Ajrakh is an intensely time consuming craft that uses the technique of resist printing to bring some of the most exuberant patterns of Islamic origin to life. It involves upto sixteen steps of manual processing and only uses natural and eco-friendly raw materials.

Raw Materials

Blocks (1) ~ They are made from teak wood. Carving happens during rainy season, as humid air is not good for printing and dyeing work. The blocks that are meant to create fine dotted patterns are made with brass pins on the wooden surface, as the metal is strong and non reactive to the dyes. It takes 2 days to make a block if the design is simple. Finer and more intricate designs take 12-15 days. The blocks are made in Pethapur, near Gandhinagar.

From the seasoned wood, a block is cut to the required size and sanded on a stone to get a leveled plane surface, which is then checked against the edge of a steel ruler. The surface of the block is dipped in water and then in 'wari' (dry, powdered clay) and rubbed against 'rohi' (granite). With the friction, a whitish layer is formed on the surface of the block. The patterns are drawn or printed to scale on paper. This paper is stuck onto the plane wooden surface. The craftsmen then use their expertise and various tools to carve out the patterns. This results in flawlessly accurate wooden blocks.

Fabric (3) ~Ajrakh prints are being carried out on a variety of fabrics, these fabrics come from the following places: Cotton - Erode in Tamil Nadu, Mulmul - Mumbai, Silk - Ahmedabad and Surat, Handloom cloth - Maheshwar (MP)

Printing equipment ~ The fabrics are hand printed on long tables. The wooden blocks are dipped into trays (2) containing mixed colour and then pressed onto the fabric.

The block is not dipped directly into the dye liquid. A thin layer of coarse cotton is soaked in the dye. This is then used as a pad from which the dye is transferred to the block. In this manner the dye spreads evenly on the block and does not drip.

The table has layers of jute fabric covered with cotton cloth. If the base fabric for printing is cotton, it does not need to be pinned to the table, as the texture of the fabric is coarse enough to hold on to the table with its own friction. Silk needs to be pinned on due to its slippery smoothness. 

Dyes ~ Water tanks are kept in the open courtyard to store the ingredients. Wood is used to fire the stove for boiling the dye. Natural vegetable dyes like Indigo, Turmeric seed (7), Lime and rice are used to colour the fabric and are mostly acquired from Rajasthan or made in-house. Very few are obtained from outside. Alizarine is acquired from Bihar / Bengal, Madder from Rajasthan, natural indigo from Andhra Pradesh (only one person makes it now) and Logwood from Holland. Other natural products used in the process are gums, oil, clay lime, sakun seeds and molasses. 

Drying ~ Dyed wet fabric is laid out on the ground to sundry. Heavy pieces of stone are used to hold it down to the ground.

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Waste

The process involves printing, dying, washing and re-printing twenty or more times. A lot of water gets used till the fabric reaches its final printed stage. Measures are being taken to reuse and reduce the clean water consumption. Other wastage includes the organic remains after the natural color is extracted, which is biodegradable.

Tools & Technology

The tools required for various processes in Ajrakh are traditionally handmade. The materials used to prepare these tools are mainly wood and clay and are made by the women after their household chores.

The equipments made of wood are the Blocks, Danda (stirrer), Ghod (wooden stand), printing table (2) and the Budho (wooden beater). Equipments like Indigo-maat (dyeing tank), Kundi  (tank for Harda treatment) and Tari (trey) are made from clay. Nowadays, plastic barrels and discarded paint buckets are re-used. Rangchul  (5) (tank for dyeing) is made of bricks and cow dung. The pot inside the Rangchul is called Charu (3) and is made of Aluminum.

This craft requires lots of running water in many stages. The craftsmen value this water, which is suitable and important for the craft. Therefore, there is a need to use it wisely and conserve it. The craftsmen at Ajrakhpur have devised their own technology as a replacement for the running river water, since they moved away from the banks of river Saran. A system of huge concrete stepped tanks (6) has been installed in the village. The tank consists of various descending levels. The fabric is washed on each level in its different stages. This enables running water as well as the water from one stage to be reused in the next. 

