Ajrakh prints have a history that cuts across timelines and geographies, thereby bridging cultures. Ajrakh is a type of hand block resist printing which has its roots in the Sindh district of Pakistan. In ancient times, the print was looked upon as a coveted cultural symbol; it was extensively used to garb the then royalty of Sindh. It is said that the Khatri community, the primary practitioners of the print, lived on the banks of the Indus River in Sindh. When the then monarch of Kutch (present Gujarat) learnt of this unparalleled art, he invited them over to the state. This is how the ancient printing technique proliferated to India.
In 2001 however, a few centuries on, Kutch was met with a life-threatening earthquake. The Khatris and their art form were yet again compelled to reposition themselves in this vast arid land. With support from the Government, the community shifted base to what came to be known as “Ajrakhpur”, which is proof enough of the scale at which the art was practiced and the impact it has had in the realm of Gujarat’s crafts. Today, Ajrakhpur boasts of nearly a hundred families, most of whom are involved in the art of Ajrakh printing. In addition, the village also houses some thirty block printing workshops. Veteran practitioners in the field include Abdul Raheman Khatri, Sufiyan Khatri and Khatri Jabbar Mohammed.
The term “ajrakh” is said to have been derived from the Arabic word “azraq”, which denotes the color blue, and fittingly so – Ajrakh prints heavily encompass the use of blues along with bright reds.
The most defining feature of Ajrakh prints is how heavily the makers draw on nature – right from the cloth (primarily handspun and handwoven cotton and silk) to dyes derived from indigo, madder, camel dung, lime, iron deposits and other natural materials.
The blocks used in this printing technique are required to be carved intricately in order to create the desired effect on the cloth. Once the blocks are prepared, the cloth is spread out wide on a table. Various wooden blocks are used on one cloth, and the printing is done on the basis of a grid-like model – repetitive and synchronized. Ajrakh printing is a long drawn-out process and involves myriad rounds of washing, cleaning and printing. The paste for resist printing is made using dung and rice husks. Once the paste is ready, the wooden blocks are dipped in it and later stamped (with great vigor) onto the fabric. This process is repeated until the cloth is marked by a sturdy enough resist base. After this, the cloth is naturally dyed in a color which forms the backdrop of the whole design, before being rinsed and dyed again. The borders of the fabric are also printed with double margins.
The cloth is then dipped in a mixture of oils, dried, washed and dipped again in a different combination of oils, until it takes on a warm coloration. After this, the cloth undergoes many more rounds of printing, where places left uncolored because of the resist paste are now swathed in shades of rich crimson and similar colors, while other rounds incorporate the use of indigo. Finally, the fabric is dunked in a mixture of soda ash and then washed with fresh water, the result of which is a finely and carefully dyed product. It is no surprise then that an authentic Ajrakh textile takes about twenty days to be prepared.