INDIGO PLANT, COLOR, AND DYE: Celebrating the Subaltern with a Nearly 5,000-Year-old Textile Tradition
by Shelly Jyoti
The survival of Indian block printed textiles is closely tied to a spirit of self-sufficiency that has survived the modern developments of machines and industrial mills and is still practiced in India’s Rajasthan and Gujarat, especially in Bhuj’s Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka, and in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Although temporarily side-lined in the last century by quicker means of printing cloth, ajrakh has endured because of artisans and customers who remain loyal to the craft.
Ajrakh is a unique reverse, block-printing technique that utilizes natural dyes in designated areas of the pattern, which are pre-treated to resist penetration by the dye. The word ajrakh is derived from the phrase, “aaj ke din rakh” or “keep it for today,” alluding to the traditional process of preparing fabric for printing. Ajrakh involves 20 odd steps, which include pre-soaking the cloth in a mix of camel dung, soda ash, and castor oil; mixing the dye-resistant pastes from gum and millet flour; and blending secondary dyes from an array of natural sources: yellow from turmeric, brown from rhubarb, orange from pomegranate skin, red from madder root, and black from a boiled syrup of scrap iron, chickpea flour, and sugarcane molasses. At each stage of the lengthy process, fabric must be set aside to dry for a period of 3–4 days.
Nature plays an important role in ajrakh. Craftsmen work in harmony with the natural environment; the sun, rivers, animals, trees, and mud of their location are all part of the creative process. Water is vital to the production of ajrakh cloth as it is prepared, mordanted, and dyed, influencing the tones of the colors that will emerge to the success or failure of the entire process. After the 2002 earthquake in Kutch, the water table shifted and has been affected with impurities, a development which today directly impacts the printing of textiles in the region.
Ajrakh prints are predominantly geometric, using blue, red, white, and black. In order to achieve its particular effect, ajrakh requires the use of multiple hand-carved wooden blocks, each of which needs to synchronize with others in order to produce a coherent pattern when combined. Block makers, known as poregars, use simple tools to carve each block in pairs to register an exact inverted image. Today few artisans retain the skill to produce ajrakh blocks. Because of the persistence of master craftsmen and an increasing awareness among the urban consumers about the richness and value of this environmentally-friendly craft, ajrakh production is slowly regaining momentum.
Today, the village of Ajrakhpur, renamed to honor the traditional block printing craft, is abuzz with activity, tourists, and pride. The age-old textile craft was revived here by Khatri Mohammadbhai Siddiqbhai, the late patriarch of the village’s most famous family of artisans. Today a third generation of the family are masters of the art, and the entire clan has achieved national and international renown for their skills and talent.
My experience creating ajrakh artworks began in 2008 when I was researching visual art, printing, dyeing, and needlework on hand spun khadi (handspun, hand-woven cotton). Created from blocks that belong to Ismail Mohammed Khatri’s archive of approximately 400 designs, my work continues to be carried out in collaboration with his son, Juned Mohamed Katri, in the family studio in Ajrakhpur, Bhuj, Gujarat. Inspired by political movements in India’s freedom struggle and employing Gandhi’s philosophies of swadharma, sarvodaya, swadeshi and swaraj, most recently I created a triptych work, “Svalambhan,” that was installed in India’s new parliament building in May 2023.