The block-printing style called ‘ajrakh’ is a legacy of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Renu Gupta writes about a craft that is now seeing resurgence.
Ajrakh is an ancient block-printing method on textiles that originated in the presentday provinces of Sindh in Pakistan and the neighbouring Indian districts of Kutch in Gujarat and Barmer in Rajasthan. The word ‘ajrakh’ itself connotes a number of different concepts.
According to some, it comes from the Arabic word ajrakh, which means blue, one of the chief colours in ajrakh printing. Other historians say the word has been coined from the two Hindi words- aaj rakh, meaning, keep it today.
According to others, it means making beautiful. Although ajrakh printing is a part of the culture of Sindh, its roots extended to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat in India during the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation, around 3000 BC. The Indus river was an important resource for washing fabric and sustenance of raw materials like indigo dye and cotton, which were copious along the river.
Ajrakh printing thrived in India in the 16th century with the migration of Khatris from the Sindh province to Kutch district. The king of Kutch acknowledged and recognized the textile art, and indirectly encouraged the migration of Khatris to uninhabited lands in Kutch. Ultimately, some Khatri printer families migrated to Rajasthan and settled in and around Barmer province of British India, including present-day Gujarat, and excelled at the art of ajrakh printing. At present, the Khatri community is engrossed in consistently producing jrakh printed fabric of supreme quality in Ajrakhpur village in Kutch and also Barmer.
Celebration of nature
Ajrakh printing celebrates nature amazingly. This is evident in the aesthetics of the unification of its colours as well as motifs.
The traditional colours found in ajrakh printing are deep, which symbolise nature. Crimson red symbolizes the earth, and indigo blue symbolises twilight. Black and white are used with a view to outline motifs and define symmetrical designs. Although the use of eco-friendly synthetic dyes is prevalent, the use of traditional natural dyes is being resumed gradually. Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant. Craftsmen used indigo plants growing profusely along the Indus river. Red is acquired from alizarin found in the roots of madder plants. Black is obtained from iron shavings, millet flour and molasses with the addition of ground tamarind seeds to thicken the dye. The contemporary ajrakh prints have intensely vibrant contrasting colours like rust, yellow and orange.