Ajrakh Block Printing : A Photo Story

by | Feb 24, 2022

The magical Yellow colour is derived from the dye preparation of turmeric and pomegranate peels

An impromptu expedition led me to a village called Dhamadka, 45 kms away from Bhuj, Kutch. The entire village tells a story of the revival of an exclusive hand block-printing technique that came to Kutch from Sindh, about 400 years ago at the mandate of the then king of Kutch. The craftspersons from Khatri community came forward to come and practice their craft on the Banks of Dhamadka river. A popular saying amongst the local artisans is that “Ajrakh” means Aaj rakh i.e., Keep it today

A series of entire generations of family have worked hard to revive this art in the purest and most innovative ways possible. Currently, it is the 9th generation of the craftspersons of Khatri family who first came from sindh, that practices Ajrakh craft extensively. Nauman, a senior person from the family, and Priyanka, an Ajrakh enthusiast took me through the process of block printing and explained everything with fine detail and passion. 

It was evident that getting a thaan of Ajrakh ready is a long, laborious and conscious process.

The fabric goes through 16 intensive stages of processing, and multiple cycles of printing and dyeing. It can take about a month to produce. Natural mineral and vegetable dyes are used to print the geometric patterns with wooden blocks. They are dyed in the roots of madder plant, alizarine red and indigo blue. The Meenakari Ajrakh, which has darker and more vibrant colours, is printed again in alum. Selected areas are over-printed with resist paste before dyeing again in the indigo bath.

Customers influenced by fast fashion might not find Ajrakh worth buying. But someone who is aware of the conscious efforts directed to bring a simple piece of cloth to life by filling in vibrant layers of natural dyes and brilliant block patterns, would definitely know how vital it is to sustain this craft.

Block printing being one of the oldest printing methods in the Indian Subcontinent, has proofs from the excavations of Indus Valley Civilization, still thrives and is practiced widely. To witness the process live was a delight to my eyes. When I touched the final crisp sun-dried thaan of Ajrakh held by a happy and satisfied craftsperson, I was moved.

It felt like the fabric carries a story in itself. It’s not just a cloth but a legacy!

The process of Ajrakh is all about embracing the beauty of nature while embodying its true essence. How can an Ajarkh Printing workshop not reflect that. This is a Bawad tree with Baya nests, standing tall in the vicinity of the workshop.
The plain cloth material is firstly washed in camel or cow dung with boiling water to remove excessive dirt. The dung acts as a natural scrubber. It then goes through the process of harde (in Gujarati, myrobalan in English) bath. It works as a Natural mordent, which binds colour with fabric.
To develop a natural black colour, the iron scrape is collected from kabadi walas. The iron is left to collect rust on it.
The scraped iron rust is then fermented with jaggery. The mixture is further boiled with tamarind seed water which looks like a gluey paste, leading to black colour.
Preparing an indigo vat (one slot of indigo dye) is an extremely delicate process. Like one takes care of a new born baby, one needs to keep it at a particular temperature, check it every day, stir it every morning while keeping a check on the pH levels of the vat. Indigo is the most typical to develop, as compared to all other naturally derived colours.
Pethapur near Gandhinagar is where these beautiful hand printing blocks come from.
Resist print, which is formed by the ingredients of lime, gum arabica and clay, is usually referred as “masala”. Its function is to inhibit absorption of dye at those specific places where the fabric has been printed.
The craft requires extensive precision; the artisan works without any reference. The cloth is like a canvas on which the artist directly stamps coloured patterns. The process has a meditative dimension to it.
Nauman, giving a final check to the Indigo vat before dipping the resist and madder block printed cloth piece. He told me that Indigo represents values of life like patience and care.
Water being heated to wash the dyed fabric. It takes practice and skill to identify how much to wash.
In-house boiling unit to remove excess dye To keep exactly how much is required!
The entire washing unit has been built mimicking the flow of water in a river. “It must flow continuously”, Nauman said. Ajrakh can’t be washed in stagnant water and since the dyes are naturally obtained, it doesn’t pollute the natural water bodies.
Finally the printed and dyed Ajarah thaans are dried in open sunlight, mostly on a patch of grass. The indigo dyed Ajrakh would be dried separately so that one colour does not take the qualities of another. The grass beneath also imbibes the colour of the thaan.
The crisp and bright Ajrakh being displayed by a satisfied craftsman. He says that printing more thaan is not important but printing the right thaan is!

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