Ajrakh, meaning blue in Arabic, refers to a moonless, midnight..the star spangled sky, against a stark blue-black background.
Ajrakh is a resist dyeing repeat block printed technique is created over 14-16 stages by highly skilled craftsmen using natural dyes like indigo and madder.
The unique thing about Ajrakh printing is that on a single fabric, using the same design, resist printing is combined with other printing and dyeing techniques. The whole process is repeated on both sides of the fabric in perfect cohesion, which can only be performed by highky skilled craftsmen. Ajrakh uses mud-resist in the various stages and another unique feature is that the dyeing and printing is repeated twice on the fabric to ensure brilliance of colour.
Superimposing the repeats is done so perfectly that the clarity is sharpened. The process is done ovee 14-16 stages which takes 2-3 weeks to complete.
History and legend
The ajrakh printers were said to be descendants of Rama's sons Lava and Kusha. The king of Kutch brought them over to his barren uninhabited land, along with dyers, printers, potters and embroiderers. The dyers were Khatri Brahmins. Two generations later they converted to Islam and settled in Dhamadka. Severe earthquakes caused the artisans to shift to Ajrakpur 12 kilometres from Bhuj Gujrat. The ajrakh makers claim that their craft dates back to early medieval times.
Originally Ajrakh was printed in Sind (now Pakistan) but now it continues in Kutch, in Khavda and Dhamadka and Barmer in Rajasthan. A few Khatri families use the ajrakh method of printing.
Ajrakh printed cotton is traditionally worn by the pastoral Maldhari community. They use it as pagdis and lungis the women wear printed skirts, and use the ajrakh fabric as bed covers to line cradles for babies.
Natural Dyes and Its Properties
To identify ajrakh one needs to look for fabric with a background of red or blue (though other vegetable dye colours like yellow and green have been introduced) Traditionally four colours were used red (alizarin), blue (indigo), black (iron acetate) white (resist). The ajrakh makers believe that the printed fabric has warm and cool colours which steady the body temperature… blue is cooling and red is warm.
Ajrakh design are often inspired by Islamic inspired design and architecture.
Dates, figs, almonds, grains and plant-inspired motifs are combined into the symmetrical geometry of the ajrakh designs. Peacocks, administrative seals, jalebi (Indian sweets) are a further series of motifs developed within the geometric grid system of the designs.
Ajrakh designs must conform to the nature of Islamic design principles, thus they must not depict human or animal figures. Symmetry forms the core of the design and the intricate repeats of an ajrakh textile must be perfectly balanced, often with elements radiating from a central star motif.
The printing blocks have to be very finely chiselled and by experts in the field. A set of three blocks create a dovetailing effect which finally results in the design.
Process of Ajrakh
The white cotton cloth is placed in a copper container with water and soda ash, then steamed to soften it and washed in running water preferably in a river. Soap is applied to it as it is spread over a large cauldron of water. It is then dipped in a mixture of oils, squeezed out and kept overnight. The fabric is washed out the next day and soaked in a mixture of powdered sakun seeds and oil and dried again after which it acquires a dull beige colour. The specially designed blocks are used to print the fabric in gum using an outline block. The second line of printing which is kat printing gives a black colour using a solution of ferrous sulphate and ground seeds. When it is dyed in alizarine it turns black. After the third printing with a resist made of natural elements the fabric is dyed in indigo. The fabric is washed, and dyed in alizarine which produces the red colour in the areas which were covered initially by resist. The second dyeing is in indigo to produce another shade of blue. After this the final wash consists of successive washing in soda ash then in water where detergent is added and then in running water which results in a luminous and beautiful product.
Detailed Process of Ajrakh Preparation
The process of 'Ajrakh' is a long drawn process with many stages individually taking days to finish. The process is as follows:
Cotton cloth is taken and washed to remove any finish applied in the mill or workshop. It is generally the starch that is to be removed from the cloth. The cloth is soaked in a solution of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil. It is then wrung out and kept overnight. The next day the cloth is semi-dried in the sun and then soaked in the solution again. This process of Saaj and drying is repeated for about 7-8 times until the cloth foams when rubbed. It is then washed in plain water.
The cloth is washed in a solution of Myrobalan; which is the powdered nut of the Harde tree. Myrobalan acts as the first mordant in the dyeing process. The cloth is sun dried on both sides. The excess myrobalan on the cloth after drying is brushed off.
White cloth washed and prepared for the printing stages
A resist of lime (used for whitewash) and gum arabic (Babool tree resin) is printed onto the cloth to outline the design motifs that will be white. This outline printing is known as Rekh. The resist is printed to both sides of the cloth using carved wooden blocks. These wooden blocks have registration marks in the design carved symmetrically to enable double sided printing.
Resist printed on one side of cloth
Resist printed on other side of cloth
Scrap iron, jaggery is mixed with water and left for about 20 days. This makes the water ferrous. This ferrous water is then mixed with tamarind seed powder and boiled into a paste. This paste is used for black printing. This paste is called Kat. The paste is printed onto both sides of the cloth.
Black outlines printed on one side
Black outlines printed on other side
Alum, clay and gum arabic are mixed into a paste used for the next resist printing. A resist of lime and gum arabic is also printed at this time. This combined stage is called as Gach. Sawdust or finely powdered cow dung is sprinkled on to the printed areas to protect the clay from smudging. After Gach printing, the cloth is left to dry naturally for 3-4 days.
Sawdust is sprinkled to avoid smudging of clay
• Indigo dyeing
The cloth is dyed in indigo. It is dried in the sun and then dyed again in indigo twice to ensure a uniform colour.
The cloth is washed thoroughly to remove all of the resist print and unfixed dye.
Thoroughly washed cloth after indigo dyeing
The yellow colour is the Alum residue
The cloth is then boiled with Alizarine (synthetic madder) to give the alum-residue areas a bright red colour. Alum acts as a mordant to help fix the red colour. The grey areas from the black printing stages get a deep shade. For other colours the cloth is boiled with a different dye. Madder root (Sanskrit. Manjishtha root) gives an orange colour, Henna gives a light yellowish-green colour, and Rhubarb root gives a pale brownish colour.