We are back in Kutch on a printing and purchasing mission. There are two villages in Kutch which specialise in Ajrak printing: Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka. We’re looking to buy some new, contemporary Ajrak designs as well as commissioning some exclusive new designs for Slubbed. All our new products will be offered for sale in the near future. But first let us explain a little bit about the term Ajrak…
Ajrak describes a technique for block-printing distinctive designs on cotton. It originates from Sindh province in Pakistan where it is still practised to this day. Just across the border from Sindh province lies Kutch in India. In the 16th century the King of Kutch, Rao Bharmalji I, invited a number of families of the Khatri caste from Sindh province to work in Kutch. Renowned for their expert use of natural dyes and beautiful designs, they were given land in a village called Dhamadka, where up until very recently all of Kutch’s Ajrak printing was produced. After the earthquake in 2001, most of the Khatri families relocated to a village called Ajrakhpur, which is closer to Bhuj, the capital of Kutch.
Using carved wooden blocks to print cotton is not uncommon. In India alone there are a number of places which are famous for their block-printing, for example Sanganer and Bagru in Rajasthan. The states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have a style of block-printing called Kalamkari. You can also find block-printing in Africa: Slubbed’s logo is a Ghanaian Adinkra symbol which traditionally was block-printed onto cotton.
There are three aspects of traditional Ajrak which we believe set it apart from other forms of block-printing however; three aspects which put it into another league we might say. Firstly, there is the Khatri community’s expertise in the use of natural dyes, mordants and resists. Secondly, Ajrak is famous for extremely intricate designs. And thirdly, there is Ajrak’s double-sided printing.
To elaborate on the first point, it gets tricky when you start printing and dyeing in multiple natural dyes. If all you want is indigo on cotton, then that’s pretty straightforward. Indigo doesn’t require a mordant and you can either block-print indigo or you can block-print a resist (for example mud resist or alum resist) and then dye the whole piece of cotton in a vat of indigo. However, when you start combining indigo with madder root red which requires a mordant and you want a white outline around your red design, then it all gets a little more complicated. That’s why a traditional piece of Ajrak will take at least 16 days to complete. There are numerous printing, drying and washing stages. Being able to successfully combine natural dyes on one piece of cotton, so as to get vibrant individual colours is what Ajrak is famous for.
Let us explain a little bit about Ajrak designs. The motifs of a traditional piece of Ajrak are said to represent the natural world: indigo for the sky, white for the stars, red for the setting and rising sun, black for the monsoon clouds. These motifs coupled with geometric patterns inspired by Islamic design form the basis of traditional Ajrak. Over the centuries the designs have become more refined and have resulted in individual pieces with numerous borders around a central pattern. There are traditional borders for the short and long ends of the piece of cloth, and then further borders around the central design. Think of a piece of art, or a traditionally hand-woven carpet. Traditional Ajrak has 24 designs. They were exclusively worn by men either as a “lungi” (wrapped around the waist), as a “safa” turban (wrapped around the head) or as a sort of utility shawl thrown over the shoulder (used for wrapping and carrying shopping and so on). It is only more recently that Ajrak prints have become fashionable for saris and “duapattas” for women, as well as being used for other shawls, bedding, table cloths, handkerchiefs - you name it. So while the carving of the woodblocks and the preparation of the dyes, mordants and resists have remained the same, the designs have changed, and if anything they’ve become a little easier to complete.
These days only about 10% of all of Ajrakhpur’s output is strictly traditional Ajrak. 90% are variations of traditional designs or contemporary prints. What hasn’t changed is the use of woodblocks and colour combinations. All of Ajrakhpur’s printing is done with blocks, there is no screen-printing. All their blocks are still made of teak wood and are hand carved. There is also limited use of synthetic dyes. On occasion “German Indigo”, a synthetically produced indigo, and synthetic alizarin, the red pigment found in madder root, are used. During a period from the 50s to the 70s, when there was little interest in Ajrak, the community started using bright chemical dyes and synthetic textiles in accordance with demand at the time. However, they have now reverted to traditional colours and the fabrics they use are predominately cotton and silk.
All the printed cotton you will find on our website comes from either Ajrakhpur or Dhamadka. All our prints are hand woodblock-printed by the Khatri community; some of them are traditional Ajrak but most of them are contemporary. For us at Slubbed, Ajrak represents the world’s most skilled and beautiful block-printing and dyeing of cotton using natural dyes.