Ajrakh Hand Block Print: The Art of Tattooing Time on Fabric

A craft that dates back to early medieval times, Ajrakh is said to have been derived from “Azrak”, meaning blue in Arabic, as blue happens to be one of the principal colours in this printing technique. It’s also said that the word has been coined from the two Hindi words, “aaj rakh”, meaning, keep it today.


More than a fabric, Ajrakh is considered to be an essential feature of the Sindhi tradition; found in everyday items such as hammocks, bedsheets to dupattas and scarves.


The technique
Printing an Ajrakh requires time and patience. Printers prepare fabric for printing by tearing un-dyed fabric into 9 meter lengths, washing it to remove starches, wax and impurities and then dying it with myrobalam. From a collection that may be up to 100 years old, artisans select a wooden block carved with traditional designs that make use of complex geometry to create starry constellations in indigo, madder, black, and white across lengths of cloth. The shapes and motifs of Ajrakh echo the architectural forms of Islamic architecture’s intricate jali windows and trefoil arches. Moreover, this block-printing technique borrows heavily from nature: the sun, river, animals, trees, and mud are all part of its making. And then there’s also the use of pomegranate seeds, gum, Harde powder, wood, flour of Kachika, the flower of Dhavadi, alizarine and locally cultivated Indigo, which also find their use in this mud-resist technique.


This first block is coated in lime and Acacia gum and carefully pressed onto the cloth at regular intervals. It acts as a resist. Artisans continue the process by selecting and coating blocks in the dye, aligning them with previous prints, and pressing them carefully onto the fabric. In all, there are about 14-16 different stages of dyeing and printing, which take 14-21 days to complete.  Jaggery and gram flour are used for black designs; alum and tamarind for red.  After each colour of print, artisans rinse and sun-dry the cloth.


After the printing is complete, the cloth is washed, dyed in one of many natural colours, and once again laid in the sun to dry. This dyeing and printing are repeated twice on the fabric to ensure brilliance of colour; the resulting cloth is soft against the skin and jewel-like in appearance.


The Rivers and Roads of Today
Long ago, printers flocked to the Dhamadka River, where they dyed and washed their cloths with ease. Now, the Dhamadka River has dried up, and the shifting water tables in Kachchh due to seismic activity have reduced the availability and quality of the water. The block printers of Bhachau and Rapar lack proper water facilities in their villages. In Dhamadka, the water in bore wells has a high iron content affecting the color quality of vegetable dyes. After 2001, Ajrakhpur was founded in a search for better quality water.


Chemical dyes are a major source of pollution in block printing villages. Various toxic dyes and chemicals are disposed of in village fields without any form of treatment. These chemical dyes are cheap and affordable, easily made in bulk. Today, few printers use vegetable dyes. Natural resources once used to create natural colors are no longer accessible locally because of the ecological effects of the 1956 and 2001 earthquakes and the loss of ecology cover from recent industrialization.


Earlier, the block printers had a close friendship with their local clients. Now, with the introduction of more affordable synthetic cloth and a shifting marketplace, those community linkages have broken. As a result, many traditional forms of dress and patterns are extinct. The traditional lungi is rapidly losing its share. Other products like Pada are also being worn in synthetic fabrics more often. Kanbi Patel women have adopted synthetic saris as their outfit. Mostly, printers create dress material for national and international buyers in a highly competitive marketplace.


The possibilities of Ajrakh 
Water management issues pose a severe threat to dyeing and printing practices in Kachchh. Through a series of surveys, Khamir has identified a central need to recharge water tables with better water management. This includes facilitating water treatment in villages and creating systems for recycling water used in dyeing. Realizing the immediate need for water security, Khamir carried out the a pilot of the water treatment through a small Effluent Treatment Plant. Encouraged by these results, Khamir is now working with the artisans to establish a large scale treatment plant to be managed at the village level. Additionally, Khamir attempts to improve natural dyeing practices through programs like our workshop with Dastkar Andhra experts. Promoting eco-friendly dyes along with better treatment practices will increase sustainability of the local ecology and the craft.

Apart from water, Khamir has taken other steps to continually revitalize this sector. This includes introducing new block designs, products and raw materials to the printing families and facilitating platforms to showcase products all over India and internationally.

Our Ajrakh products, ranging from dupattas and sarees to stoles are now available on shop.khamir.org