Ajrakh is an elaborate block printing technique that involves layering of prints to create unique effects. Interplay of natural dyes and designs of hand-carved wooden blocks bring themes like starry nights and seasons on the fabric. Originally from the Sindh region (now in Pakistan), the craft later flourished in the kutchh region of India and is one of the oldest printing methods alive today.

Usage

The fabric is traditionally worn by both; the members of the royal court and the pastoral Maldhari community (6). Vibrantly printed cotton fabric is comfortable for their work, nomadic lives, and the temperatures they encounter. It is both a delight to the eye and the skin.

The men use it as cummerbunds, colorful lungis (6) (garment to be draped around the waist, covering the lower body), wrap it around their heads like turbans, or toss (4) it across their shoulders as scarves. The women drape this fabric as dupattas (5) (a long scarf), chaddar (head covering or veil), and as shawls. Ajrakh printed skirts are also commonly seen in women. The semi-nomadic Maldharis also use the fabric as 'bindles' (6), in which they bundle up a few belongings while traveling.

The vibrant colors (1) make it very endearing to use it as linings in cradles for kids. The fabric is used both in daily necessities as well as on special occasions. These differences are decided by the quality of the fabric. Patterns, color, and quality of cloth are used as markers for importance and hierarchy. 

Its historical importance and intricacy of the design lend its great importance and therefore the fabric is also used as honorary gifts. The general uses also spill over to bed covers and hammocks.

The beauty of the fabric does not fade even if it gets old. The fabric is even used in patchwork quilts when it ages.

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Significance

What makes Ajrakh a treasured possession is the fact that its qualities do not just stop at the beautifully detailed patterns (3). The elaborate and painstaking process boasts of ingredients that are all natural and environment friendly (2-4). The fabrics go through many stages of resist dyeing for the different colours. They are washed in flowing river water, the quality of which also influences the hues. These processes lend depth to the design, enabling the dyes to ooze into the warp and weft of the fabric. Thus making the fabric blush with deep hues and great tensile strength. With a fabric that has been treated to subtle down its texture and increase its durability, it can be used and reused till it becomes threadbare.

Ajrakh prints are worn across all strata of society and status, with the same patterns and principles but different qualities of fabric. Predominant use of indigo and red in dyes lends it the ability to keep the wearer warm in winters and cool in summers.

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Myths & Legends

Ajrakh is said to have drawn it's name from the sanskrit word 'A-jharat', meaning 'that which does not fade'. 'Azrak', the Arabic word for blue could have also played a role in Ajrakh's etymology.

There is a well-known anecdote about Ajrakh. There was once an opulent King of Sindh. Like the other royal luxuries he enjoyed, he insisted about sleeping on a new bed sheet every day. One morning when the servant was about to change the sheets, the King commanded him not to take away the beautiful blue block printed sheet. "Aaj ke din rakh" (Keep it for the day), said the smitten King. It is believed that this enamored line of the King is what gave this magnificent fabric its name. It must have been a beautiful sleep for the King, to feel like he was sprawled on the changing sky, amongst twinkling stars, when he slept on Ajrakh. 

There are also stories related to the craftsmen and their techniques. Like the story of how "Khatri", used to determine the quality of the red color he wanted in the dye by tasting it. Just like how the ingredients of a well-cooked dish are tested, he would taste a bit of the dye and make his decisions based on the amount of alum he could taste. The reason behind this was that, for natural dyes great care has to be taken in getting the proportions right and this can only be instinctively determined by the craftsmen. Development of a great sense of judgment was also to a great extent an outcome of unavailability of measuring devices. It is their sixth sense and well-trained eye that replaces the most accurate of the devices to reduces risks.

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History

The craft of Ajrakh was born in Sindh and is believed to have been in existence from as far back as 3000 BC. The fabrics unearthed at sites like Fustat (4) in Egypt are believed to be this Indian fabric (1). The Gujarati port of Bharuch appears in the records of the Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC- AD 20) as 'Barygaza' from where a variety of Indian textiles were exported to the west. The craft was mastered by the civilizations, which flourished around the Indus River in Sindh area. The river provided both a site for washing cloth and the water needed to grow Indigo. The bust of a King Priest, excavated at a site in Mohenjedaro, shows him draped in this fabric (1), which depicts the earliest use of Ajrakh. It had a trefoil pattern printed on the garment believed to be the 'Kakkar' or cloud pattern in Ajrakh printing. Similar geometry of the trefoil is evident in the present Ajrakh patterns. 

Panini, the sankrit grammarian of 6th century BC, has also written about fabrics resembling Ajrakh. He has described names of clothes known by the colours in which they are dyed. 'Nila' - cloth dyed in Indigo, 'Lohitaka' was a cloth dyed red, 'Laksha' was Madar-dyed cloth and 'Kalaka' was the black cloth.

These facts establish the antiquity of the craft form. They testify that, the complex technology of mordant dyeing has been mastered in the subcontinent for centuries. 

Legend says that Ajrakh printers were descendants of Rama's sons Lava and Kusha. They came to Kutch from Sindh around 400 years ago. Rao Bharmalji (5), the ruler of Kutch (1586-1631), invited the craftsmen to Kutch to meet the growing needs of the people and the royal court. This also helped in developing overseas trade of textiles. The king gifted them land and they were free to choose where they wanted to build their homes. They were also exempted from taxes. They chose the banks of River Saran since it was a good source of saline water and alum which are advantageous in dyeing. They knew that a good supply of running water is necessary for different stages of washing and dyeing cloth. 

