyed with different materials. For instance, For orange color natural madder root is used, yellowish-green color is obtained using heena, while brownish color is achieved using rhubarb roots.


In ajrakh printing, the fabric is first printed with a resist paste, and then it is dyed. This process is repeated several times with different kinds of dyes with the aim of achieving the final design in the deep blue and red shade. This process consumes a lot of time. The longer the time span before commencing the next stage, the more rich and vibrant the final print becomes. Hence, this process can consume up to two weeks and consequently results in the formation of exquisitely beautiful and captivating designs of the ajrakh.



  1. Products: 


Ajrakh when printed single-sided is called "Ekpuri" and double-sided "bipuri". Double-sided printed fabric costs high but is magically reversible with the same depth and intrinsic patterns on both sides. Traditionally, Ajrakh cloth is worn by the Maldhari community. Pagdis, lungis and shoulder throw are common for men. While long kurtas and sarees are common among women. Home furnishings are mainly in the form of bedsheets and curtains. Recently, Ajrakh kurtas, scarves, and handbags are also available. It should be noted that Ajrakh colors are so fast that they won't fade even if the fabric wears out.


                                                                                                                                        

  1. Market Scenario:


Traditionally Ajrakh was sold in the local markets where it was being manufactured. Nowadays, artisans participate in various exhibitions taking place in cities. Here, they are getting a good response from urban buyers. Also, they come in contact with wholesalers and designers providing a good opportunity for marketing. There is a growing demand in the international market leading to an increase in exports. But as the ajrakh is making in itself is a long and costly process, it is difficult for artisans to fulfill the required volumes in a shorter span of time.



  1. Current Developments:


In India, the Government has come up with many initiatives at both state and national levels for the upliftment of artisans. Also, ajrakh is now available online making it reach globally. Though many artisans have left printing ajrakh and switched to other works, there is growing interest among young designers and urban artisans to learn this art form. In this fast age, designs do get obsolete quickly but as printers find blocks too costly, they stick with their old designs. Here, there is a need for capacity development and proper training so that artisans can survive in this fast-growing fashion industry.



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