In this dry, desert Gujurat-region of India, the starkness of the landscape was a marked contrast to the vividness of the naturally-dyed cloth, the edges weighed down by rocks, drying in patches on the ground. A stones throw away, the exterior of a building deceptive of the riches contained within. Our visit with the Muslim Khatri family, a ninth-generation of Ajrakh block printers, proved no different in contrasts–a hidden textile treasure on our pilgrimage.
Abdul Jabbar Mohammed Khatri greeted us, guiding us through the maze of printing tables, as we carefully avoided bumping into trays filled with pigments and carved wooden blocks. His son walked us through the elaborate, traditional process of Ajrakh block printing and dyeing using all natural colors. (The word Ajrakh has multiple meanings but my favorite is the Arabic translation: “Blue is like a moonless sky at midnight with lots of stars sparkling in the darkness.”
Ajrakh Printing and Dyeing
The preparation of Ajrakh is a demanding technical art requiring perfection; the block carving itself a highly specialized craft (video). In its most traditional process, the making of this cloth can include as many as thirteen steps: the preparing of the cloth include the tearing of the fabric in pre-determined sizes, removing the starch from the cotton, and mordanting the cloth with myrobalam (preparing the fabric to absorb the dye color using the dried fruit of an Indian tree). The next steps include resist printing using the wooden blocks and forming the pattern outline.
Printing the black areas involves a tannin/iron complex. This is all done before any dyeing with indigo, madder or other natural dyes. The most identifiable of Ajrakh has the colors of red, blue, black and white.
The traditional patterns are complex–geometrical and symmetrical to reflect Islamic culture. The finest of these fabrics are resisted, printed, and dyed on both sides of the cloth, with such skill that each side is identical. The border design may remain similar from one cloth to the next but the field design, being the most visible, would generally be chosen by the customer. The Khatri family continues to print the traditional cloth but they also make contemporary ones using traditional processes.
ClothRoads Tip Who needs a shopping bag when one Ajrakh cloth can be used? Wrap your purchases in each corner, tie the corners, and fling the wrap over your shoulder–that’s a traditional use. But it sure is handy to wear as a wrap and use it for a dual purpose too.