The Khatris soon converted to Islam in the 1660s and settled in Dhamadka during the rule of Rao Bharmalji. He had established a mutually beneficial relationship with the Mughal ruler Jehangir, which lent a peaceful environment in Kutch and enabled the craft and its trade to flourish. This calm and stability allowed the Khatris to establish trading relations with the communities who became their local customers, the Maldharis and Rabaris.

The craft survived in full bloom till it wilted during industrial revolution, after independence in 1947AD. Synthetic chemicals and fabrics like polyester eclipsed Ajrakh. The traditional crafts dwindled drastically till steps were taken to revive it in the 1960s by key figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1970s that the State Craft Organization emerged to save the crafts that were in jeopardy. The Gujarat State Handicraft Developent Corporate and its retail wing Gurjari were established in the early 1970s. The aim was to uphold the craft and create a sustainable market. At around the same time, the National Institute of Design was established in Ahmedabad. Designers were recruited from NID to work with the Handricraft Development Corporation staff and the craftsmen from rural areas of Gujarat. Thus the crafts slowly grew into full bloom with more and more people being aware and the markets expanded from domestic customers to overseas too.

The partition of India had earlier separated the craft clusters. The shift to Dhamadka was soon affected when there were severe earthquakes. These earthquakes changed the quality of the river water by shift in the tectonic plates and rendered it unfit for the craft. The craftsmen then shifted to Ajrakhpur, 12kms away from Bhuj (3)and are now diligently creating this beautiful fabric from there.

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Design

Ajrakh is believed to have the sky as its theme. The sky is represented by the colour blue, evening by the colour red and night by black. The white star-like motifs represent stars.

Ajrakh designs appear similar to kaleidoscopic patterns. The cloth used is usually about 3-5 meters long. It is patterned with intense jewel-like colors. The symmetrical block prints transfer their patterns onto fabric mainly in deep crimson and indigo. These patterns are peppered with imprinted, sparkling white motifs. Following Islamic design principles, they do not depict human or animal figures.

This is a craft in which geometry steps in to render a divinely metaphoric quality to the design. It helps the smaller patterns transcend into a harmonious whole. A central Jaal (web-like design) is created within a grid by repeating the block print patterns. This grid becomes the base framework for the printer to expand or constrict the design. Border patterns, both horizontal and vertical, frame this central design. These separate one pattern from another. The longer laterals are printed with double margin borders.

Champakali, Raiya, Kharek, Nipad, Grinari etc are the famous traditional designs. Skilled craftsmen subtly deviate from these to variations such as Amlaliya, Jalebiya and the famous Kakkar pattern. 'Saudagiri patterns' in Ajrakh are the most highly documented genre. These are done with smaller grids. They consist of more organic motifs within a symmetrical lattice. Riyal patterns are designs in Ajrakh, which are built around circular motifs. Ajrakh prints also embrace new block patterns these days. They are customized designs handed in by stores or designers.

When the Ajrakh printing is applied to only one side of the cloth it is called Ekpuri. A double sided print would be called Bipuri. Very few block printers still posses the skill to produce a natural dyed Bipuri Ajrakh, which is a delight to the eye. 

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Challenges

The massive 2001 earthquake in Gujarat caused immense damage not only to life and property, but also to the environment. The iron content of the river Saran had increased, rendering it unfit for Ajrakh printing. Only a few craftsmen decided to stay behind in Dhamadka while the rest moved to a new place. This place was closer to Bhuj and the water was more suitable. They built a village there and it came to be known as Ajrakhpur. The craftsmen understand the value of water for the craft, and have built a water-harvesting plant in the village in collaboration with the government; thereby setting an example for others to follow.

Due to the fast growing industries and their lucrative job opportunities, the traditional craftsmen and their descendants are slowly shifting to alternative employment. Most of the craftsmen are not able to make a living out of just the handicraft. Jaya Jaitley puts the plight of the craftsmen in her book 'ViÅ›vakarmā's Children: Stories of India's Craftspeople' (published in 2001) in this manner - 

'Yet despite their long history and plethora of plans and schemes evolved for them by various governments since India's independence, there may be no more than a few thousand crafts people who are comfortably placed both socially and economically. The rest eke out their livelihoods at bare subsistence level'(sic).

Ajrakh is one of the very few crafts whose visiblity has considerably increased and has reached even outside India. Catering to foreign clients, the change in design sensibilities and awareness also creates changes in workflow. There is a demand for innovations in traditional designs and more solid colours. For example, traditional Ajrakh designs are intricate and do not need large expanses of solid colours. Thus when the cloth is dyed to attain one colour over a larger area, it tends to become blotchy. Nevertheless, the craftsmen soon came up with spraying mechanisms to overcome this. There are other difficulties when catering to the foreign market. The craftsmen find it hard to keep up to the demands and make the clients understand that the production cannot happen throughout the year. The craft cannot be carried out in the rainy season since the dyes are affected by the humidity. Since most of the work happens outdoors, these are pivotal in determining its quality. Therefore, understanding of the craft season and being sensitive to the process are very important aspects while spreading awareness.

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