Steam is emanating from huge earthen pots filled with dyes. A little distance away, colourful yards of cloth are being laid out to soak up the sun. It’s October, just before winter starts to set in, and the morning sun has already begun warming up the earth in Bhuj.
This region in the western frontier of the Indian map, which sees harsh weather, also nurtures a thriving and diverse artisan community with a rich history, and beautifully weaves together narratives from the past and present.
One such narrative is the story of Ajrakhpur – a tiny village dominated by the Khatri community. Sufiyan Khatri, who owns a workshop in the village, is a 10th generation artisan whose family has been involved in the art of Ajrakh printing since the 15th century. 40-year-old Sufiyan says, “As the family legend goes, our community consisted of master craftsmen of Ajrakh printing. The king of Kutch invited us and that’s how we migrated from Sindh and started calling this region our home.”
Today, Ajrakh is a fashion statement among buyers looking for sustainable, environment-friendly and ethical fashion. The fact is, Ajrakh is among the many traditional crafts that have been thriving harmoniously with nature for centuries. “While Ajrakh’s roots are predominantly traced to Sindh in the present-day Pakistan, they further go back to the Indus Valley civilisation and even to Egypt. We do not know where and when it originated,” explains Sufiyan.
A block-printed textile art, Ajrakh is defined by its natural earthy dyes – originally indigo blue and deep crimson red, and complex geometrical motifs which are symmetrical. “The theme is usually universal and is inferred to depict the sky, the stars, the sunset.” While the word Ajrakh is derived from ‘azrakh’ which means blue in Persian, when loosely translated into Kutchi, the expression could also mean ‘keep it today’, representing the idea of patience which is integral to this art form.
The beauty of Ajrakh relies on dyeing and hand block printing. The sources for the dyes are a combination of vegetable pigments and natural minerals. For instance, red from madder root, alizarin, sappan wood and lac, blue from indigo, yellow from pomegranate rind and turmeric, green from indigo, turmeric, and pomegranate, black from scrap iron and jaggery. Additionally, the water used in the dying process is recycled several times during the printing process and is finally released for agricultural irrigation. Since, it is chemical-free, there are no side effects. “The entire process is manual and does not involve any machinery.”
At Sufiyan’s workshop, Ajrakh manufacture consists of a 14-16 stages of dyeing and printing, which takes anywhere between 14 and 21 days depending upon the number of colours and layers of block print designs. Sufiyan says, “While the 16-stage process is conventional, we also undertake shorter duration ones depending on the requirement. However, we do only vegetable dyes.” The master craftsman explains that while traditional Ajrakh always consisted of vegetable dyes, today not many craftsman undertake it because of the extensive manual work involved. Also, as early as 1960s, most of them shifted to synthetic and chemical based dyes as they were cheaper and easier to handle.
You can ship a product within a few hours if you use chemical dyes. But for me Ajrakh is a tradition. I cannot afford to change that.
Craftsman families like that of Sufiyan’s continue to battle many challenges in their pursuit to keep the art alive. Their move to Ajrakhpur is one such instance. Sufiyan reminisces his childhood which was spent in a village near the river Dhamdka in Kutch. “The quality of water is very important for the dying and washing process,” says Sufiyan. But, with changes in the seismic activity, especially during the devastating earthquake of 2001, saw major shifts in the water table. The retreating ground water levels began seeing high iron content, which affected the quality of the vegetable dyes. “A few families including ours decided to move out of Dhamadka.”
Taking the lead, Sufiyan’s father along with the community members scouted the region for an ideal place to rehabilitate. “And, when we did, we pooled in resources and with the help of the government and non-profits, and we settled in this new place which we called Ajrakhpur.” The village, which is about 15 km away from the city of Bhuj, houses about 100 families – all of whom are into Ajrakh printing.
Sufiyan explains that the decades after independence were hard for the craftsman since there was hardly any market. While many took up alternative jobs, they continued to keep the tradition alive.
Today, the demand for Ajrakh has resurfaced. We work with fashion designers and high-end boutiques in India and across the world. Some of my work makes it to fashion shows in Paris. But that said, the biggest challenge for us is keeping the tradition of Ajrakh alive because most of the demand is for vegetables dyed cloth in contemporary designs and colours. Only 30 percent of the work we do follows the rules of traditional Ajrakh.
It’s not just the design or colours that have changed, but even the fabric and the people who wear them. “Earlier, Ajrakh was worn by Sindhi and Jat communities as turbans and part of their traditional ensemble – all in cotton. But today, it’s mostly urban India which consumes Ajrakh – as sarees, stoles, dupattas, and even as home accessories like bedsheets. The fabric ranges from cotton to silk to a mix of both.”
The new-found interest is Ajrakh is not just among the fashion conscious consumers alone. Sufiyan often gets invited to exhibitions, trade fairs, conferences, and educational summits in India and abroad to demonstrate the Ajrakh printing process. He has travelled to many countries like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, among others. “These opportunities help to educate people about the traditional art form. But my experience has been better abroad than in India. In India, they don’t value and respect the art and the effort that goes behind it.” Sufiyan’s father, Dr Ismail Khatri, has even been awarded a honorary doctorate from Leicester de Montfort.
Sufiyan employees about 12-16 people, each of them skilled in a specific process – some at block printing, some at dyeing. It takes four people to work on a 10-meter traditional Ajrakh piece from eight in the morning to five in the evening.
For us Ajrakh is part of our lives. It has been so for generations. I hope that will continue, when I see my children coming to the workshop during their vacations and experimenting with dyeing and block printing.