The Ajrak Legacy

India's recorded history of clothing goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation where cotton was spun, woven and dyed. Around the 1st century AD, new trade routes created a cultural exchange with Central Asia and Europe. Romans bought indigo for dyeing and trade with China introduced silk textiles into India.  

Dyeing of clothes in ancient India was practiced as an art form. The most subtle of shades were categorised. The Vishnudharmottara identifies five tones of white - Ivory, Jasmine, August moon, August clouds and the conch shell. Apart from the ancient technique of mordant dyeing, resist dyeing and Kalamkari techniques were hugely popular and widely exported.

Ajrak was a name given to a unique form of block printed shawls and tiles found in Sindh which display geometric designs and patterns made using block printing by stamps. Similar geometric patterns were found in the Old World around Mesopotamia appearing on various objects, most notably on the royal couch of Tutankhamen. A bust of a priest-king excavated at Mohenjo-daro shows him draped in a piece of cloth that resembles an Ajrak with trefoil pattern etched on it. The tradition still prevails centuries later and the same patterns have been kept alive in the modern Ajrak prints.

For hundreds of years, men have used it as a turban, a cummerbund or wind it around their shoulders or simply drape it over one shoulder. Women use it as a dupatta or a shawl. An Ajrak turban could signify wealth or marriage in the family. Different and distinct blocks are used for men, women, children, young girls, an engaged woman, a married woman and a widowed woman. These garments are popularly dyed blue for keeping cool in summers and red for keeping warm in winters.

In the old days important families would patronise / employ the weavers and printers who would create these garments exclusively for the family members over generations. Interestingly, this craft tradition is one which brings together contributions from the entire community. Traditionally, the dalits are the vankars / weavers, the khatris are they chaps / block printers, and similarly the honey, wood, gum arabic, indigo, fruits and herbs are brought in by different members of the community to be able to create this product.

A complex process of dying and block printing passed on through the generations is followed with precision. Textile is first soaked in camel dung, castor oil, and soda on the first day before being heated in wood fire on the second day. In the third day it is dipped in various herbs. Chuna and gum is used for the outline printing. Iron, jiggery, wheat / gram flour and water is soaked for 10 days and tamarind seed powder is boiled to produce the black colour, while red soil, wheat flour and alum is used to produce the red colour. It is then dipped in indigo and then washed. Different herbs are boiled at 100 degree centigrade to achieve different colours. For example, madder root for terracotta, rubab for olive green, pomegranate and turmeric for forest green, alizarin and mangistha for blood red. In fact it takes so many days to create one garment that to artisans the name Ajrak has actually come to mean “aaj rakh” (keep it for another day) because that is exactly what they have to do after each meticulous step.




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