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Rituals

This craft is deeply revered in Sindh and embraces every significant event in the life cycle, from birth to marriage and even death.

Process

1. Saaj no Marhalo : First, the fabric is washed in plain water and beaten to remove all the impurities. The traditional procedure for this is to soak the fabric in soda ash, castor oil and then in camel dung solution, which acts as a bleaching agent (alkaline) and makes the fabric soft. Nowadays, the fabrics are washed in plain water at the riverbanks or specially constructed water tanks. The fabric is dipped in water and then beaten with a wooden beater in order to soften it. The fabric, if required, is also steamed in water containing soda ash. Excess water is wrung out of the fabric and laid flat on the ground surface to dry in sun. 

2. Kasanu/Harda treatment: The next stage consists of treating the fabric with Harda (myrobalan). The cloth at this stage is treated in the same manner as it was done traditionally. This particular treatment is given to the fabric in order to facilitate better process of printing later. This is done by soaking the fabric in Harda solution, pounding the fabric with the feet, removing from the solution, drying and beating the dried fabric to dust off extra Harda powder.

3. Rekh (outline) printing (2): Gum Arabic and lime are mixed for 'kiryana' (printing of the white outlines). Blocks (also called rekh) are dipped in the solution and pressed onto the fabric to print the white outlines over it.

4. Drying of rekh printed fabric: After printing the fabric with rekh (outlines), the fabric is dried in sun and if it is to be printed on both the sides, the fabric is reversed and reprinted with the same set of blocks, matching the motifs manually and then gain left to dry.

5. Kat (black) printing: A mixture of Gum, ferrous sulphate, fuller's earth and water are used to make the black outlines. These ingredients were traditionally used but today, the process of 'kat' printing is carried out using rust of scrap iron, 'kachuka-no-loat' (tamarind seeds powder) and 'gud' (jaggery) to make the paste. These 'kat' printed areas turn permanently black in colour on treatment with indigo.

6. Phulli/Kan printing (1): This is the process of resisting of small star like areas. 'Kachuka-no-loat' (tamarind seeds powder) is mixed in alum and then boiled for 1 hr to produce a thick printing paste. To this, some amount of fugitive dye, 'kesari rang', is added to separate this paste from the other printed resist pastes. Traditionally, 'Geru' was used instead of fugitive dye. The fabric is now stamped with this paste.

7. Gach/ Khor printing: The first part of this stage is called 'Khor' printing, where the resist is prepared with a paste of alum, gum-arabic, millet flour and red clay and is stamped on the fabric with the help of filler-block (Gadh). The later step of this stage includes the stamping of resist paste made of lime and gum-arabic. These two combined steps are called 'Gach' printing. On this resist printed fabric, before drying up, dry powdered 'Bakri-ni-lindi' (Goat excreta) is sprinkled, which prevents the smudging of design. Nowadays, wood powder is used.

8. Indigo dyeing I (7): Natural indigo, extracted from the plant leaves is used for the purpose. A 'V' shaped well called 'Naand', dug in the ground is used for dyeing. The indigo along with 'kuwadia-na-beej' (casatoria seeds) is added in 'Naand' containing water and is left for months to ferment (this brings out the iconic blue of the indigo). Then, the fabric is dyed in it for 10-15 min. These days due to very limited supplies of natural Indigo, the synthetic indigo color is widely being used. It mixed with sodium hydrosulfide and caustic soda in the 'maat' (clay container) containing water. The 'maat' is left to mature for 3-4 days. The fabric is then added to this solution and dyed for 10-15 min. and then dried in sun.

9. Vichharnu (8): The indigo dyed fabric is washed in running water and laid flat to dry in sun. Fabric is not vigorously rubbed and the 'khor' resist is not removed yet and hence the resultant fabric remains stiff.

10. Rang: For this step, the cloth is boiled with 'dhaori-na-phool' (galls of tamarisk) and 'majith' (madder) with sufficient amount of water in the 'rangchul' (metal container fixed on a stand) for 2-3 hrs. The fabric is then washed in running water (9) and dried in sun.

Steps 7 to 10 are repeated once again to get brighter and more brilliant shades of red and blue.

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